NYT #IsKindaClueless

lululogoToday Lulu makes its New York Times debut, page E1.

Lulu lets women review guys. Specif­i­cally their date-wor­thi­ness, rated out of 10, with tags call­ing out attrib­utes like #Dude­Can­Cook and #Hygeni­cal­ly­Chal­lenged.

Sim­i­lar ideas have been tried before but fiz­zled. Maybe it’s because we instinc­tively reject them, sens­ing the poten­tial for dis­gust­ing acts of human­ity — or maybe it’s just that no one has fig­ured out the right way to do it yet.

Lulu may have cracked the nut. It claims to have a quar­ter of all col­lege women (!) on board — its growth aided by its nat­u­ral align­ment with the soror­ity com­mu­nity — and it’s done so using a for­mula more refined than past attempts. It’s for ladies only, it’s play­ful, and its tagli­nes pro­mote ‘dat­ing intel’, not spite­ful dish­ing.

To pre­vent an oth­er­wise inevitable flow of vit­riol, the app restricts reviews to numer­i­cal rat­ings (for things like attrac­tive­ness and humor) and an array of pre-writ­ten cheeky hash­tags, so there isn’t an oppor­tu­nity to type any­thing out your­self. Most of the hash­tags are amus­ing, but oth­ers have a decid­edly nas­tier bent, like #50ShadesOfF**kedUp, #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, and #TotalF**kingDickhead.

The app has man­aged to raise $2.5 mil­lion, with investors includ­ing mega-rich Face­book investor Yuri Mil­ner, Jaw­bone founder Hosain Rah­man, and Path founder Dave Morin.

So. Where does this go?

Some guys rally their female friends to leave pos­i­tive reviews. Some women use it to exact revenge on guys who did them wrong. It proves gen­uinely help­ful for women anx­ious about dat­ing com­plete strangers, but they throw some out with the bath­wa­ter. Some guys clean up — oth­ers have their inad­e­qua­cies pre­sented to them in bar-graph form. It totally wrecks a few of them.

If it sticks, it fun­da­men­tally changes dat­ing. Early dates become even less authen­tic acts of per­for­mance art whose reviews last in per­pe­tu­ity (per­haps alongside a tag of #Man­Child, the sou­venir of a messy breakup). Guys can request that their pro­file be removed, but the arti­cle notes that, already, “appar­ently many [men] believe it’s bet­ter to have been badly reviewed than never to have been reviewed.”

And, to state the obvi­ous: now guys have an excuse to try using their own anal­o­gous app.

I’m not going to argue that Lulu is a bad idea, because it’s an idea we’re going to have to deal with. We’re so used to see­ing rat­ings next to every­thing — includ­ing pro­files on dat­ing sites — that it feels inevitable, even if such ser­vices launch and die in a phoenix-like life­cy­cle.

And it isn’t all bad. One of the women quoted in the arti­cle says, “dat­ing with­out a ref­er­ence is the scari­est thing you can do” —  the app helps ame­lio­rate that. Surely much of the appeal has noth­ing to do with safety, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t helped some women avoid get­ting tan­gled in a scary sit­u­a­tion.

Do the ben­e­fits out­weigh the down­sides? I don’t think so, not by a long shot, but I don’t hold much sway in the mat­ter. Peo­ple are start­ing to review each other, as peo­ple, and my hunch is we’ll be fig­ur­ing out how to deal with it for a long time.

But that’s not my point.

My point is that the NYT arti­cle hardly tack­les any of this. Most other pub­li­ca­tions promi­nently dis­cuss the con­tro­versy around the app — but here, the tone is uncrit­i­cal (if not oddly pos­i­tive), we read that Lulu is “a sort of ‘Take Back the Inter­net’ moment for young women who have come of age in an era of revenge porn and anony­mous, pos­si­bly omi­nous suit­ors”. It quotes the cofounder’s boyfriend as say­ing, “It inspires guys to be good and treat girls the way they should be treated. Like angels.”

The coun­ter argu­ment is the fol­low­ing muted dis­cus­sion:

Not all men are so mag­nan­i­mous about their pres­ence on Lulu, of course. Last sum­mer, Neel Shah, a com­edy writer, was at a bar in Los Ange­les on a date with a woman who pulled up his pro­file. “She started read­ing me these neg­a­tive hash­tags and I was like, ‘Uh, this is awk­ward,’ ” said Mr. Shah, 30, whose pro­file has been viewed 448 times and “favorite” eight times for an aver­age score of 6.7. His hash­tags include #Tall­Dark­And­Hand­some and #Clean­sUp­Good, along with the less flat­ter­ing #Tem­per­Tantrums and #Wan­deringEye.

One of the com­ments was, ‘laugh­ing at his jokes may take some effort,’ which I cer­tainly thought was sub­jec­tive,” Mr. Shah said. “I feel like if you’re using an app like Lulu, you’re prob­a­bly not inter­ested in nuanced analy­sis.”

Now, that chunk of text might be enough to cover the poten­tial down­sides if the arti­cle were about, say, Yelp. We’re all used to review­ing busi­nesses, and even indi­vid­u­als, in a pro­fes­sional con­text. We’re also used to read­ing about how some of them get labeled with bad reviews that they don’t like and how it’s not fair.

But this is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple get­ting reviewed for their per­son­al­ity and appear­ance when they’re vul­ner­a­ble — on dates, in rela­tion­ships, not while they’re wear­ing a stetho­scope or fix­ing the sink — by peo­ple they may have roman­tic feel­ings for.

I mean, hell — Mr. Shah sounds unfazed, but a woman he went on a date with left a review say­ing that he, a com­edy writer, has a bad sense of humor. This is the stuff night­mares are made of. Look­ing fur­ther out, it’s not hard to imag­ine lit­i­ga­tion and per­haps even attempts at leg­is­la­tion (par­tic­u­larly around the fact that men do not have to opt-in before they are reviewed).

Maybe this is all a moot point. The arti­cle appears on the front page of the NYT Fash­ion and Style sec­tion, where, per­haps, the bar is lower. Were this any aver­age app I would be chuck­ling about the fact that it includes a self-effac­ing quip from Mike Isaac, a top tech jour­nal­ist, with­out appear­ing to real­ize he is a tech jour­nal­ist. But this isn’t an aver­age app. And it’s my sense that the nation’s paper of record has a respon­si­bil­ity to flag it as the social quag­mire it is, regard­less of which page the arti­cle appears on.

This pas­sage appears toward the end of the arti­cle, with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion:

But Ms. Chong has the grand hope that Lulu will accom­plish what gen­er­a­tions of women have not been able to do: change the oppo­site sex.

There’s an ele­ment of behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion that we’re hear­ing and see­ing,” she said. “When we do ses­sions at col­leges, we ask guys, ‘Have any of you changed since Lulu launched?’ Hands go up.”

Rel­e­vant links:

What’s He Really Like? Check the Lulu App – Deb­o­rah Schoen­e­man, The New York Times


Rep­u­ta­tion is Dead – Michael Arring­ton, TechCrunch

I actu­ally found Mike’s post, pub­lished in 2010, after I’d writ­ten most of the above. He was writ­ing about a dif­fer­ent app (and ref­er­ences sev­eral even ear­lier attempts that dealt with rep­u­ta­tion) but the con­cerns are very sim­i­lar. His con­clu­sion: we’re going to review our­selves until we don’t care about reviews any more. Def­i­nitely worth read­ing.

Cor­rec­tion, 11/23: Lulu uses aster­isks in the word ‘Fuck’. Also, the tag is #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, not #F**kItAndChuckIt, though the the­mat­i­cally-sim­i­lar ‘#HitI­tAndQuitIt’ is avail­able.

Comments (10)

  • Reply

    Great take. But inter­est­ing that you feel bad for the restau­rant own­ers on Yelp instead of women who’ve been objec­ti­fied and rated for years. Objec­ti­fi­ca­tion is shitty on both sides of the table.

    • Thanks. I don’t dis­agree — and I am lucky to not have to deal with being objec­ti­fied in the way women do, but I think there’s a dif­fer­ence between society’s under­cur­rent of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and explic­itly doing it with an app like this. 

      The rea­son it reminded me of Yelp is that it and sim­i­lar review sites have long used lan­guage about hop­ing the neg­a­tive reviews get restaurants/professionals/etc. to improve, which feels bizarre in this con­text. (edit: I decided to remove that line — wor­ried the sim­i­lar­ity in mes­sag­ing may be less obvi­ous to most peo­ple. For those who are curi­ous, the final line read, “I sud­denly feel a lot worse for the restau­rant own­ers on Yelp.” Prob­a­bly bet­ter with­out it, any­way.)

    • society’s under­cur­rent of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion”

      I wouldn’t call it an under­cur­rent. If you think it’s hid­den, which it isn’t, maybe under­tow would be more accu­rate.

      I agree with your point about NYT and I am dis­turbed by the con­cept of rat­ing humans as humans but:

      Men need to take more respon­si­bil­ity for their behav­ior in the world. On the whole we’re doing a shitty job with that.

      Rat­ing humans is inevitable because Sil­i­con Val­ley and dig­i­tal entre­pre­neurs seem to have mostly inter­nal­ized tech­no­log­i­cal deter­min­ism and so, if it can be done (and there’s money to be made), it’s going to hap­pen. That’s a prob­lem mostly cre­ated by men.

      That said:

      I know women (and men) who have used gos­sip and com­mu­nity cen­sure to con­trol oth­ers and it’s rarely intended to improve anyone’s good behav­ior.

      And that said:

      This is just tak­ing offline behav­ior and tak­ing it through those changes of pri­vate to pub­lic we’re see­ing with every­thing else. That’s why I think we’re mostly all to blame for the increas­ing sur­veil­lance state and we’re each just doing our part to bring it into every aspect of life.

      And given that those truly con­cerned about build­ing a pos­i­tive world beyond just web talk seem to be fairly incom­pe­tent these days (Occupy, for exam­ple), I don’t see the sit­u­a­tion improv­ing in the future.

      Hmmm, doomed as usual. Yay humans!

  • Reply

    A good piece Jason, thanks for tak­ing the time to write. (I found it through a Twit­ter search of Lulu.)

    I too found the NYT’s lack of depth frus­trat­ing as was their deci­sion to not do a deeper dive into a cou­ple of areas.

    There does not seem to be a thresh­old for adding a dam­ag­ing tag to someone’s pro­file. Maybe this is accounted for in their algo­rithm but what a guy is rated by only by a one date and it was a dis­as­ter (we’ve all been there) and she lights him up. We all know to toss out the best and the worst on Tri­pAd­vi­sor.

    And what woman is going to give a guy high marks if she’s still inter­ested in him? Maybe I’m miss­ing some­thing here but is there not more of an incen­tive to burn some­one here than to sing their praises? Fair warn­ing, I guess but it just turns their app into a do-not-date list that one would check before agree­ing to go out.

    …and now (of course) I’m curi­ous if I have been assigned a num­ber.

    • Thanks Steven. Some good points — they do encour­age guys to get their female friends to leave reviews, so I’d guess that’s prob­a­bly the pri­mary source of the pos­i­tives would come from.

  • Reply

    Really nice analy­sis, Jason. Also worth not­ing: the main­stream media, let alone the NYT, would lose its col­lec­tive shit if a sim­i­lar app were avail­able to rate women. Equiv­a­lent hash­tags would include #need­stoloseafew and #prone­to­bitch­i­ness…

    • Thanks Dave! Agreed, this would never play out this way if it were flipped, though some would argue that’s only because things already favor men so much (not that that means Lulu is a good idea).

  • Reply

    Jason Kin­caid. The great­est TechCrunch writer that ever was. TC CRIBS 4 life.

    I’m a dude. But I’d rate you well on Lulu. #Man­AfterMy­Own­Heart #BigHands­For­Writ­ing

    • Thanks Paul, appre­ci­ate it. #Actu­al­ly­HasKin­daS­mall­Hands

  • Reply

    Jason, good points. How about a col­lec­tive “boy­cott” where every male opts out with a dis­tinc­tively “take the high road” approach like “What? Lulu? What kind of Lulu-loser would allow him­self to be sub­jected to that BS, good or bad”?

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