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DANTE RAMOS

Workers: What’s your online rating?

Globe Opinion’s Dante Ramos debuts as a columnist by looking at a Boston-based startup.
Globe Opinion's Dante Ramos debuts as a columnist by looking at a Boston-based startup. Read more at http://b.globe.com/danteramosdebut
DAN HUBIG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

If your personality is at all introverted or reserved, thriving in the Internet-era economy means accepting a level of exposure that, up until now, would have freaked you out completely.

Consider Dunwello, a new Boston-based website that allows a user to leave public comments about — and numerical scores for — other people’s performance at work. In many industries, personnel evaluations come from above, and they’re handled in hushed tones — a closed-door meeting with the boss, a written annual review hidden in the recesses of the human-resources office. If you’re among the millions of American workers reared in this culture of discretion, you may be wary of a website that lets co-workers, supervisors, clients, and business contacts rate you on a 1-to-10 scale.

But the thing is, if Dunwello founder Matt Lauzon and his team don’t succeed in bringing this level of workplace transparency into the mainstream, someone else will. The growing number of contract workers who live from client to client, not to mention full-time employees who don’t expect to stay at their current jobs for more than a couple of years, benefit less from workplace secrecy than from having other people sing their praises in a public forum.

As for the seeming indignity of having your professional achievement boiled down to a 9.9 or a 5.2, well, a hard numeric score nudges reviewers to settle on a clear bottom line and helps Dunwello users sort through multiple reviews. Lauzon, 29, maintains that the score isn’t the total picture, but it’s “an understandable concept that’s an important part of the equation.”

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Erika Alvarez, a 27-year-old hairdresser in Boston, was among the first profiles on Dunwello, which went live in beta form on Halloween. (Alvarez, who counts Lauzon’s fiancee as a client, was invited to participate early as a prototype.) One reviewer, who rates her as a 10 out of 10, says Alvarez “is the only stylist I trust to cut my hair from mid-length to a bob with bangs.” She “gives recommendations on styles,” says another reviewer who gave her a 10, “based on my hair type, my (lack of) styling abilities, and face shape.” A third review, also a 10, reassures prospective customers, “Don’t be afraid of [her] dry cut!”

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The website, I should note, solicited her early reviews; many come from people at Dunwello or at Lauzon’s previous startup, Gemvara. But Alvarez, who looks at star ratings on Yelp when making her own consumer choices, isn’t ruffled by the possibility of negative reviews if Dunwello takes off with the broader public. For one thing, while unfavorable ratings are calculated into a user’s score, the negative reviews that accompany them aren’t displayed — a policy that discourages public shaming.

Besides, the potential upside from getting enthusiastic, highly specific reviews is enormous. “When people are leaving reviews, it’s almost a personal reference,” she says. She hopes that, as the site becomes better known, it will bring in new clients.

Other users see the site as a way of collecting feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. In a recent blog item, New York venture capitalist Steven Schlafman invited anyone to review him on Dunwello. (He’s an acquaintance of Lauzon’s, but the latter says they have no business relationship.) He received some negative scores, but lots of 9s and 10s, accompanied by ample praise for his character. “Super helpful and approachable. Doesn’t suffer fools,” wrote one reviewer who rated him a 7. “I realize it’s never an easy decision to expose yourself publicly,” Schlafman wrote, “but as Gandhi once said, ‘Truth never damages a cause that is just.’ ”

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Not everyone on the receiving end of online ratings is quite so bullish. In recent years, small-business owners have sued for defamation over reviews on Yelp and the site Angie’s List. Aggrieved doctors have tried to unmask anonymous reviewers on physician-review sites. In academia, the website RateMyProfessors has been a sore point for years. Faculty members aren’t recognized for their likelihood of winning a Nobel Prize; students assign numerical scores for professors’ “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and “easiness.” (As for “hotness,” student raters merely choose between “yeah” or “um, no.”)

To many who are emotionally invested in their careers, these ratings feel too personal — just a step or two short of having a numerical score on a Tinder or OKCupid profile. Imagine getting a paltry two stars, a brutal shorthand for “tiresome conversationalist” or “lousy dancer.” This is the near-future dystopia that writer Gary Shteyngart described in his 2010 novel “Super Sad True Love Story,” in which users of a Facebook-like service called GlobalTeens are numerically rated for their “personality,” “sustainability,” and [unprintable term for “sex appeal”]. To the extent that Dunwello and its inevitable competitors further the basic idea that having others rate you online is part of modern life, they lead inexorably in an uncomfortable direction.

Then again, the Internet has banished other deep-rooted apprehensions. Hop into a stranger’s car? Not so scary. Rent your home out for a night? Sure! Find your soul mate on a website? Yes, if you’re lucky. Not long ago, notes Paul Oyer, an economics professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, “there was a belief that only people who couldn’t find a date the normal way would go online.” Oyer is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Labor Economics. He’s also the author of the book “Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating.” “You didn’t want to be the first guy on online dating,” he says, “but when a lot of other people are doing it, the social norms change.”

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Similarly, Dunwello doesn’t need to prove that numerical ratings capture your worth as a human being; it just needs to persuade you that letting yourself be rated will help you stand out in an age when corporate identity competes with personal branding. Alvarez, the hair stylist, has noticed that, on the Yelp page for the salon where she once worked, several of the most enthusiastic reviews were from her clients. When she left, the Yelp stars stayed with her old salon. On Dunwello, individuals keep their ratings and reviews when they switch jobs: If a worker with high numerical rating leaves Firm A to join Firm B, Firm A’s rating — an aggregate of its employees’ scores — will likely decline; Firm B’s will rise, giving it an incentive to hold on to that top-rated worker.

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Younger workers, who’ve lived their entire lives online, may come to relish the power that such an approach gives them. In the meantime, those of us who pick restaurants on Yelp but blush at being judged on similar terms are at an awkward intermediate stage, where the potential mischief is painfully evident but the potential benefits of being rated individually are only beginning to emerge. As established industries fracture, though, and as more workers recognize that they’re on their own, an idea that used to seem just icky may suddenly sound like a 9 or a 10.


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.