The Danger of Believing That People Are "Genuinely Good"

Here’s what I was thinking as I watched Twitter thoroughly critique Peeple, a new app that promises to let people “rate” other people like restaurants on Yelp without any option to opt-out: If only all of us were still able to be so naive.

Personally, I’m far from the only person who thinks that Peeple sounds like Regina George’s Burn Book in digital form:

But Peeple’s founders have such rosy ideas about how their app is likely to be used that it’s making me wish I could hide under whatever rock they’ve been hiding under. You don’t even have to have faced online abuse to figure out that people are going to use an app like Peeple to make each other’s lives a living hell (and no, not deservedly). If you aren’t already familiar with how terrible this app is, Ana Mardoll did an excellent summary on Twitter starting here.

In the typical condescending and difficult-to-parse style of their social media posts, the founders claimed that “People are genuinely good even though Yelp has over 47 million reviews and all the users are anonymous and in that 47 million reviews there are 79% positive reviews.” Since it’s apparently not obvious, here’s the difference: most people have little incentive to trash a business on Yelp unless they really did have a pretty bad experience there. Even if they do trash a business on Yelp with no justification, though, it’s probably not going to be that big a deal. The business may lose some potential customers, which does suck, but chances are the unfair review will be overshadowed by more reasonable ones anyway.

When you’re rating people and not businesses, things change. First of all, it gets personal. People want to get back at their exes, abusers want to abuse, stalkers want to stalk. Second, one “bad review” on someone’s Peeple page can be enough to cost them their job, their family (if they get outed, for instance), their friends (if they get falsely accused of abuse by their actual abuser, which is a thing that abusers do). Women, people of color, and marginalized groups will inevitably get targeted by MRAs, Stormfront, or whatever the creepy stalker-y death threat-y regressive group du jour is. Bad reviews of businesses have typically gone viral because those businesses have acted in discriminatory or otherwise unfair ways, but people have gone viral for things as innocuous (and irrelevant to normal people who have shit to do besides stalking people they don’t like) as speaking at a feminist rally, being a bad date, or simply existing. I’m not going to link to examples, because that would perpetuate that abuse. Do some Googling if you don’t believe me.

The Peeple founders don’t seem to see it that way. Based on their posts, they seem to envision the app’s users as good citizen types who primarily want to use the app to bolster the reputations of people they like. Sometimes, of course, there may be bad reviews, but those are surely deserved, and if you think you don’t deserve your bad review, well, you can always just defend yourself in the court of public opinion, and certainly whoever is Objectively Right will prevail in the end. In another one of their bizarre Facebook posts, they write:

We have come so far as a society but in a digital world we are becoming so disconnected and lonely. You deserve better and to have more abundance, joy, and real authentic connections. You deserve to make better decisions with more information to protect your children and your biggest assets. You have worked so hard to get the reputation you have among the people that know you. As innovators we want to make your life better and have the opportunity to prove how great it feels to be loved by so many in a public space. We are a positivity app launching in November 2015. Whether you love us or our concept or not; we still welcome everyone to explore this online village of love and abundance for all.

A “positivity app”? In what universe? Not the one I’m living in.

I do, actually, believe that most people are generally trying to do the right thing. I get asked all the time how I could possibly believe that given what I see and what I write about, but I do and that’s a whole other article. But I also know that it only takes a few people with bad intentions to cause serious damage to others and to the world in general, and I also know how cognitive bias works. Maybe the disconnect between people like me and people like the ones who founded this app is that they think it would take some Hitler type to go on there and intentionally ruin someone’s life, but it really wouldn’t. All it takes is a man raised to believe that women owe him sexual access, or a jilted ex who doesn’t want anyone else to go through what they had to go through, or someone who’s under the mistaken impression that a coworker who messed up and caused the team’s project to fail deserves to never work in the field again. Someone who gets angry and says some things they later regret, only now it’s been screencapped and posted on 4chan along with the target’s credit card number and home address. Someone who believes that they’re saving countless unborn lives when they slander an abortion provider. Someone who thinks that feminists are so dangerous to the very fabric of society that they’d be justified to use any means, no matter how dishonest, to stop them.

It’s not like these things aren’t already happening. This would just make it even easier. And none of the safeguards that the Peeple founders are claiming to be implementing actually seem like they’d make much of a difference. For instance, they say that negative reviews won’t appear unless you claim your profile and thus allow them to show up, but someone could always just give you 10/10 stars and then write a bunch of shit about you. (And they don’t seem to understand that even positive reviews from total strangers, that you did not consent to have sent to your phone, can be ridiculously boundary-crossing and unwelcome. Haven’t either of them ever experienced street harassment?) They say that you have verify that you’re over 21, but nowhere do they say that you have to verify that your target is over 21. You can use this website to bully a child. They say that you have to use your Facebook profile to review people, as if that’s some sort of reassurance. I’ve seen rape threats from people whose full names were attached. They’re not afraid; they have institutional power behind them.

And that’s why I say it must be nice to be as naive as the Peeple founders apparently are. To not know this shit is going on? To not have to try every day to reconcile that with your belief that everyone has some good in them. To not live in fear of the day you piss off the wrong white man with an internet connection and plenty of spare time.

If Peeple is really going to be so “positive,” then why shouldn’t it be an opt-in service? Why wouldn’t everyone want to create a profile so that they can receive these wonderful compliments from their friends and lovers and that one random neighbor they talked to on the sidewalk once? I think on some level, the founders realize that they wouldn’t. They can’t make the app opt-in because then it’d never work. Most of us who’ve been around the online block have reacted to the whole thing with horror and revulsion. The only way the app’s creators can get it to work is by violating people’s consent and essentially forcing them to participate. I fail to see the “positivity” in that.

I get the urge to develop technological solutions to the problem of people being assholes. I really do. It would be great if we could never again date someone who sucks in bed, or hire a babysitter who plops the kids in front of the TV and then spends the rest of the night on Facebook, or befriend someone who will spill our secrets or take us for granted, or live with a roommate who never does their dishes. These things are at best annoyances and at worst serious life-fucking sorts of things.

But more surveillance of each other is not the solution. Heed the warnings of people who know what it is to be surveilled. Read 1984 if that’s what floats your boat. These tools will inevitably be used for abuse, and that’s not worth making sure that your next partner is good in bed.

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The Danger of Believing That People Are "Genuinely Good"
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27 thoughts on “The Danger of Believing That People Are "Genuinely Good"

  1. 2

    A lot of crummy businesses have no reviews, or just a couple of crummy ones, and a lot of good businesses have a zillion good reviews (people really like chiming in, for some reason). Moreover, many reviews that might read as quite critical have, say, three stars, which probably puts them on the “good” side for that statistic.

    I’m sure there’s abuse and sock-puppeting going on as well, but I don’t regard the given stat as especial proof of such a thing.

  2. 5

    I didn’t even really understand the concept of the app. Like I don’t understand how it’s supposed to be used in a good way.

    I supposed rating people professionally makes the most sense. Although unlike Yelp, you’re rating people as coworkers rather than as consumers. That’s a significantly different relationship, and flaws in the app and rating system could cost people hiring opportunities. It would be like a more awful, more judge-y version of LinkedIn.

    Rating people as friends makes no sense. That’s just a bizarre, inhuman thing to do. Relationships are fluid and often change. I don’t know even know what the use of it is supposed to be. If I meet someone, am I supposed to look them up on Peeple and see what their friends say about them? That sounds kind of like prying into their personal life, frankly. I suppose it could be used for a group of friends to like comment and be silly with each other, but literally every other social media does that without the guise of rating people.

    Rating people as romantic relationships makes less then zero sense. Most people are in exclusive relationships last I checked, and any romantic relationship is going to be either a current or ex-lover. Who would trust the word of an ex-lover about their ex? Could you imagine talking with your friends about your partner being like “Yea he/she’s a great lover you should try him/her out!” That doesn’t make any sense for the world we live in.

    And tying people to their phone numbers also sounds like an awful idea for this app. That could easily give abusers and scammers further ways to abuse and scam you in the real world.

  3. 6

    Canada’s going to have a lot more to apologize for than a few annoying self-entitled pop stars.

    For reals though, “You cannot opt out, we may reconsider this in the future.”

    What.

    The.

    Actual.

    Fuck.

  4. 7

    As the recent Snopes article uncovers the app has not been in development for more than two months at most, there is no info about the product itself, the team behind it are without programming skills and have no app development experience (not to mention them being virtually unknown until very recently), and there already was an unrelated product with the same name. The sudden media popularity (that is the result of a single article in WaPo) is another oddity.
    It seems that Peeple is either a hoax, a scam, a PR stunt or a supremely incompetent attempt to jump on the social media bubble and monetize an unfinished product (it’s highly unlikely that they’ll manage to finish it/go into open beta in November as they promise).

    Regardless, the idea of Peeple is reprehensible for all the reasons that you’ve said. One thing, though:

    And that’s why I say it must be nice to be as naive as the Peeple founders apparently are. To not know this shit is going on? To not have to try every day to reconcile that with your belief that everyone has some good in them. To not live in fear of the day you piss off the wrong white man with an internet connection and plenty of spare time.

    Peeple is the brainchild of two young women. I very much doubt that they don’t know about online harassment or stalking. It’s more likely that they don’t care, or may even be counting on it.

    1. 7.1

      AlexanderZ: I disagree. Plenty of women I’ve met who are relatively privileged and don’t spend much time on the Internet (and these two clearly haven’t until now) don’t know that it’s an issue, or they’re chill girl types who think it’s not really a problem.

    2. 7.2

      It seems that Peeple is either a hoax, a scam, a PR stunt or a supremely incompetent attempt to jump on the social media bubble and monetize an unfinished product

      I vote for all of the above.

  5. 9

    Folks, whether or not the app ever comes to fruition, the people involved are selling an idea. The Snopes link is irrelevant and somewhat condescending. People who are critiquing the idea of an app like Peeple aren’t being taken in. They are critiquing the actual product that is available right now.

  6. 10

    I guess I’m puzzled by what it means to rate people *just as people.* When a person operates in a commercial or professional capacity, they are rated at how their do their jobs. There’s Yelp, there are sites for rating medical professionals, professors; it’s clear what is being rated. The lack of an ‘opt in’ option for businesses is mostly that they are public and that people voluntarily go into business. I can see that being defended by accountability – if you can stop people from rating your repair service, then people can’t say that the toilet you ‘fixed’ kept leaking, or that money was paid for services which were never rendered. LinkedIn has an option where you can put skills and someone can endorse them, but I don’t see it having much in the way of free text options.

    So, what is a rating from Peeple even supposed to mean? The founders made some vague remarks about positivity, but if this is just some vague ‘so and so is really nifty’ why do they provide no opt-out, and why do unsolicited ratings from people become unwanted harassment through your phone?

    i also think that there’s something wrong about rating people. Businesses choose to be open and know they have a reputation. People who go into certain professions are making similar choices as professionals. But what did *anonymous person* to invite being rated with pretty much no limits?

    And don’t let the fact that anybody currently on the Peeple team doesn’t have programming skills lead anyone to a false sense of security. They can certainly find people who do have those skills.

    with malicious negative reviews, businesses are still driven by the bottom line. There is, eventually, a diminishing return on sockpuppet reviews that paint your competition as bad and yourself as good. But if it’s *personal* there’s really no limit to malice.

      1. Lulu is similarly bad, but even it is infinitely better than Sheeple since it only allows the user to place predetermined, non-offensive hashtags to describe a person.

        You’ll note that Lulu is intended for women and was invitation only. Something tells me that queequack is a brave Slymer.

      2. I’m just saying that Peeple really isn’t anything new. It’s not just Lulu, either. There’s a whole vanguard of phenomena that I’d identify as predecessors: Matt Binder’s Public Shaming tumblr, Nice Guys of OKCupid, the Twitter-based public humilations/two minute hates that occur with depressing regularity (and are carried out by people across the political spectrum). Yes, yes, you can leave positive reviews on Peeple (and Lulu), but it’s less the content than the form. I’d argue that social media has fostered a particularly nasty strain of entitlement – to scrutinize, to pass judgment, to violate someone’s privacy or even to disregard the concept of privacy altogether. And I think that’s what Peeple is, in part (and notwithstanding the sunny faux-optimistic boilerplate): an attempt to monetize this entitlement.

    1. 13.1

      Your comprehensive and thoughtful response has made me reconsider my position.

      But in case I wasn’t clear, yes, I think the main reason Peeple has earned the thundering disapproval of so many feminist types is because it could potentially be weaponized against women and progressives, as opposed to men and racists. It’s not like there haven’t been plenty of services for the denigration and public humiliation of the latter, many of them operated by feminist types themselves.

      1. SallyStrange, I ask that you don’t make these types of comments on this blog because they don’t contribute to the sort of discussion I’m interested in hosting.

        queequack, your comments often seem calculated to incite exactly the sort of comment SallyStrange made. Maybe it would be a good idea to think about how you come across on here and whether or not THAT contributes to a productive conversation any more than SallyStrange’s comment did.

  7. 15

    I think the main reason Peeple has earned the thundering disapproval of so many feminist types is because it could potentially be weaponized against women and progressives, as opposed to men and racists.

    What an outrageous concern that would be, given women get much more online, stalking and harassment abuse than men, and that racists are far more likely to be the perpetrators of harassment than the victims.

    But of course, Miri’s article covers this, so I’m not sure what your comments are intended to achieve, other than to have a swipe at feminism for some reason.

  8. 17

    […] “Bad reviews of businesses have typically gone viral because those businesses have acted in discriminatory or otherwise unfair ways, but people have gone viral for things as innocuous (and irrelevant to normal people who have shit to do besides stalking people they don’t like) as speaking at a feminist rally, being a bad date, or simply existing.” Read more. […]

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