So, it has finally launched, the app that some of us thought was a sick joke. That’s right, Peeple — the so-called ‘Yelp for people’ — was officially opened to the American public via Apple’s App Store on Monday March 7, 2016. Even though it went through a barrage of controversy, numerous wrangles with Apple over Facebook integration, and an unfortunate mix-up with another company named Peeple, it’s finally been unleashed on the world. At the moment, the now-notorious ability it provides to rate the worth of another human being has been diluted somewhat, with the app ditching star ratings in favor of recommendations and moving to an opt-in model that allows a person to have a profile only with their consent.
Unfortunately, irrespective of these concessions to its critics, the critics still remain. On Twitter, users posting under the hashtag #PeepleApp bemoaned the scope it still allows for bullying and various other cyber-abuses. One protester wrote, “#PeepleApp is a dangerous tool that will be misused,” while another declared, “The lawsuits after #suicides will say #peepleapp knew the risk & didn’t care.” Without a doubt, their concerns are genuine and well-founded, if only because the makers of the app plan to release an update permitting subscribers to view the “negative recommendations” of every other user (even those who specify that they don’t want their negative recommendations to be seen).
Still, even if they’re genuine and well-founded, these concerns are a little misplaced. Not so much in the sense that Peeple doesn’t warrant a measure of sobriety and caution, but in the sense that, despite its apparent novelty, the app is in fact little more than a very naked expression of what the internet and social media already allow people to do. Despite having other self-proclaimed uses related to ‘connecting’ individuals together, sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are already caught up in the worldwide project of recommending and rating people, via the millions of likes, ‘dislikes,’ comments, replies, favorites, endorsements and retweets it enables us to throw at each other. They might not permit a direct evaluation of another human being like Peeple does, but nonetheless they facilitate a whole range of indirect evaluations, licensing us to evaluate shared information as a proxy for evaluating the people who share it.
For instance, the number of friends, likes, retweets or followers an individual accumulates on social media has itself become a modern-day means of appraising and assessing people. As corroborated in a 2011 study conducted by researchers at Kent State University, the number of friends users have on Facebook has an effect on their reported well-being, suggesting that this number is taken by the corresponding user as a validation and recommendation of their own person. Conversely, a 2014 article published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that the number of friends a person has on Facebook influences how other people view them, in the sense that popular Facebookers “were perceived to be more socially and physically attractive, extroverted and approachable than unpopular targets.”
These papers strongly indicate that social media already functions as a more discreet, less uncouth version of Peeple, as a virtual space where human beings are subtly assigned value and worth. Yet quite apart from the positive recommendations it disguises and dispenses, there’s also plenty of evidence to the effect that it’s guilty of the negativity commentators think will be prevalent on the new people-rating app. On Twitter, to take an example other than Facebook, there are the infamous trolls who deride everyone from Stephen Fry to female journalists, as well as countless less famous individuals (and, fittingly enough, the makers of Peeple themselves). Here, harsh ‘ratings’ and judgements are hurled at people with wilful abandon, often smearing them with negative associations and potentially damaging their reputations, as can be witnessed in the innumerable ‘Twitter feuds‘ that now mark the virtual landscape, or in the rare suicide that follows a course of bullying on Facebook.
Even when the criticism is less unjustified and malicious, it can still be harmful or perhaps even more harmful to its target, since it comes across as more reasonable and also can’t be removed by flagging it as abusive. This is what happened to Justine Sacco, the former PR consultant from New York who in 2013 tweeted an ill-considered joke about AIDS. As insensitive and offensive as the tweet was, the massive condemnatory response to it on Twitter ended up destroying her name and losing her job, since it effectively ‘rated’ her as a callous, racist individual.
On the smaller, everyday scale, a less dramatic retelling of her story happens more frequently on social media than is often appreciated, with a paper from 2011 showing that honesty and self-disclosure on Facebook by people with low self-esteem actually “[elicits] undesirable responses from other people.” While these undesirable judgements don’t amount to explicit recommendations or ratings à la Peeple, they still nonetheless have the consequence of framing Facebook users as less ‘worthy’ and likeable, something which the ‘Yelp for people’ alone is now being condemned for doing.
In other words, the evaluation and estimation of people was already one of the main draws of social media, as is manifested in how interpersonal comparisons on Facebook can result in lower or higher self-esteem depending on the direction of comparison. As such, it seems a tad shortsighted to single out Peeple as the “worst app ever,” since all it really does is distil social media down to its barest, most unflattering essence. Yes, it may take the worst aspects of social networking sites and heighten their potential to cause harm, but if you ask the right journalists and researchers, these sites are already causing enough harm as it is.
Perhaps this is precisely why its detractors are going after it, since its indiscretion has done a pretty good job of exposing the petty, seamy core that already resides at the heart of many of our online activities. It’s almost as if we want to rid ourselves of the disconcerting light it threatens to cast on our social-media lives, so that we can continue liking vanity photos and calling each other a “moron” with a clean conscience. Or perhaps it’s just that some of us dislike Peeple because we dislike social media in general, but we’re targeting Peeple alone because its fledgling status means that, unlike Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, it’s still vulnerable to our assaults. Maybe so, but even if these assaults are effective and it fades into obscurity, this won’t change the fact that we should be just as wary of the people-rating media that already exists.