December 05, 2010

Honestly.com: 5 stars for everyone! Or how useful are public anonymous reviews?

Honestly.com is a people review site that allows others to anonymously review and/or rate a person.

First, a look at what the site is, in case you aren't familiar with it.

What they do:

Here is a screenshot of Cathy Brook's review page (she has 26 total):

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Notice a few things if you go to the site: people are mostly given 5 star ratings like Cathy, and also rated highly on skills, relationships, productivity and integrity. Ratings/reviews are anonymous, and the reviewed person can leave comments.

Given how little the site has spread, 26 reviews is a lot. I wasn't able to find anyone else in my networks (mostly early adopters) with more than 5 or 6 reviews. Many only had say, 2 ratings, and those two were nothing but 5 stars, no review, no info on any of the 4 categories, etc. However, if you go to "top performers" (can we say: incentivise getting your friends to review you so you can make the ranked list?) there are lots of people in the 20-40 range of reviews, though the founder of Honestly has 222 reviews.. but i assume that's a lot about testing the site and proving the concept.

You can also sort by the number of stars, and here is a screenshot of 3 star reviews she received (the lowest scores in her ratings):

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Notice that reviewers did not say why they gave a less than perfect review, and Cathy responded to each of those 3 star ratings. I found that in almost all the less than perfect ratings people did not specify why they gave 3 or less stars. And the lower ratings without any context, like Cathy's, are useless. Who would actually rely on them?

Some reviewers are "trusted," and some and some are "novice." It's not clear what that means, but Honestly.com is using Facebook logins, so maybe it has something to do with your number of friends/activities in Facebooks (more might make you more trusted) or maybe you have to leave more reviews at Honestly.com to be trusted.. or have more people in your Honestly.com network. Whatever it is, I see no reason why I would trust one reviewer over another in Honestly.com's system. My response is to treat all anonymous reviewers the same since I don't know who they are, what relationship they have to the reviewed and whether I would trust them.

One thing to note about trust around a person or handle online is that often we find people more trustworthy if we see them consistently and reasonably acting online. These of course are subjective and in the eye of the beholder. But consistent and reasonable actions do allow us to think more highly of someone over time. Anonymous reviews don't ever allow us to feel that a reviewer who is fair and consistent over time might be more trusted. We are asked to cede trust to Honestly.com abut who is deemed "trusted" verses "novice." And what is a novice anyway? What should we think about novice reviews?

An interesting side note is that Honestly.com is also placing people at their professions, so Esther Dyson is currently listed as a "director at Boxee" and John Clippinger is a "student at Harvard" and Steve Newhouse is an "employee at Conde Nast" and Stu Gannes is a "student at Stanford" and Clay Shirky is a "student at NYU... and on an on. All of these are wrong. Yes these people are associated with the organizations noted, but their roles are completely and bizarrely twisted causing me to suspect the Honestly.com site more.. because things I know to be false are stated as fact. So I'm asking myself, "what else can't I trust here."

How Honestly compares to other review systems

The old method for some kind of review might go like this: a person asks for a letter of recommendation or a reference, and then gives the letter writer a place to send the letter or asks the hiring person to call the reference. The reviewed doesn't know what's been said, but since they are asking trusted reviewers, the reviewed likely has a good idea that the overall message about them will be positive. The idea though was the reviewer would be able to speak freely because the reviewed wasn't going to know exactly what the reviewer was saying. And the reviewer could be very specific, often putting the letter on university or company letterhead which is harder to fake, and the review would be tailored to the purpose of the event (ie, getting into grad school or applying for a specific job).

More recently online, LinkedIn started public reviews, where folks would all list on their own resume a connection to a company or a school. Then when a review was created about a colleague or whatever, those reviews would be associated with the reviewed's listing of that company or school and the reviewer was connected through that link as well and it created a kind of verification even if it is just personal assertion on a public site. Reviews are generally public, the reviewer and context are named and associated with the time and entity where they have a connection and the reviewed can also reject the review.

The problem with LinkedIn reviews, in my experience is that sometimes people lie about their relationship, get bullied to write a review (I have personally been bullied twice to leave reviews for people.. I declined both but one of the people threatened to sue me as a result). A person can also lie about other aspects of the job (I personally know of at least 10 people on LinkedIn who currently show job titles, time frames and supervisor relationships that are flat out lies). Then the review is post on top of the lies about the job situation and it compounds the situation.. all appearing to be on the up and up. The interesting thing, as I started to discover those lies posted at LinkedIn, was that since two people are corroborating the situation with reviews, links, timeframes and titles it becomes harder to refute.. in fact there is no way to refute it). Given that, I'm not sure it's any better or worse to have anonymous reviews at Honestly.com, because frankly, if I can't trust some of LinkedIn, why would I trust any of it?

One other problem I've found over the years at LinkedIn is that a number of people regularly and actively seek out reviews (including the two people who tried to bully me into doing them). I've noticed an inverse relationship to review value: the more and better the reviews, often the worse the person is to work with as they are focused on the wrong set of goals (ie, getting quick short term reviews and making public statements instead of doing a great job, meeting the needs of a project or communicating well in service to the project). In other words, if someone is terribly motivated to get a rating or review out of the deal.. and this sounds odd but I've seen it a number of times, that motivation can overtake the motivation to make sure the project is done right and the company is happy.

Another issue with LinkedIn reviews is that reviewers can make them to suck up, creating something more generous or not terribly specific in order to make the reviewed person happy and in order to be associated with someone that may on the internet make the reviewing party look good and well connected.

Since Honestly.com's reviews aren't connected to people or specific jobs it's both impossible to tell how a reviewer knows what they assert, these reviews are even less reliable than at LinkedIn (though not that much). If at some point, Honestly decided to turn on the names of the reviewers they could find problems since people reviewed others thinking the reviews would be anonymous. Socially that could be a disaster and frankly I think Honestly has painted itself into a corner here. I also am reminded of the glitch a few years ago at Amazon where reviews of products and media were sometimes anonymous and for a few days, real names were exposed, revealing that reviews were often written by very biased people. That very same thing could happen at Honestly.com. But given that people are the objects of review, turning on real names could all be quite awkward for social and work relationships.

Why Honestly.com won't work in it's current form

So why is Honestly.com (at least in current form) not very honest or real? Well, the set up promotes people just writing whatever they want, disconnected from context and purpose, without any kind of understanding about who is saying what about the reviewed person. How much value does a review have, given that it's anonymous, there is no context for the reviewer or their relationship, or the purpose of the review, and there is no way to verify anything. The setup also promotes people just saying whatever is nice.

Those people I know on the site are all mostly very nice people (mostly, we all have our difficult sides) but getting a good review about working skills, effectiveness and productivity isn't so much about being nice. I do want to work with people who are fun and interesting, but ultimately we do need to get the job done.

In fact, what I see happening at Honestly, which is far worse than at LinkedIn, is that the site is becoming a popularity contest.. you see the jocks and the cheerleaders (CEOs and Marketing people in adult terms) doing very well with 5 star ratings and lots of reviews. What does a nice, non-specific 5 star rating and review mean anyway? My experience with hiring popular people is that the work doesn't happen as much as continued effort to remain popular. And it's also a matter of taste: one guy's 1star is another's 5star and it's subjective as well.

I don't see many geeks at Honestly.com, or folks who's reviews would need to be very context dependent (ie, if I want a mobile programmer, I need to know a lot about what they know and have done.. and wouldn't hire say, a front end web developer unless they also have years of C and Java and coding very stable small things like say, an OS from the 80s and early 90s). And frankly I don't care if that engineer is a little antisocial.. I want them programming, while people push pizza under the door periodically. Yes.. they need to understand digital social environments, but if you have product and design people, that can be managed. And frankly one person's "nice" doesn't work for someone else.. there is chemistry in our interactions after all. But why does that engineer need to be told publicly that he's a little antisocial? Isn't that a little weird socially? Throwing something like that out there anonymously? Being a little antisocial for some jobs is okay.

So does Honestly turn into the 5 star club, where everyone gets 5 or maybe 4.5 stars? Is it an old boys club where you review your friends and they review you and you all agree to do 5 stars and say you are all "GREAT!" ? Can someone hiring or looking for funding rely on these reviews that are all basically 4-5 stars or the few that aren't show nothing other than a 3 star rating?

When hiring I would never use LinkedIn or Honestly reviews unless I was looking for a popular person (might be good for a marketing or PR person). I have an obligation to do the footwork to find out if an applicant can do the work and are effective. These sites are not helpful and I would never rely on them, partly because of the known fake information and the bizarre social contract that a public review creates.

Frankly when I read reviews at Amazon, I specifically look to the bad reviews to see if I can live with the issues around a product or the characteristics that some didn't like in media. Nothing is perfect.. but if Honestly.com creates a culture where there is no reality about how we are as people in the reviews, and the public social contract around criticizing is pretty clear that it's not okay to do it in public, then I don't think the site with ever be helpful for real evaluation. And frankly why should it? We are talking about reviewing people after all and that in and of itself is pretty weird on a public website. I'm not sure negative reviews would work anyway because there is still no context or verifiable connection and what would a negative review really communicate, compared to say, a toaster oven at Amazon? I think negative reviews would just make Honestly.com a really downer and who would want to use it at that point? But what is the point of a site with only positive reviews?

There are other reasons people give good references for jobs not well done (in personal or phone refs): they do so out of obligation, they fired the person and want to see them get hired elsewhere to relieve that guilt, other guilt and pity, or like I experienced twice, they were bullied and it worked. Of course there are also good reviews because the reviewed is great and does great work. But how can you tell the difference between these?

Lastly, people change. A person labeled "great" at 25 could have a crisis at 30 and become unreliable.. or the same 25 year old could be a flake then and terrific at 32. So I'm not sure that a cumulative rating system over time is so great either, in the form of a fixed website.

So let's cut to the chase. Usually it takes 2 years for everyone to figure out that something in silicon valley isn't real. GroupOn will take that time.. as they are currently hot and making money, though the 20 or so businesses that I've talked to that have done a coupon have in 95% of the cases had very negative experiences and won't do online coupons again. I don't think GroupOn is viable long term for many other reasons as well but it's sexy now, though they could change into a long term viable model. But as they exist now, they frankly *need* to get bought by Google or someone proto. In 2 years.. people will see the current set of issues.

Likewise, I think Honestly.com, which doesn't have any great buzz currently, other than it's on Facebook occasionally or because people send me messages asking me to review them, will take a while for people to figure out it's not helpful, not worth their time, and in some ways reinforces the high school for adults model we love to embody at times in silicon valley, where you know, the jocks and the cheerleaders are socially held up and the rest grumble.

I just don't see Honestly.com working out. I don't think we need it.. it's not solving a need in our social and work interactions. And I think it sets up a bizarre social contract that one ups the weird one found at LinkedIn. LinkedIn has other value, but I don't see anything at Honestly.com that would transcend the general or specific people review problem to make it valuable in other ways.

Posted by Mary Hodder at December 5, 2010 09:27 PM | TrackBack
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