An idea whose time has come, unfortunately


Peeple is a new app that as soon as you learn what it does, you realize it was inevitable and wonder why it had not been created sooner. It is like Yelp but except that instead of the general public reviewing and rating businesses, Peeple lets you rate individuals.

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.

So basically every encounter you have with anyone might end up forming the basis of a rating on a public website. The creators of the app insist that they will have safeguards to protect people from getting slashing reviews from vindictive people who they may have crossed or snowballing public shaming or cyberbullying, things that already occur on the web and Peeple may seem to make even easier

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.

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.

Needless to say, many people are apprehensive about this and there has been some pushback.

The idea of rating another human sparked some high-profile outrage. T-Mobile CEO John Legere and supermodel Chrissy Teigen took to verified Twitter accounts to criticize the app. And a change.org petition against the app has amassed more than 3,000 signatures.

“Blurring professional, personal and romantic reviews for anyone to see is preposterous, even if it’s comprised of only glowing reviews,” marketing analyst Brian Solis of Altimeter Group wrote in a LinkedIn post. “The lack of context and more so consent is senseless and more so irresponsible.”

This idea is not entirely new. There had already been an app called Lulu released in 2013 that allowed women users of Facebook to rate their dates.

Professor of digital communications Joseph Reagle says that there have been other, more limited, individual ratings systems in the past and gives a brief history of previous attempts and then points to one novel feature of the new system that seeks to eliminate vindictive ratings.

Like KarmaFile, Peeple is starting out with an intention of keeping the service from devolving into a morass of negativity and bullying, a frequent outcome of services that allow people to talk about others, especially if they can do so anonymously. To avoid this, Peeple will require a Facebook account and authenticated phone number from raters.

Raters will also have a positivity score based on the ratio of positive (three or more stars) to negative ratings they give to others. And although positive ratings will post immediately, negative ratings (two stars or less) will be held for 48 hours so that people can “work it out.” I expect Peeple would then serve as an endorsement service: someone listed with a 4+ rating is presumed reputable, anyone else is damned by their absence or faint praise.

He points to the intrinsic problem with such systems.

People are both ratingphilic and ratingphobic. The app takes advantage of the fact that people love to rate and peruse the ratings of others. But people are uneasy when the tables turn and the ratings are about them. Even if Peeple survives the maelstrom of its launch, it is hard for such a service to succeed. Yelp is already “the Yelp” of businesses, Lulu is already the Yelp of dudes. In today’s crowded marketplace, a service typically has to succeed with a niche before hoping to expand: Peeple is taking on all personal ratings at the start.

Finally, if the site succeeds in its positive mission and manages to create an “online village of love and abundance for all,” would people bother? In my study of ratings at a amateur photography site, I found that it’s easy for ratings to slip into bland positivity (where everyone is above average, like the children of Lake Woebegone) or bullying negativity (a frequent outcome of comment platforms), with much manipulation in between. Will people collude to positively rate their friends? Will folks give five stars (to maintain their own positivity) while slighting someone in the prose comment? Or, perhaps haters will give 5-star ratings to folks they don’t even know just so they can give their enemies a single star while maintaining their positivity ratio.

College teachers were initially alarmed by the website Rate My Professor because suddenly the whole world would get to read what anonymous people were saying about their teaching (and even their looks!). But they got used to it and I rarely hear faculty complain about it anymore.

So after the initial interest where people look at how they themselves and the people they know are rated, most people will likely stop looking and Peeple may slowly fade into background noise. Unlike with rating the skills of electricians and plumbers and teachers, I suspect that most people think they are good judges of character and personality so why would they prefer the judgments of strangers over their own?

Comments

  1. EigenSprocketUK says

    This is fool-proof, because every ID on Facebook is guaranteed to be a real person.
    Hmmm. No, it’s definitely foolproof. Definitely.

  2. EigenSprocketUK says

    (And no-one ever gets snarky on Facebook, and no-one ever gets bullied through Facebook.) </sarcasm>

  3. lanir says

    There’s a very real possibility this will go nowhere at all. If no one near you adds anything to it, it will not be useful to you. Even if you add comments and ratings but no one else near you does, it will prove useless to you. Even if you get tired of this and badger your friends into adding reviews, it will be useless to you because they’re your friends and you could just ask them what they think of people (and if you really wanted to know, you probably already have). The only value this could have for people is getting their say in, seeing others vindicate their opinions, or if you’re very naive I suppose it could be a source of general information. The third utility depends on the first two so discount it for now. The second depends on many people buying into the first. And there’s not much reward for doing the work involved in the first unless other people do the same.

  4. says

    “Revenge porn” laws need an amendment to cover this. It should be legal to only rate willing participants. People whose names appear without permission should have the right to sue, and the company be held legally and financially responsible.

    Online bullying isn’t the only potential problem, lying is worse. For example, data farming companies will be more than happy to scour sites for lies like “John Smith 1 star – can’t be trusted, he didn’t pay back the money I loaned him”. Credit bureaus already put irrelevant and unrelated information into people’s records, worsening their credit ratings. Why wouldn’t they collect lies and act as if they were true?

  5. Who Cares says

    Some pushback?
    You got to be joking. The creators have been targeted by trolls in the same way that trolls would go after everyone else with that app. The only response so far can be be described as the whine “The app isn’t supposed to be use that way” while stomping their feet really hard.

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