For the past week I have been receiving enthusiastic group emails talking about a new social network. At first, I didn't pay too much attention, but after seeing that this was truly the trending topic of the week in female circles, I decided to download it to understand what it is. Lulu is an app designed exclusively for women to anonymously review men on their characteristics such as looks, manners and spending habits.
A female Facebook user downloads Lulu on her mobile which automatically connects it to her Facebook account, retrieving the data of all her male friends. Next thing you see, is the Facebook profile picture and name of your male friends with past ratings they have received from other women. This is where it gets complicated. People can create a Lulu rating for any male friend on their list without them knowing about it, and unless the person had some social media know-how, he would have no idea that a Lulu profile existed on him.
Luluvise is the company that created the app, and it was launched in December 2011 by CEO Alexandra Chong. Chong has a law degree from the London School of Economics and was formerly the Global Head of Marketing and PR for Upstream, one of the world's largest mobile marketing companies. There is no doubt that Chong has an entrepreneurial vein.
During the test stage, Chong honed in on the social media's target and recruited sorority girls on US campuses for the launch. She encouraged the girls to use the app in return for a chance to win an internship at Luluvise. The app's linguistic and visual design is visibly influenced by US sorority culture. Shortly after the test, Chong was able to get funding from the likes of Yuri Miller (one of the first investors of Facebook) and the co-founders of Jawbone.
Feminism gone awry
Even though Chong claims that Lulu is for female empowerment, it is obvious that she is much less concerned with any feminist agenda than a way to monetise on the problems of human relationships. Luluvise flippantly claims that its mission is to unleash the value of girl talk and to empower girls to make smarter decisions on topics ranging from relationships to beauty and health. The reality is far from that.
The visual cues, with pink hashtags and images of girls laughing together so as to suggest "girl talk", come together to create a Gossip Girl-type of social club for women. With a bunch of angry exes logging in to expose all the negative points of a man, the site not only turns into a hotbed of malicious gossip but also a platform for serious bullying and degradation of people who are often unaware of the situation. At its best, the app is a failed attempt at creating a false narrative of girl power, and at its worst, a public witch-hunt.
Needless to say, the reliability of Lulu ratings is highly questionable. The reason or motivation for entering into the app in the first place is a good indicator. Most women enter to rate their former relationships in a negative way: Revenge seems to play a big part of the social network's drive. There are those that rate their current boyfriends or the men they're interested in a slandering way so that other women will be discouraged to contact them. Additionally, the reviews are anonymous which means women can write whatever they want without fear of being found out.
The way the app works is through an overly simplistic rating system that allows women to choose from a list of negative and positive hashtags which then appear on the men's profiles for everyone else to see. The positive ones range from #MomsLoveHim, #AlwaysPays, to #TallDarkAndHandsome, and the negatives from #TemperTantrums, #ForgotHisWallet, to #NapoleonComplex. The somewhat nonsensical hashtags not only fail in providing any real description of a person but are also offensive reinforcements of negative gender stereotypes.
In a bitingly negative review of the social network , the Slate called attention to the problem of publicly sexualising men, "Any woman who's been cat-called by a stranger on the street knows this: Unwelcome sexual commentary isn't a compliment, it's harassment." Needless to say, subjecting men to a public exposition without their consent or knowledge is a far cry from any feminist approach.
Perhaps even more worrisome than the fake feminism is the extremely questionable privacy issues of the app. The app is non-consensual, which means that if you have a friend on the network your data is automatically retrieved through their Facebook account. In order to avoid this, you would have to change your Facebook app settings to a very conservative one, a complicated task that the majority of users don't know how to do. In addition to collecting your data, which means everything you have on Facebook that is not under a tight privacy setting, Lulu also reserves the right to share certain portions of your data with third parties. In other words, Lulu at some point can sell your data, including your Lulu rating and hashtags, to third parties.
It seems that Chong and her colleagues were able to synthesise all of modern Western society's problems into an app and market it as female empowerment. Lulu encompasses all of the negativities of the hashtag generation; oversimplification, vulgarisation, lack of empathy and the collapse of privacy.
Today, in order to cut through the clutter, we are discouraged from being sophisticated with our words and encouraged to think up catchy marketing phrases. The "hashtag generation" is not only simplistic, it is also cruel. We have lost our empathy behind the armours of our computer screens. We are too uneasy in person and way too comfortable on the internet. This is the generation where bullying and outing people is encouraged in the name of transparency.
The effects of perhaps what we could call one of today's biggest problems with teens, namely cyber bullying, are all too well-documented. We have seen reports of young people committing suicide after being bullied on Facebook or having compromising photos leaked on the internet. Finally, what does it say about society when we start seeing apps that monetise these cruel principles, the same ones that drive victims into depression and suicide? Perhaps it is time to question that which passes as acceptable social behaviour both online and offline.
After its private launch in US sororities, it was reported that a quarter of all female university students in the US use Lulu. These are disturbing indicators of just how much the young generation in the US is taking to this new social media frenzy. Just last week, the app was also launched in Brazil, quickly trending in the news, and word of mouth.
If launched globally, Lulu's reception in other cultures remains unclear. At this point, it seems like an essentially white middle class Western phenomenon. It is only available in English and uses slangs that are only intelligible to the American youth. However, considering the velocity at which information and trends on the internet travel across the globe, it is probable that the makers of Lulu could begin to explore new cultural adaptations in different continents.
Would the sorority-girl-talk appeal to the youth in Turkey, for example? Or would the creators of Lulu think up new ways to locally adapt the social network in order to fit different cultural sensibilities? We shall see in the upcoming months if, in fact, Lulu's bitter approach would have an audience in non-Western societies.
Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.