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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