Five months after Peeple caused international outrage over its plans to become a “Yelp for People,” the much-maligned app is set to launch in the App Store on Monday. In an email to its mailing list on Thursday, Peeple assured users that the main criticisms of the app have been taken into account and its functionality adjusted accordingly. Specifically, users, who can rate people in three categories—professional, personal and dating—will have complete control over what goes on their profile, no one will be able to add anyone else to the app (although you can invite others to join), you can deactivate your profile and there will be no star ratings. In that email and on its website, Peeple stated, “We are a concept that has never been done before in a digital space. We want character to be a new form of currency. Peeple will provide you a safe place to manage your online reputation while protecting your greatest assets by making better decisions about the people around you.”
In listing its offerings on its site, the app boasts that it will help “build positive relationships” by letting users “boost up the people you know and form stronger relationships by having a 2 way communication system based on feedback and recommendations.” The rest of its messaging is similarly focused on the supposed benefits the app will offer.
I’m not so naïve to think that such an app won’t provide trolls with the opportunity to bombard users with an onslaught of hate. Sure, Peeple has now made it so that you can control what goes up on your profile, but you’ll still see those messages—as Peeple has amply learned firsthand. The app recently asked on Facebook “What do you say to your haters?” The post was accompanied by a screenshot of a message they’d received saying “Go f—k yourself” to which they’d responded “Go love yourself.”
Which raises the question: why would anyone voluntarily sign up for yet another forum where they are asking to be validated by the masses? By requiring Facebook and phone number verification, Peeple is trying to ensure that only those who actually know us are leaving us feedback, but in the online world, “knowing” is a broad term. I interact with potentially thousands of people in my social media channels that I don’t know personally. They are of course welcome to leave comments on my articles or respond go to my social media already. I don’t need another outlet for people I know (or “know”) to appraise me.
While giving users the opportunity to approve all content that goes on their profile does assuage one of the most widespread criticisms of the app’s first iteration—that people could hate on each other without recourse—that won’t always be the case. Peeple co-creator Julia Corddray told The Calgary Herald that the free app plans to implement a paid “truth license” that would allow anyone to see all reviews of them, even if they weren’t approved by the user. She said, “If a mom wants to look up a coach for her kids, she can see all the amazing things on that person’s profile, but maybe there’s some areas of improvement for that person. So when the mom upgrades to the truth license, she’ll be able to see all the recommendations on the back-end that the coach never published on their profile.” In other words, the claim in their FAQ in resonse to “What happens if someone sends me a negative recommendation?” that “Recommendations never go live without your permission. You can delete any recommendation from your inbox” doesn’t actually mean that that feedback will remain unseen. The user can delete it, but can’t, apparently, prevent it from being accessed by those willing to pad Peeple’s pockets to download the license.
Even if they got rid of the “truth license,” then they’d have created another problem: any messages that are approved are likely to be overly glowing. After all, who’s really going to accept a comment that, even if true, says something like, “Arrived at date reeking of alcohol” or “Always forgets my birthday” or “Doesn’t know how to run a meeting?” Probably nobody. So if all we’re going to get are the kinds of statements that read like we wrote them ourselves, what’s the point?
Setting aside the potential that still exists for haters, trolls and abuse, even if we lived in Peeple’s utopia and the app were only used to offer genuinely thoughtful, positive recommendations, we should be asking ourselves why we need this kind of external validation. It’s one thing for LinkedIn to have recommendations that employers can use to help evaluate candidates, but what is it saying about our culture that the app’s founders think we need to be recommended as humans regarding our everyday actions? Shouldn’t decency, kindness and friendliness be things we do simply because they reflect the kind of people we want to be, rather than something that has to be quantified?
When the app was first announced, blogger Harry T. Dyer wrote, “In Peeple, we will literally be treated as objects, as commodities, and ranked on our pros and cons. The agency will be removed for the person being ranked and rated; instead, they will become non-agentic – unable to act and make a choice. They are literally being acted upon, they are being judged against subjective opinion. The subjective opinion of others that you have encountered becomes an object that is used to rank you and rate you.”
Even with the new supposed safeguards in place, the specter of a world where formalized “reviews” are valued more highly than actual human interaction, is a sad commentary on how we communicate. Especially for an app named Peeple, there’s something deeply impersonal about the idea that we would actively court such recommendations, holding them up as a tribute to our true selves. I don’t need the friend whose baby I just visited to tell me via an app that she appreciates my feeding pears to her child. If I were single, I wouldn't want my dates chiming in when they got home and rating my outfit and conversation. Similarly, if I’ve wronged or neglected someone in my life, I’d rather they tell me upfront than via their electronic device.
I’d be similarly wary of someone who sent me a link to their Peeple profile as “proof” that they’re a good friend (or date or worker). Just because we’re in a world of 24/7 connectedness doesn’t mean we should be foisting off even more of our lives onto technology. How about, instead of inputting your kudos into your iPhone, you tell someone directly. You can even email them. I can guarantee that will mean a hell of a lot more to the recipient than even the most glowing testimonial on Peeple.
On its site, Peeple states that “There are endless reasons as to why we would want this reference check for the people around us.” But for the same reasons I don’t want to make a new best friend via an app, I don’t believe that such a “reference check” can ever do justice to who we are as actual, complex people.
I’m not against technology—I love it and it’s my primary means of conducting business and keeping up with friendships. But there are also limits to technology that Peeple’s founders don’t seem to understand. You can care about your reputation, online and off, without relying on the extremely sketchy, potentially harmful, means of an app like this. I agree with Peeple that “character” is a form of currency, but I strongly disagree that they’ve got the solution.
In her forthcoming essay collection “Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You in School),” Sara Benincasa advocates creating an “executive board” for your own personal development, similar to the kinds businesses form. She writes, “The board members should be people you trust. They should have sharp minds, good hearts, and a generosity of spirit. They may not all agree with one another, which is absolutely fine. Your aim in selecting them is to get a variety of perspectives on your life from people who are invested in your well-being but who can remain clear-eyed enough to give you a logical evaluation.” In other words, use the revolutionary act of talking directly to people you know to find out the kinds of things that Peeple users would rate you on.
We’re already constantly told that we should be measuring ourselves online—often with numbers, such as with Klout scores, or followers, or engagement. We’re inundated with ways to compare ourselves to others and offer ourselves up to be ranked and rated. Peeple is doing it with words, but it still boils down to the same thing: asking for and encouraging us to judge each other, and rely on those results to inform how we live our lives. The backlash against Peeple was strong last fall for a good reason, and while they’ve been good at going viral, which they seem especially proud of, I hope that we can find ways of assessing ourselves in the personal and professional arenas that aren’t so artificial or rife with potential pitfalls. Peeple is free, but you know what’s also free? Asking those whose opinions you care about how you could be a better friend, date or employee. It may mean making yourself more vulnerable, but the answers you’ll get are going to be far more valuable than those passed through the filter of an app like this.