When the app does launch, probably in late November, you will be able to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to everyone you know: your exes, your co-workers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose.
Imagine every interaction you’ve ever had suddenly open to the scrutiny of the Internet public.
“People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions,” said Julia Cordray, one of the app’s founders. “Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?”
This is, in a nutshell, Cordray’s pitch for the app — the one she has been making to development companies, private shareholders, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. (As of Monday, the company’s shares put its value at $7.6 million.)
A bubbly, no-holds-barred “trendy lady” with a marketing degree and two recruiting companies, Cordray sees no reason you wouldn’t want to “showcase your character” online. Co-founder Nicole McCullough comes at the app from a different angle: As a mother of two in an era when people don’t always know their neighbors, she wanted something to help her decide whom to trust with her kids.
Given the importance of those kinds of decisions, Peeple’s “integrity features” are fairly rigorous — as Cordray will reassure you, in the most vehement terms, if you raise any concerns about shaming or bullying on the service. To review someone, you must be 21 and have an established Facebook account, and you must make reviews under your real name.
You must also affirm that you “know” the person in one of three categories: personal, professional or romantic. To add someone to the database who has not been reviewed before, you must have that person’s cell phone number. (The app was originally supposed to scrape names automatically from Facebook, but the site’s API wouldn’t allow it — to Cordray’s visible annoyance.)
Positive ratings post immediately; negative ratings are queued in a private inbox for 48 hours in case of disputes. If you haven’t registered for the site, and thus can’t contest those negative ratings, your profile only shows positive reviews.
On top of that, Peeple has outlawed a laundry list of bad behaviors, including profanity, sexism and mention of private health conditions.
“As two empathetic, female entrepreneurs in the tech space, we want to spread love and positivity,” Cordray stressed. “We want to operate with thoughtfulness.”
Unfortunately for the millions of people who could soon find themselves the unwilling subjects — make that objects — of Cordray’s app, her thoughts do not appear to have shed light on certain very critical issues, such as consent and bias and accuracy and the fundamental wrongness of assigning a number value to a person.
To borrow from the technologist and philosopher Jaron Lanier, Peeple is indicative of a sort of technology that values “the information content of the web over individuals;” it’s so obsessed with the perceived magic of crowd-sourced data that it fails to see the harms to ordinary people.
Where to even begin with those harms? There’s no way such a rating could ever accurately reflect the person in question: Even putting issues of personality and subjectivity aside, all rating apps, from Yelp to Rate My Professor, have a demonstrated problem with self-selection. (The only people who leave reviews are the ones who love or hate the subject.) In fact, as repeat studies of Rate My Professor have shown, ratings typically reflect the biases of the reviewer more than they do the actual skills of the teacher: On RMP, professors whom students consider attractive are way more likely to be given high ratings, and men and women are evaluated on totally different traits.
“Summative student ratings do not look directly or cleanly at the work being done,” the academic Edward Nuhfer wrote in 2010. “They are mixtures of affective feelings and learning.”
But at least student ratings have some logical and economic basis: You paid thousands of dollars to take that class, so you’re justified and qualified to evaluate the transaction. Peeple suggests a model in which everyone is justified in publicly evaluating everyone they encounter, regardless of their exact relationship.
It’s inherently invasive, even when complimentary. And it’s objectifying and reductive in the manner of all online reviews. One does not have to stretch far to imagine the distress and anxiety that such a system would cause even a slightly self-conscious person; it’s not merely the anxiety of being harassed or maligned on the platform — but of being watched and judged, at all times, by an objectifying gaze to which you did not consent.
Where once you may have viewed a date or a teacher conference as a private encounter, Peeple transforms it into a radically public performance: Everything you do can be judged, publicized, recorded.
“That’s feedback for you!” Cordray enthuses. “You can really use it to your advantage.”
That justification hasn’t worked out so well, though, for the various edgy apps that have tried it before. In 2013, Lulu promised to empower women by letting them review their dates, and to empower men by letting them see their scores.
After a tsunami of criticism — “creepy,” “toxic,” “gender hate in a prettier package” — Lulu added an automated opt-out feature to let men pull their names off the site. A year later, Lulu further relented by letting users rate only those men who opt in. In its current iteration, 2013’s most controversial start-up is basically a minor dating app.
That windy path is possible for Peeple too, Cordray says: True to her site’s radical philosophy, she has promised to take any and all criticism as feedback. If beta testers demand an opt-out feature, she’ll delay the launch date and add that in. If users feel uncomfortable rating friends and partners, maybe Peeple will professionalize: think Yelp meets LinkedIn. Right now, it’s Yelp for all parts of your life; that’s at least how Cordray hypes it on YouTube, where she’s publishing a reality Web series about the app’s process.
“It doesn’t matter how far apart we are in likes or dislikes,” she tells some bro at a bar in episode 10. “All that matters is what people say about us.”
It’s a weirdly dystopian vision to deliver to a stranger at a sports bar: In Peeple’s future, Cordray’s saying, the way some amorphous online “crowd” sees you will be definitively who you are.
Update: This story has been updated to remove a reference to Peeple users being unable to remove inaccurate reviews. While Peeple co-founder Julia Cordray told the Post in an interview that users would not be able to contest reviews after they went live, she later clarified by email that users can “report anything they deem inaccurate” to the site.
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