See update below for more information about rumors that Peeple is a hoax, as well as the company’s cell-phone policy.
Journalists and others are understandably concerned about Peeple, the “Yelp for People” app scheduled to launch in late November. The basic idea, as Caitlin Dewey laid out in the Washington Post yesterday, is that the app will allow almost anyone to rate almost anyone as though they were a video game or restaurant, on a scale of 1 to 5 stars based on their knowledge of them in a professional, personal, or romantic context. Coming as it does at a time when people are very concerned about cyberbullying and online shaming, it’s no surprise that Dewey’s article has led to a wave of negative coverage.
Luckily, once the app launches there will be a very, very easy way to shield oneself from it, at least partially: Don’t sign up.
Before explaining why, it’s important to know the basic safeguards that will be in place. The app’s website is down at the moment, but the FAQs can still be read in a cached version from earlier today. To sign up for Peeple, users will need to have a Facebook account that’s been active for at least six months, a cell-phone number, and be at least 21 years old (though it’s unclear how age will be verified).
Peeple also claims there will be policies in place to remove ratings that include bullying or harassing comments and to ban their authors. Julia Cordray, a recruitment specialist and entrepreneur who co-founded Peeple with Nicole McCullough, told Science of Us that the app will use both human moderators and sentiment-analysis software to catch mean reviews before they go live, but she also left herself a lot of wiggle room. That’s the plan “[as] it stands today,” she said, “but that could change at any point.”
Most of the public concern over Peeple centers on the fact that you don’t have to join in order for someone to create a profile of you and rate you. A Peeple user can provide your name, a photo, and then rate you — they do have to include your cell-phone number so the app can notify you — and their rating and comments will be viewable by other Peeple users, despite the fact that you never agreed to be part of the platform. Reviews, which show up for a year, can’t be removed unless they constitute harassment or bullying — it says so right in the FAQ — though Cordray backtracked a bit and followed up with Dewey to say there would be an avenue to contest factually inaccurate ones. (It’s unclear how Peeple will check to make sure that a user provides an accurate cell-phone number when they want to create someone else’s profile, and this issue seems to introduce a catch-22. The most straightforward way would be to halt the creation of the profile until the recipient of the text message confirms it’s their number, but if this were the case then it wouldn’t be true that users can create others’ profiles without their permission, which would seem to conflict with what’s in the FAQ. If, on the other hand, there’s no check on the validity of the number, then there’d be no way to know whether the target of the newly created profile had actually been notified, which would also go against the FAQ. I emailed Cordray a follow-up question about this and will update this article if I hear back.)
Cordray confirmed that only reviews of three stars or higher will show up on the Peeple profiles of folks who haven’t opted in to the app. Anything lower will not. From there, though, things get a bit complicated. Whether a given review will post in the first place, and stay up on the site, seems to depend on a rather specific parsing of the site’s rules and as-yet-unreleased terms of service.
The confusion stems from the flexibility inherent in a three-star review. Three is right in the middle, after all, and can encompass a wide range of sentiments. I asked Cordray what would happen if someone left me a three-star review that simply said “Jesse is a jerk.” That would be deleted, she said — you can’t call people names. Okay, so what about a three-star review that read “Jesse is a pretty good guy, but he doesn’t always respect other people”? That, Cordray said, would be deemed acceptable. In other words: Anyone could post that, and boom, suddenly I have a Peeple profile with a three-star rating that indicates I have a bit of a respect problem — all without my having expressed any interest in participating in Peeple. It seems safe to say that unless reviews are very heavily moderated — at which point no one would use the site anyway — there will be plenty of room for people to leave unflattering three-star reviews without tripping themselves up on proscribed behaviors like bullying and harassment.
So for those who want nothing to do with Peeple, at the moment the answer seems simple: Just don’t sign up. Unfortunately, this won’t fully shield you from petty neighbors or angry exes leaving negative three-star reviews that are viewable by other Peeple users, but it will prevent anyone from leaving lower reviews than that — and, importantly, according to the site’s FAQ, reviews left on unclaimed profiles won’t be shareable on social media.
The underlying problem here is that a deep naïveté about the realities of the online world seems to run through the heart of Peeple. Take this FAQ item, for example:
Can I put the link to my professional profile or personal profile on my resume?
Yes. In fact we highly recommend it. This is a great way to get ahead of other candidates and show off how amazing you are professionally and personally to recruiters and hiring managers or anyone that wants you as a volunteer.
The notion that a recruiter would be impressed by your high rating on some app can help explain some of the other ideas Cordray expressed to me. When we dug into the process of contesting negative comments, for example, she highlighted the fact that there’s a 48-hour lag between when a negative review is posted and when it goes live — a span during which the recipient of the rating can contact the rater and try to smooth things over.
Cordray laid out a pretty idealistic view of how this process will work. “You have 48 hours to face that person and message with them to work it out,” she explained. “So if for some reason you cannot change their mind on how they feel about you, then the comment goes live after 48 hours, and you can publicly defend yourself. You can say, ‘I did my best for you. I offered you these solutions, and I’m sorry that’s not enough for you, and I wish you the best.’” She said that in this case the rater leaving the negative review would clearly look like the worse person in the eyes of the public.
But this idea — Does John Smith suck, or doesn’t he? Let’s air this debate publicly and let both sides weigh in! — just doesn’t jibe with anything we know about the dark side of human behavior online. When things get heated and someone finds him or herself the target of a mass-shaming or harassment campaign, no one is watching the fray and carefully taking notes on who is comporting him or herself with more dignity or fairness. These episodes take on a life of their own, and things quickly escalate out of control. Users dedicated to slamming someone on Peeple will find a way to leave nasty comments that aren’t nasty enough to get spiked (assuming, of course, that Peeple does an aggressive moderating job in the first place).
Cordray seemed to have a lot of faith in the power of online reputations altering users’ behavior for the better. “We have so many integrity features built in, and so many checks and balances to ensure that people are accountable, they’re credible, they’re thoughtful, and they’re ultimately responsible for the way they act within this app,” she insisted. For example, users will have a “positivity rating” that displays the average rating they give to others, which Cordray said will make it clear who the haters are. “So if you are a person just running around the app leaving negative reviews, you’ll no longer be considered credible to other users.”
But won’t the haters either not care or find ways to game their positivity rating by leaving random five-star reviews? And yes, it’s true that the six-month restriction will make it harder for random harassers to sign up for Peeple without having their harassment tied to their real name, but given that we live in a world in which people are willing to make multiple Twitter, Facebook, and other accounts simply to harass people in obnoxious, public ways, what reason is there to think that people will suddenly be desperately concerned with their reputation on Peeple? Why won’t trolls just create new Facebook profiles right now, wait until they hit the six-month mark, and then sign up?
Finally, it’s worth noting that even though Peeple touts the fact that there won’t be a straightforward way to remove negative reviews, the app doesn’t seem to be embracing this ideal of transparency quite so tightly when it comes to its own image. Peeple is deleting some of the negative comments from its Facebook page, which is currently getting shellacked with a wave of angry sentiment. The author of this comment, for example, confirmed via Twitter DM that her comment had been deleted:
It will be interesting to see how Peeple evolves from here. It seems unlikely, based on reading the coverage that’s emerged in the last day, that the app can survive public scrutiny without making major changes. But for now, based on what we know about Peeple, the incentives for potential users point screamingly in one clear direction: Don’t sign up. Maybe that says something about the underlying premise.
Lainna Fader contributed reporting.
UPDATE: Yesterday, a few people on Twitter suggested that Peeple is a hoax, and Kim LaCapria of Snopes wrote a piece highlighting just how tiny and recent an online footprint the app has. One possibility LaCapria raised is that Peeple is less a full-blown app-in-progress and more a means of promoting a reality web series about the app’s development, which Cordray and McCullough feature on their website ForThePeeple.com (currently down again).
I called Cordray back and she insisted that the project is very real. She said that while beta testing hadn’t started yet, the site has been receiving thousands of sign-ups and she’s confident in the late-November launch date. “We’ve built out all of the visual design, all of the back end,” she said. “We just have a couple more tweaks to make, and then we’ll be launching in November.” She gave me the name of the software-development company she and McCullough are working with. It’s a real, established mobile app firm, and I sent an email last night to see if the company will confirm its involvement in the project (it doesn’t seem like a good idea to drag the company’s name into this until one of its employees responds).
I also followed up with Cordray on the question of how Peeple will be validating the cell-phone numbers of new profiles created by users other than the owner of that profile. She explained, “Anybody that starts a profile on you will have to use your cell phone, which most likely they already have in your phone book. And they have to know you, and they have to know that you’re 21 or older, and they have to agree that you are.” The app will only let you add someone’s profile, in fact, if you have their name and number listed in your phone’s contacts.
But when I asked her about fake numbers, Cordray openly admitted that one could simply add a made-up phone number to their contacts and then Peeple would let them create a profile for whomever they associated with that number (she said she didn’t get why anyone would do this). In other words, Julia Cordray could add a “Jesse Singal” contact to her phone, type in a number at random, and then create my Peeple profile. While it’s true that until I opted in my profile would only show reviews of three stars or higher, based on what Cordray is saying there’d be no way for me to even know I had an active Peeple profile at all, and that users were rating me there. After all, the app would have sent the confirmation text to a random phone number.