If you believe biology controls a portion of our thoughts and actions, then it makes sense that women are attracted to apps, websites and chat rooms that allow them to share their stories and commonalities. After all, my gender is known for its superb communication skills.
Women’s general desire to reveal their experiences is what makes an app, known as Lulu, such an interesting idea. According to its founders Alexandra Chong and Alison Schwartz, it is a piece of social media designed specifically for women. The app, for the most part, serves as a virtual space where women can share “girl talk,” or private conversations about the issues that interest them.
That is one description of Lulu. If you read sites such as The Daily Beast and Buzzfeed, and even established media companies such as Forbes, Lulu is akin to demagoguery. These web-based voices decry its sexist format, allowing its female-only constituents to “rate” the men they know or have dated. These anonymous ratings are shallow attacks on the male gender, critics say, and only serve to further separate the sexes. Lulu, in other words, is just as crass as crass can be.
So why has Lulu gained so much attention? It’s all about numbers, pure and simple. It was among the first “ratings” app, and it is the best known. In a little over a year since the creation of Lulu, the app has millions of users, including one in four U.S. college girls and more than one million guys, according to Lulu officials. Such a huge following makes Lulu somewhat like LinkedIn for professionals or Snapchat for teens – it is the go-to program of its kind.
The Lulu app is an ideal conversation starter in regards to what has happened to the Internet, online dating and love in the 21st century. An anonymous place for women to describe current or former lovers could be seen as the best use of the World Wide Web, providing a safe haven for females to talk openly about how they were treated in a relationship.
On the negative side, Lulu provides an ugly glimpse into the world of Internet trolls – those people who create controversy wherever their cursor roams. It shows only the dark side of human relationships, one might argue, catering to lust, anger and resentment instead of honest interaction. The postings on Lulu puts men in the uncomfortable position of owning up to past behaviors, atoning for perceived wrongs from any woman who decides to skewer them on the app or elsewhere.
Perhaps generations that saw the rise of birth control, the idolization of Bo Derek in a movie called “Ten,” and the bold conversations of sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, are ready for such an app. Maybe rating one another on our cuddling abilities or sexual prowess is, indeed, appropriate for this day and age.
Yet there seems in all of the criticism, a level of discomfort with Lulu’s basic structure. Even Millennials – the generation that not only feels they have a right to see all of people’s personal thoughts and pictures on social media, but demand to see it – are a bit wary of how bold and aggressive the Lulu rating system seems to be.
A Lulu spokeswoman notes that the app may raise eyebrows, but that it also has the best intentions toward its users and even the men who are rated. In 2014, Lulu added a component that allows men to “opt in” to the app or remove themselves from the site with no questions asked, giving them some control over the information shared there.
In its infancy, Lulu has focused on guys and relationships, “an incredibly important topic for women,” according to Deborah Singer, director of marketing and public relations for Lulu. The long-term goal, Singer noted, is to build Lulu into a larger platform where women could talk about a number of topics, perhaps starting with areas including beauty or health.
“Our founders realized that women control more than 80 percent of consumer spending and dominate social media, yet no one is building social products specifically for them,” Singer said. “They saw a huge opportunity to tap into the value of girl talk – the private conversations women have with each other.”
While the initial focus has been on guys and relationships, the basic app platform is flexible enough to not only give women room to share their thoughts and feelings, but to expand into other places as well, Singer said.
“Think of Lulu as a two-sided platform in which women are the privileged side. For girls, Lulu is a place 1) to share experiences through reviews and 2) to search reviews and get information from other women to make smarter decisions. For guys, Lulu is a place to learn what women want and get better,” Singer said.
That is part of the reason that Lulu added the option for men to sign up on the app as users and allow the women they know to rate and review them, Singer said. Interestingly, others have seen the potential in Lulu’s platform – and they’re the kind of companies that want access to the female consumer.
“This has been part of our vision from the beginning – it’s the other side of the platform – and it’s something that guys and brands have been asking for since we initially launched Lulu in February 2013,” Singer noted.
Those brands want rating sites where the women are thinking about the people, places and things they love – or even dislike so strongly that they can share their thoughts in a cohesive, intelligent and passionate way.
“Everyone wants to know what women think, and Lulu is one of the few places where women actually share what they think,” Singer said. “More than 52 percent of Lulu’s female users create reviews to share their experiences, which is incredibly high compared to other social networks. Today, women share their experiences about guys, but in the future it could be products or services. In fact, we hear every week from Fortune 500 brands who wants to partner with Lulu and find out what our audience thinks about their products.”
The desire to mix an app’s content with a brand’s reputation is why Lulu has staying power, Singer added. It is not a place where girls meet guys or the like. It is a new kind of space – one where users benefit just as much as the consumer-driven companies that are interested in partnering with Lulu.
“Stories about Lulu sometimes call us a dating app, which misses the point about Lulu’s vision and what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve started with dating and relationships because it’s an incredibly important topic for everyone, but we’ll be expanding into all topics that women care about,” Singer said. “Lulu is all about unleashing the power of girl talk, which is very big and exciting. We’re just at the beginning of our journey.”
That may be the app’s intention, but Lulu’s early reputation and controversial approach may not allow for such a transition to take place, argues Michael Bernacchi, a business and marketing professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy in Detroit.
Bernacchi has built his career on staying on top of current events and seeing trends even before the general public. His annual ratings of Super Bowl commercials receive a significant audience each year, and he is quoted frequently in local and national media. As such, he follows social media closely and sees how influential that medium has become.
Bernacchi said Lulu’s sensational start did exactly what its founders probably wanted – it made a big splash by being salacious and sexy. That kind of ribaldry will get you some eyes and “clicks” for the first few months (think of pop-music newcomer Katy Perry singing “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It” to hype her first major record). Whetheryou can make it long term depends on how you make the transition and whether you’ve got the chops to handle it, he noted.
After all, first impressions tend to be the ones that last with consumers, Bernacchi said. To some extent, Lulu has already defined itself. The general public tends to have a long memory, and we remember just about everything about companies that start with scandal. Bernacchi agrees.
“That’s not to say that a re-cultivation or redefinition can’t be forthcoming and be successful. Having said that, that’s kind of a rough water to navigate,” Bernacchi added. “If I’m going to sell this app to somebody, I’d better know how they’re putting on their boots and how to deal with that. While it may be a very shallow look at this app, you can easily say on the other side, gosh, isn’t that how they have defined themselves? Isn’t that the perception that they’ve asked for?”
Bernacchi said he could see consumer companies and big brands sniffing around Lulu because of its size and household-name appeal. Whether they stick around after truly investigating the app, its users and the content on the site remains to be seen.
“It’s an interesting idea, creating a place where women could have discussions on a number of topics. A full-fledge discussion format could work,” Bernacchi said. “I’m sure there are a number of firms that want to buy into that to evaluate their products and services. But do they really know what that marketplace is about?”
Bernacchi noted that websites like Match.com and ChristianMingle.com handle dating situations with a little more subtlety. These dating sites go out of their way in television and other forms of advertising to discuss how they unite couples based on personality tests. The sitesemphasize how they use analysis and other characteristics about who their users are to find out whom is right for you.
Lulu, whether the definition truly fits, is largely seen by its critics as being shallow and using looks as a main determinate of people’s value. Acting in a shallow manner will turn off potential advertisers and business partners if the app stays true to its original form or even evolves only slightly, Bernacchi said.
“It may be naïve of them to think they can change midstream,” Bernacchi added. “That movie with Bo Derek had a plot that few of us remember. All that the public know is that it was about rating women by their looks. And that’s not an acceptable route for a movie or pretty much anything else to take these days. It’s one thing to have two or three guys talking together privately about how a woman looks. But it would be laughable for that movie to happen today. Our culture has moved in another direction.”
Any brand struggles to establish a strong identity, Bernacchi pointed out, regardless of whether it is an app, a retailer, or a service company. For Lulu to shift from its original status, as a “guy-rating app” may not be possible, he continued.
“One has to work very, very hard to be what you should be if that’s what they want to be. Maybe they saw the opportunity to become something else. That’s OK. But you better quickly get into this barge and turn it around. It’s not going to be easy to turn, I would suggest,” Bernacchi said.
“Reinvention may be a great idea,” Bernacchi added. “But in this market place, you get what you deserve. … It’s all about the brand and they have to be very serious about what they want that brand to stand for and I would suggest starting from ground one if they’re not too deep into it. If you don’t define yourself well someone else will and you may not like it, especially if you’re trying to sell something.”
For the record, I signed up on Lulu to surf around the app and see how it worked as part of this essay. And here is what ruined it for me – when I used Facebook to share my personal information with it, one of the first profiles that popped up was of a guy named “Ryan” (I changed it to protect the innocent). Ryan is one of my Facebook friends – and I used to babysit him. Yep, I changed his diapers and everything. And I think of him like a little brother, so I’m pretty defensive when it comes to his reputation.
Seeing girls write cutesy “hashtag” comments about him and his sex life was a bit upsetting. I kind of wanted to stop reading and delete the app immediately from my operating system. Granted, I’m not single and I don’t look at him as a potential mate. But even a few guy friends of mine on the Lulu app got harsh reviews, and I wish I had looked away rather than found out how “#selfish” or “#clingy” they were. Would I come back to Lulu? Probably not. However, I’m also not the target demographic.
Lulu’s success isn’t in question; I think it has already succeeded to a large extent. Whether or not our society deems Lulu’s content credible is the real issue at hand.
Karen Dybis is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has blogged for Time magazine, worked the business desk for The Detroit News and jumped on breaking stories for publications including City’s Best, Corp! magazine and Agence France-Presse newswire.