Nestled between the Oxford Dictionary entries for “lully” and “luluai” (a cow’s kidney and New Guinean village elder, respectively), “lulu” is defined as “an outstanding example of a particular type of person or thing.” It is an obscure word, but it suits this new app of the same name. Launched in February 2013, the app Lulu allows girls — and only girls — to rate a guy’s appearance, manners and romantic experience. You use Lulu to find a lulu.
The app joins many services devoted to matching or informing users about potential lovers. However, unlike its competitors, it is a gender exclusive proposition shrouded in anonymity and secrecy. As Lulu celebrates its first birthday, questions remain about whether it does more to help or harm the guys it rates.
Since its release, the app has exploded in popularity. Lulu reports more than four million worldwide users and that one in four US college girls have downloaded the app. Roughly 400 Northwestern students have taken the plunge, according to company estimates.
In order to use the app, users log in through Facebook to verify their gender. Girls are then free to rate and view ratings of any guy with whom they are Facebook friends. If a guy has a Facebook profile he has a Lulu one — no consent required — and men are unable to view their own scores.
Aside from the labels “crush,” “together,” “hooked-up,” “friend,” “relative” or “ex-boyfriend,” reviews are anonymous. A man’s score is determined by matching lighthearted hashtags with certain qualities. For example, some answers to “His best qualities...pick a bunch!” include #Big.Feet., #AinAnatomy and #SweetToMom. Options for “His worst qualities...how many?” include #PlaysDigeridoo, #CheaperThanABigMac and #ProcreatedThenEvaporated. Lulu distills these selections into a zero to 10 rating via an undisclosed formula.
“We created Lulu to unleash the value of girl talk and to empower girls to make smarter decisions on topics ranging from relationships to beauty and health,” reads the mission statement from the company’s website. Another section describes Lulu as a dating “compass.”
Reflecting on this mission, Medill freshman Harry Wood is not surprised such a service exists, but he is still not happy about it. As of this story’s publication, Wood had racked up 779 profile views and seven user reviews. His overall rating was a respectable 8.5. While he was vaguely cognizant of the app’s premise, Wood remained unaware of his profile’s considerable traffic. For him, Lulu’s lack of consent coupled with its immense user base proves troublesome.
“It’d be like someone printing out your picture, putting it up on a wall and having a bunch of people come up and write on it without you knowing about it, which is really weird, “ Wood said. “It makes me kind of annoyed because I don’t like not knowing. I’d rather know people are saying things about me, good or bad.”
Wood said that without context Lulu fails as a dating “compass.” Yes, there is value in helping women make informed dating decisions, but he sees little point in a profile solely consisting of hashtags and numbers. In his opinion, those tidbits do little to protect women from incompatible or potentially dangerous dates.
“Unless you have the full story, it’s not effective,” Wood said. “It wasn’t made to be a cutesy little notes and tips page. If it’s made to be something about female empowerment and keep people safe, then make it about keeping safe.”
Lulu’s “Girl talk #Unleashed” promotional video demonstrates the app in action. A bevy of women cruise into a party eyeing a bizarrely shirtless man. Each scene shows the women checking their phones (while dancing?) to reveal illuminating Lulu information about their dance partners. From the superimposed graphic we learn, alas, the shirtless heartthrob #WearsCrocs — the kiss of death.
Weinberg freshman Julia Cohen has never seen this promotional video, but for her, the concept behind Lulu is a grand joke.
"A lot of Lulu is just for fun," Cohen said. "The reality is if you're going to a party and hook up with someone, you're not going to go and review everyone the night before."
Cohen immediately downloaded Lulu after seeing her friends crowded around a single phone giggling at guys’ reviews. For a while she checked it compulsively. Cohen admits that she can recite some of her guy friends’ Lulu scores simply because it was such a persistent element in her life. But, in the end, she fell out of love with Lulu.
“Honestly, it’s just a bunch of girls getting together and kvetching over guys. I don’t think it makes anyone more social,” she said. “It’s really just something to badmouth or say good things about other people with. It’s definitely not a dating app.”
Cohen further balked at Lulu’s mission to “empower girls.” For her, Lulu was a guilty pleasure.
“There is nothing empowering about saying a guy has really good abs,” Cohen said while shaking her head. “I think it’s objectifying guys and girls just seeing them as tools to go hook up with and gossip about. I don’t think there’s anything morally right about it. I think the concept is sort of disgusting.”
Renee Engeln, a senior psychology lecturer at Northwestern, is even more pointed in her criticism of the app. She described Lulu as the newest entrant in an age-old category of services that capitalize on users’ ignorance. Services that quantify attraction, she said, have little to no predictive power concerning compatibility or relationship satisfaction. Often the decision to proceed with a digital match is spurred by something as arbitrary as the profile image. To the layperson unfamiliar with research on romantic attraction, Engeln asserts that giving potential matches a rating, “feels like magic.”
In her view, Lulu may not be so benign. Both the anonymity of the reviewer and the fact that a guy can be reviewed without his knowledge is “creepy,” she said. While the app describes itself as empowering, Engeln echoed Wood’s assertion that negative reviews serve nobody without context. There is no way to verify who said what and if a reviewer had an axe to grind. Ultimately, Engeln laments Lulu’s potential to empower women to participate in the objectifying and petty antics they despise in men.
“Is it reverse sexism? No. I just think it’s shitty behavior,” Engeln said tersely. “Unless you think we should do this to women, I don’t think you should be doing it to men.”
Even so, some defend Lulu as a legitimate dating tool. Communication freshman Arielle Gordon joked that it is “almost like Angie’s List for guys” in reference to the crowd-sourced rating website your mom or dad might use to find a good, reliable plumber.
Gordon heard of the app by word of mouth, and the exclusivity and anonymity of the reviews captured her attention. The concept is a little silly, she said, but at the same time, Gordon thinks Lulu can be informative and constructive in that it allows women to distinguish the good guys apart from those she called “scumbags.”
“I think it’s fostering a better community among women and I think that’s really important,” Gordon said. “I’m not going to champion Lulu as this sort of feminist stronghold, but at the same time I think it’s important for women to know that it’s okay to talk about relationships, and it’s okay to be just as crude or sexual in discussing it as guys are with girls.”
Christine Jones, a former Lulu intern charged with recruiting Northwestern users, stressed the “wobbly line” between maintaining the status quo and becoming too interactive and therefore too tempting for abusers. Currently, she said the best option for guys opposed to Lulu is to go on the website and manually deactivate their profile.
The company’s website makes clear the current app is its “first iteration”; only time can tell whether it becomes a fad of a past as it did for Wood, Cohen and Gordon. But whatever the future holds for this new, controversial app, Engeln, the psychology lecturer, is positive that something like Lulu will always exist.
“When people want something, and they want relationships, and they want sex, they’re going to find the easiest way to get it,” she said.