UPDATE 3/7/2016: Peeple has launched, with a new paid “truth license” that allows you to read hidden reviews to come soon. You can read my latest take here.
I work in social media. It is part of my job to stay up-to-date on the myriad new social networks that spring up like weeds every day. Some of them grow and evolve steadily like the cool, quirky nerd This.cm. Some inspire mobs of loathing and debate like the new mean girl on the block Peeple. Within a few hours of the Washington Post covering Peeple—a distinctly “what is the world coming to” app that allows you to rate and review people the way you would a restaurant—my Twitter feed was tearing it to shreds, and for good reason. Peeple is so riddled with flaws that you would think its creators had never experienced the Internet before… which they may not have, judging by their lack of familiarity with Twitter. But while Twitter was mocking Peeple and pointing out its similarity to a certain Community plot line, I was thinking about something very simple: how Peeple has the potential to ruin my life, if allowed to exist.
Allow me to explain. Peeple relies on a basic principle. It is a so-called “Yelp for people.” Anyone who knows your cellphone number—a proxy for anyone who comes in contact with you in daily life, either as your partner, your friend, or your coworker—has the ability to create a profile for you on the app and rate you on a scale of 1 to 10… and write reviews, also known comments. A negative review will be held for moderation and will not go live without your—the subject’s—approval. A positive review will go live automatically. Logistically, this means that a “positive” review of you will go live regardless of your consent, and your profile will be created automatically. The founders of Peeple have no plans to create an opt-out setting at this time, meaning that you, the user being reviewed, have no control over whether or not your profile will exist.
There are a bunch of possible alarming scenarios in which this technology can be abused. What if you’re not publicly “out” as anything other than straight, and your ex writes a positive review outing your sexual or gender identity to your co-workers? What if you’ve changed your name to avoid an ex who still has your number, and they use the app to find your new identity and stalk you? What if you expose the harassment of one of your superiors at work and they use this app to get revenge by sullying your reputation?
Okay, yes, negative reviews will never go online if you never activate your account. But a second feature of the app sends a notification to your cellphone that a review of you has been posted… regardless of your participation in the app.
Here was what I heard as I read the Washington Post’s coverage of Peeple: my ex-boyfriend has my cellphone number. We haven’t spoken in years, and I have blocked him from my Facebook, but I have no way of knowing if he deleted my contact information from his phone. If he didn’t, he could feasibly review me on Peeple once it launches. He could even write a positive review of me if he felt so inclined. Peeple would make it clear who is reviewing me, as it would link to his Facebook profile, but we have no way of knowing if Peeple will block users who I have already blocked from viewing me on Facebook… because I have not already opted in on the service, so they wouldn’t know this information.
Here’s the other thing: my ex doesn’t have to write a negative review to make my life a living hell. It’s not even that him getting in contact with me, him reviewing me and having that notification from him sent to my phone, would be terrifying, which it absolutely would. No—all he has to do is create my profile, and then the Internet will do the rest. All it takes is one Men’s Rights Activist discovering the BuzzFeed profile about me and then searching me on Peeple… the way they do from time to time on Twitter. And while I can block abuse on Twitter, while I can subscribe to block lists on Twitter, we know next to nothing about Peeple’s anti-abuse mechanisms other than that you can report complaints of bullying. All it takes is for my ex to create a profile for me, or even one of his friends who he gives my number to, and a horde of abusers in online communities can send an avalanche of terror directly to my cellphone.
I’m not upset by the idea of negative reviews being posted about me on the Internet. I write about having herpes publically—I could not care less about my “reputation.” What I care about is having my one private means of communication, my cellphone, used against me, all because I fell in love with a dangerous man when I was twenty years old. If the Internet at large is allowed to send hatred and bile to my cellphone via text notification without my consent, I will never feel safe again as long as I own a cellphone.
We could talk for a long time about the good an app like Peeple could do. Its creators seem hell bent on promoting how it allows you to prove your wonderful reputation by collecting glowing compliments from people in your network, like an extended LinkedIn but with more validation of your feelings. Peeple calls to mind Lulu, an app created a few years ago that in theory allowed women to write reviews of the men they dated. As a survivor of abuse and someone who has encountered plenty of harassment from men, I constantly wish there were some way to warn other women not to get involved with certain individuals. But there is no way to “hack” the existence of shitty people. We cannot create an app to expose abusive people because that app becomes a powerful tool in the hands of abusers themselves to terrorize and delegitimize the very individuals who would out them. They don’t even have to do the terrorizing themselves—they just have to set up the profile.
Peeple is irresponsible, clueless and tone-deaf technology at its worst. I can only hope it gets rejected from the Apple App Store, or faces such a backlash that the creators fold. Creators who, in a predictable display of Internet karma, are now facing a horrendous backlash on Twitter for their scummy, unapologetic response to criticism. Do you see why ranking people on the Internet is a bad idea now, Team Peeple? Do you?
— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) October 1, 2015