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:
Dear whoever gave Peeple five million dollars Mean Girls on dvd is like five dollars & would’ve already taught you that this is a bad idea.
— Andrew Ferguson (@warandpeace) September 30, 2015
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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