Are male objectification apps like Lulu creating a greater divide between the sexes or bringing us closer together?
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
In 2011 Alexandra Chong left her position as Global Head of Marketing & PR for Upstream and re-dedicated her life to creating a "social and communications platform for women." Last week that effort lead to the release of Lulu, an iOS and Android app that connects to a user's Facebook profile and allows them recommend or critique their friends, family members, sex partners, and exes. The app is intended for women, but there is a browser version for men, Lulu Dude, that allows a person to see how they've been rated.
The app allows users to write reviews of men and encourages the use of hashtag catchphrases to give a thumbnail view of his personal traits. It offers a series of multiple choice questions about each man in your Facebook list, an abridged version of OkCupid's sprawling personality questionnaires: "The Best Things About John Doe Are: #Big.Feet., #OpenDoors, #WillSeeRomComs..." and "In 10 Years He'll Be Wearing: whatever's clean, an Italian suit, whatever the f*** he wants..."
Lulu is not just about creating a tool for uncertain daters in a crowded and confusing population, but an effort to create and reinforce a standardized authority against which we can all check ourselves.
The app aggregates all of the reviews of an individual man and highlights the most characteristic hashtags while averaging numerical scores for categories like Appearance, First Kiss, Humor, and Manners. Users can also recommend particular men to a friend if they think they might match well. The site insists its review process will prevent aggressive or unpleasantly honest feedback, such as #HeRapedMe or #HeGaveMeChlamydia. Being able to warn friends about potentially violent suitors seems like it might be a more valuable service than telling one's friends a certain someone has nice genitalia or a good sense of humor. But the Internet has a way of serving our least important needs while making it seem impossible to ever have lived without its marginal conveniences.
And the Internet's conveniences always seem to arrive with significant ethical concerns, no less so for an app that allows users to evaluate a person without their consent. Yet, for all its exploitive tentacles, Lulu is the perfect extension of dating culture and its list of depersonalized attributes (funny, good looking, nice family). We may not all want exactly the same things in a partner, but we're all forced to choose our favorites from a general sampling of universally desirable traits. Here, relationships are not things formed from an alchemical process--part mutual fantasy, part animal response to subconscious cravings--but instead a kind of erector set made from uniform parts.
This ethos leads us to a subconscious expectation that whenever we seek to couple or connect with another person, they are judging us against some general but objective standard. This leads to a morass of self-doubt, which we can turn to apps like Lulu to dispel through the false control of choice and ranking. The person being rated is given either the relief of seeing people appreciate them for things they have never tried to be, or else he experiences the dejection of discovering his partners didn't like him. Both scenarios happily funnel into the self-improvement industry as good daters are only ever good until their first bad review, while bad daters suddenly have systemic incentive to become objectively better. And there is never any shortage of products on sale to offer advice as to how one might better align one's self with the objective standards of desirability, from books to coaching services like New York's The Nonverbal Group, which teaches a class on body language and dating etiquette.
Lulu is not just about creating a tool for uncertain daters in a crowded and confusing population, but an effort to create and reinforce a standardized authority against which we can all check ourselves. In the days before we had Internet entrepreneurs to provide these services for us—creating business model superstructures that seem inescapable for a few years before collapsing in a pile of gaucherie—we had to trust one another to navigate our various uncertainties. By deferring that process to machinery—both of mustering the courage to address a sensitive subject with someone, and answering with an equivalent degree of sympathy—we are hastening the social drift that awaken these sensitivities in the first place.
Whatever value exists in dating depends on a basic wildness and spontaneity, and it is antithetical to categorical evaluation and multiple choice questions. As the promises of an iPhone in every pocket and a Facebook in every browser have become less exciting over the years, it's starting to seem like technology's role in sex and love has dampened our irrationalities and emotional swings. In their place we have reasoned partnerships built on vouchsafes and checklists whose options we have only a marginal ability to control, acquisitions without the mergers.