Nine months ago, men and women alike recoiled at the launch of Lulu, “the Yelp for men,” a mobile app for rating ex-boyfriends. Using names and photographs culled from Facebook, Lulu women take a quiz about male friends’ manners, ambitions, and appearance; Lulu scores the answers and assigns ratings on a ten-point scale. Women may also select hashtags from dozens of pre-written descriptions: #Sexual-Panther, #AinAnatomy, #WillWatchRomComs, #LoserFriends, #NoGoals. Only women, as verified by their Facebook accounts, can read Lulu profiles. There is no Lulu hashtag for impotence, but that is roughly what happens when a man signs into the app. He can see how often his profile is viewed — and he can upload hotter pictures while hoping for the best — but he cannot see, alter, or respond to the opinions of women.
“Wow. This is straight-up harassment. It invites women to make public electronic slander about people. I wonder how society would react if I made an app that let men rate women they knew and gossip about how slutty they are,” a Reddit user called JizzCreek complained, summarizing the then-dominant view of Lulu. Finally, an issue that feminists and misogynists alike could agree on: Lulu was “reductive” and “sex-stereotypic.” Anonymous sexual evaluation “isn’t empowering. It’s creepy,” the XX Factor’s Amanda Hess wrote. “The real-world application is nothing more than a way for spiteful ex-hookups to spew menstrual hatred upon those that have wronged them,” Total Frat Move concluded.
Nine months and over 1 million users later, Lulu estimates it reaches one in four college girls in America. But a funny thing happened on the way to the man-hating free-for-all: The women were nice.
Among Lulu’s 2.5 million reviews — 500,000 of which were requested by the guys themselves — the average score is 7.5. Among reviewers who self-identify as ex-girlfriends and hookups, 70 percent of reviews are 7.0 or higher. When the reviews come from friends, 80 percent are higher than 7.0. (One third of Lulu reviews are from hookups and exes. The rest are from friends, relatives, crushes, and current girlfriends.) According to Lulu’s calculations, the three most popular hashtags are #WillActSilly, #CleansUpGood, and #EpicSmile. Positive hashtags are selected three times more frequently than negative ones. “It’s definitely skewing positive,” Lulu marketing director Deborah Singer says. “Girls aren’t using Lulu to bash guys. They’re going on to shout about the good guys, to recommend their friends.”
The absence of unrestrained viciousness isn’t necessarily comforting, though. When I first opened Lulu on my phone, I gasped out loud. There, in a tiled display in the palm of my hand, were pictures of every single man I know, giant white numbers and hot pink hashtag descriptions next to their faces. An old hookup is 6.9 and has a #OneTrackMind. (True.) An old cubicle mate is 8.6 and likes #420. (As suspected.) A guy I once rejected is 9.0 and an #EnergizerBunny. (Is he still single?) A friend’s sibling is 5.1 and has #NoGoals. (Someone should check on him.) A gay friend is 8.6, #GonebyMorning. (Because he didn’t sleep over?) My brother, boss, and high-school English teacher have not yet been rated. (Thank God.) After browsing his profile, I run into an 8.7 with #KissableLips. Halfway through a conversation about health insurance, I realize I am staring at his mouth. I am mortified but also unable to stop looking — the same way I felt when I first logged into Lulu.
At Lulu HQ, they discuss the network’s positive ratings in terms of “the mean-girl myth,” “this idea that girls are mean, and if you give them their own community, they’re going to behave badly,” Singer explains. Since Lulu doesn’t allow write-in reviews, there’s a limit to how cruel responses can be; there is no negative corollary for #AinAnatomy.
As a phenomenon, though, “mean girls” generally refers to female-on-female cruelty. Studies of “indirect aggression” show females behaving most cruelly to their same-sex peers, perhaps to tear down sexual competitors. Maybe recommending everyone else date a male friend whom you would never sleep with is some sort of distraction technique. Or maybe we see our exes through rose-tinted glasses as a coping mechanism. “Even if he sucked, you still slept with him,” one of my female friends noted. “Women don’t like to admit when they sleep with losers because it makes them feel slutty.”
The high scores creates something of an Olympic-gymnastics-scoreboard effect: When everyone gets a 10, moderate scores become damning. Even high cumulative scores can be subtly cruel in their topical-score breakdowns: A man with a 10 for sex but a 4 for commitment sounds like a cad. Several of my male friends have “nice guy, but” reviews: Humor and manners clustered around nine, appearance and sex several points lower.
A friend with seven reviews was apparently a cad to some hookups, “nice guy but” to others. “The truth lies somewhere in the middle,” he says with a shrug. “I’m sure I’ve had both 9.0 sex and 6.5 sex. And much lower than 6.5.” His appearance scores range from 4 to 10. “Obviously I’m not a 10, but 4 is insulting. That’s like ‘someone threw acid in my face’ bad.” To be fair, in two weeks of nonstop Lulu use, I did not see a single appearance rating lower than 4. He later confessed that his 10 came from a friend he asked to stuff the ballot in his favor.
As a party trick last week, I offered to look up men’s Lulu scores. Though universally anti-Lulu, the men’s outrage generally abated when they saw their relatively kind ratings. Several admitted to seeing kernels of truth in their profiles, and everyone nitpicked their hashtags. “I can tell you which ones aren’t true,” one man announced. “#420, #FartMachine, #CantBuildIkeaFurniture. I rarely smoke weed, I never pass gas in front of women, and I am very good at Ikea construction.” A man tagged #F**kedMeandChuckedMe marveled, “Even my ‘bad’ reviews are kind of good. I sound like a player.”
The hashtags are probably the least accurate part of Lulu; they come from a prewritten set and cannot be averaged, which means they can’t rely on the wisdom of the crowd. (Assuming a handful of anonymous exes can even be considered a “crowd” at all.) Separated into positive and negative groupings, the hashtags seem to be the most confounding part of the experience for men. Categorizing #Trekkie, #VideoGamer, and #420 as negatives seemed unfair; #Man-scaped was invasive; #ChristianGrey and #MrDarcy said more about the women than the men; #SleepsintheWetSpot, indicating postcoital chivalry, grossed everyone out.
Women and men alike fretted about the “message” that hashtags like #AlwaysPays and #WillWatchRomComs send. Considering how quickly I adapted to Lulu’s high-skewing score system, I did worry that extended use would somehow indoctrinate me to Lulu’s value system or, at the very least, its moderately grating #Smells-Amazeballs voice. But I don’t think it happened. I also don’t think my view of men became more transactional and dehumanizing — although using the app with my female friends did open up some crasser conversations than we usually have. After telling me how she would rate several of her exes on a 10-point scale, a friend who considers Lulu too “fucked up” to join marveled, “It’s fun to rate sex!” She then asked me to track down ex-boyfriends’ reviews on the site. “There is some serious grade inflation going on,” she said about an ex labeled #ManSlut on Lulu. “Flat 6. Well, maybe 6.5 for enthusiasm. Actually, no. I just had a vivid flashback. I would go lower than 6.”