How does the Internet rate you?

April 1, 2009 6:07:32 AM PDT
You search the Internet for reviews of restaurants, movies, stores and gadgets. But how would you feel if someone could search the Internet to look for a review of you?Well, get ready for the critics because a new Web site launching next week invites users to do precisely that. Like a for people, lets anyone anonymously rate and review anyone else, from friends and family to enemies and strangers to everyone else in between.

Following in the footsteps of sites like RateMyProfessors and RateMDs, the creators of PersonRatings said they hope the site will be a clearinghouse of information on millions of American adults, giving users the opportunity to read about and rate others on a range of qualities, including sexiness, smarts, trustworthiness and humor.

"People are the No. 1 interest of other people," said Jeremy Stamper, the CEO of Topic5, LLC, the company behind PersonRatings. He said he wants the site to be a "one-stop shop" that puts ratings on every single adult American in one place.

Just as you'd read reviews about a new bistro or camera before handing over the credit card, PersonRatings will let you read about others' experiences with people before going on a date, hiring a new babysitter or taking a new job, Stamper said.

Site Checks Behavior and Indulges Vanity

Not only does the site let "collective knowledge" serve as a check on behavior (scammers and cheats, you'd better beware), he said it satisfies the little bit of vanity in each of us.

"Everybody deep down kind of wants to know, like when you leave a party, 'what are they saying about me?'" Stamper said.

After a recent spate of blog posts and radio interviews about the service, Stamper said he noticed a boost in profiles and traffic to the site.

Indeed, over the past couple of days, a few members of the Twitterati have created profiles for themselves and invited friends and followers to have at it online.

One Twitterer, "roLOLOdan," posted, "There's now an anonymous Web site called As an experiment I'd like to see how you all rate me," and directed readers to his new profile.

"CharredCat" quipped, "The final and true purpose of the Internet," with a link to his own page.

But not everyone rated and reviewed on actually wants to be there.

Some People Rated Without Their Knowledge

To seed the site with content before its official launch, Stamper said PersonRatings purchased profiles of people from a data company that scraped information from MySpace and other social networking profiles.

Even though the people behind those profiles didn't choose to create a profile on PersonRatings, now that one has been created for them, there's no going back, Stamper said.

"We won't remove it. The reason for it is the value of the site is having open information about people. Obviously, people who don't want their information on there are going to be some of the more valuable," he explained.

Stephanie, 26, an account manager for a New York marketing firm, said she was taken aback when a Google search about a month ago led her to a PersonRatings profile with her name and picture.

According to the site, Stephanie is a 2.88 out of 5. She's rated a 1 on trustworthiness, but a 5 on sexiness, and a solitary commenter left behind the message, "She's pretty."

Her profile doesn't include anything especially damaging, but Stephanie would rather it didn't exist at all.

Internet Already Allows an 'Excess of Opinion'

"I was very surprised because the picture used is from a few years ago and not online that I know of," said Stephanie, who asked to keep her last name confidential. "I would like to be taken off and have written e-mails to the site asking how I got there and how I could be removed. None of these e-mails were responded to."

Julia Allison, 28, a New York columnist and media personality, had even stronger words for the site. About a month ago, she, too, learned that a PersonRatings profile had been created without her knowledge.

"How is it useful? Who knows who's rating? How does it have value?" she asked. "It is asking for trouble."

She said she's sure the founder had good intentions but emphasized that the Internet already supports a culture that allows an "excess of opinion" and a dearth of fact-checking.

PersonRatings Not First Site to Solicit Reviews, Comments

Allison said because she is an "Internet celebrity," sites like PersonRatings can't harm her too much. There's already so much information online about her -- good and bad -- that a few more comments and ratings don't make much of a dent.

But, for the average person, she said, a few nasty comments can make a great deal of difference.

"No one is universally liked," she continued. "And the fact is, the Internet is a place for ad hominem attacks. That's bad, but that's the truth."

Michael Fertik, an attorney who specializes in online defamation, said other people-rating and commenting sites that have preceded PersonRatings, like the now shuttered JuicyCampus, have not set a high standard.

Fertik is the founder of ReputationDefender, an online reputation management and privacy company.

"Normally, no good comes from these sites. They become places of abuse," he said. "I hope this doesn't happen to it."

Not All Rating Sites Inspire Negativity

Noting that PersonRatings doesn't monitor comments or require users to register with the site, he added, "the likelihood for insane negativity is maximized, which destroys the credibility of the site long-term."

But Stamper said his site and others that host comments are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Although he's not washing his hands of lying and insult-flinging, he said he doesn't have control over the behavior of others.

"The online world is like the offline world. People do good things and bad things. But we don't clamp down on basic freedoms," he said. "It's a messier society. And there's a lot of room in our society to be hurt and hurt others. But we have the best system."

Additionally, some professional rating sites say that though many comments are negative, not all of them are. For example, on the site RateMyProfessors, which has received 8 million opinions for 1 million professors, it says that 65 percent of the comments are positive.

And though the idea of openly and anonymously reviewing people may sound foreign, online speech experts emphasize that the concept is not new at all.

"Just because it takes place in an electronic forum, it's nothing new," said Brock Meeks, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "I have no control over what someone writes about me on a bathroom stall or on a crumpled piece of paper in the supermarket.

"Likewise, I have no control over what someone says about me in cyberspace," he said. "That's nothing new. We live in a society where speech is free and open and something that we protect. And so we take the good with the bad."

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