#Sexism #Shallow #Lulu

[Editor’s Note: J.D.’s byline was mistakenly attributed to somebody else in the print edition. This has been corrected in the online version.]

Dating isn’t easy. It actually flat out sucks. After opening yourself up to outright rejection, you have to pass through a gauntlet of awkward moments and a heightened sense of self-consciousness. Are my glasses dirty? Can they tell? Maybe I shouldn’t talk about the whole Israel/Palestine thing. All that effort and attention to detail wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the fact that more often than not, things don’t work out.

As social media has been playing an increasingly large role in our lives (problem-solving and streamlining away our little inconveniences), it’s no surprise to see it making its way into our romantic lives. Missed-connections sites give users the ability to confirm anonymously that the glances they were exchanging from across the cafe were, indeed, fuck-me-looks. Apps like Tinder make it easy to get in touch with people you find attractive, and who think the same about you. These products are at best a kind of social lubricant, and at worst, mistaken as a substitute for real human interaction. Most, however, are made with the best of intentions.

In all of her interviews, Alexandra Chong starts off talking about her app, Lulu, by referring back to a post-Valentine’s-day brunch she had with a group of women. What she found remarkable about the brunch was how the lack of a male presence made it so the conversations—on anything from men to life choices—were much more honest and to the point. It was there, Chong says, that she came up with the idea for Lulu: a tool to allow women to offer one another that same support (in regards to relationships) anonymously, without the presence of men, and with their phones.

It makes sense that Chong so regularly starts talking about Lulu by telling that story. She presents Lulu as something akin to a widely relatable and holistic experience. Whatever your gender or orientation, being in an environment where you can be open is something to be desired, and most often is something that takes place in a small community. Chong claims that Lulu is that same small community, scaled up, and given a search function and a rating system—all while retaining the same benefits. Lulu’s logic is “the more the merrier,” and why not? We have the tools to make it possible and the people to make it work. However, there has been little effort made to test that logic. Instead, attention has been squarely focused on the way Lulu functions in relation to the men—the subjects this community is built around rating.

Lulu scrapes up men’s Facebook profiles and puts them on the app for rating without getting their consent, effectively making a man’s participation in Lulu “opt-out” only. That decision is pretty plainly out of the realm of what anybody besides a lawyer would call “ok,” and is a big part of what has been drawing criticism. That fact, coupled with how public the information is (any woman anywhere can see a man’s profile if she signs up; men can’t), has drawn cries of sexism from many other critics of the app, who also equate the unprovoked online sexual commentary to catcalling.

I agree with most of those points, but the interesting part of this app isn’t just the fact that men can suddenly claim to be victims of some wrongdoing. What I’ve been struck by instead, is that despite the fact that this behavior is neither new or innately bad on a small scale like Chong’s brunch table, when you scale it up it suddenly becomes pernicious. So where exactly does this transition take place? If the app was regional, or confined to a specific location like a city, would it be any better? No.

The problem lies in the fact that Lulu tries to take the benefits of a small community and project them onto one as large and opaque as the Internet. One of the great things about getting advice from people you already know is that you can weigh the validity of their statement based on who they are and how knowledgeable and honest you perceive them to be. Lulu can’t afford its users that kind of self-determination because it only provides a handful of anonymous opinions from people they may or may not even know. The app tries to keep the degrees of connection a user has to anyone she’s rating close, by restricting her rating ability to only the men she is friends with on Facebook. Seeing that it isn’t uncommon to have up to a thousand friends on Facebook between Berkeley and Boston, it seems a meaningless rule. Even then, one could argue in response that we don’t always get advice from people we know intimately, but when you are talking to someone in person—even if they’re at best a friend of a friend—there is a certain amount of trust and faith we can put into those interactions, because there is a face attached to that information and a reputation to go along with it. To lie to someone or betray another’s trust comes with consequences in smaller communities, while the same behavior is routine and even praised in so many online ones.

Chong wants us to see Lulu as enabling women to make better choices regarding their relationships by way of holding men accountable, but her app does little to hold the women doing the rating to a similar standard. The competitions Lulu holds on college campuses, that provide cash rewards to whoever can rate the most amount of men in the shortest amount of time, is undeniable proof that this app encourages a lack of investment in the accuracy or validity of the ratings, and degrades the very purpose of the app. The same type of behavior can’t exist easily in a group of people sharing the same table and looking one another in the eye.

Any claim of the app holding men accountable for their actions falls apart under the slightest inspection. How can someone be held accountable for their actions if they’re only provided with an aggregate score of opinions? A LuluDude’s (the unfortunate name of Lulu’s service for men who sign up) score is as effective in changing his behavior as a professor would be in handing a paper back with a grade, no marks in the margins, and a refusal to meet about it. The reason for the grade is more important than the grade itself.

If we ignore the fact that Lulu was made to replicate the social benefits of small offline communities, and compare it to other large online communities, it still comes up short. Most popular rating sites have found ways to give their users a clear idea of how to weigh the opinions they feature. Rotten Tomatoes has a “top critics” category made up of people who are particularly good at their job—along with user ratings and a handful of other professional critics. Yelp solves the same problem by providing a profile and a history of how a person has rated other restaurants. These features allow a user to weigh opinions and ultimately make a more informed decision about where they’ll spend their money, all despite the opaqueness and lack of social responsibility the web can enable.

Lulu can’t do that. It allows users to anonymously rate an already anonymous comment’s accuracy. Of course, all the anonymity is because Lulu needs to protect the identities of its users, because they aren’t rating products… they’re rating people. People who may find out what is being said—and if they were to feel they were unfairly treated, they might just try to do exactly what Lulu tries to exempt its users from, which is to hold them accountable. In an attempt to combat any really vile ratings, Lulu is set up so a user can only rate with groups of pre-set language and hashtags. It’s a smart move on some levels, but also inhibiting. A user’s rating can only be as expressive as allowed by the language provided, which could possibly work if that set language wasn’t in the hands of an app that provides “Slaying Mad Pussy” as a way to mark someone’s relationship status. The combination of maintaining its users’ anonymity, encouraging mass-rating, and resulting attempts to keep ratings from being too hurtful, renders Lulu ineffective as a rating site.

Chong failed to realize what made that brunch so special: it was a small community of friends. That smallness engenders a willingness to share intimate knowledge in confidence, as well as the tendency to provide thoughtful and heartfelt advice not just because someone can, but because they care. Even with our best developers and electronics, the benefits of smallness can’t be imposed onto a larger community, even if it’s online—because the same principles of offline communities still apply to how we use social media. It seems as if that point is either lost, ignored, or never realized in the first place by some developers. More users mean a higher potential payout, which means that when trying to replicate or improve how small communities work, functionality will lose out to mass appeal. Lulu will mostly likely continue on with a modest following of curious women and navel-gazing men, but it will never be a completely functional or useful tool. For each failure, however, there are people in the industry taking note, improving, and maybe, eventually, building up enough courage to think small.`

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A fourth year at Hampshire College, J.D. DiGiovanni is in the North State researching the history of secession movements in California as a part of his senior thesis.