This week, the entire Internet went apoplectic over an app that doesn't exist yet. The soon-to-launch app, Peeple, will allow members to give star ratings and reviews to people they know, just as one might elsewhere rate a restaurant or hotel. The founders, Julie Cordray and Nicole McCullough, say the app will ask for "professional, personal, and romantic" ratings of people. Outraged pieces about Peeple have called it "creepy," and "terrifying" and, because you cannot choose to opt out, an assault on privacy. The lawyer and free speech blogger Ken White lambasted it as "the human condition: reduced to one to five stars and a blurb."
No one has actually used the app yet. They are outraged over the idea of the app, and the rather callous FAQ on the Forthepeeple.com website, which explain that negative reviews will only remain on the site for a year because "we know you can grow and change for the better." The only screenshot of the app we've seen is in the company's official Facebook profile photo (also included above) where founder Cordray holds out a phone showing a Peeple review of a guy named Steve Rogers. (It's a blurry shot but he got 3.5 stars; it looks like he rated high professionally and personally, but low romantically.)
But here's the thing, we rate people all the time. We review doctors on Yelp and teachers on RateMyProfessor. We rate our drivers on Uber, shoppers on Instacart, sellers on eBay and even how hot our potential dates are on OkCupid. Ratings are key to whatWired's Jason Tanz last year argued is a bold "new era of Internet-enabled intimacy" that fueled the growth of the on-demand economy, letting us abandon our fears of hopping into strangers' cars and handing the keys of our house over to someone we've never met before. Ratings are part of how we trust.
It is hard to argue that reviews are not helpful when navigating the world. I, for one, would like more of them. I want Yelp for OkCupid, so I can avoid dating that creepy guy who secretly dates a dozen women at a time.
There are a lot of problems with Peeple. Users can't opt out or delete themselves from the site once they've joined. And while you can dispute negative reviews, you can only actually view reviews if you join. Inevitably, some people will use it to harass. And you might make the case that while companies like Uber rely on rating people, in those case we're just rating a single, relevant behavior like how they drive.
There is definitely something unsettling about the idea of pulling up a profile for someone you know and deciding whether they warrant four or five stars. There's an inherent danger in that kind of data: what does a three-star rating really mean? Was it given to a person by a qualified reviewer or by someone who barely knows him or her? And bad or bogus reviews can have serious consequences, especially, as many an Uber driver has discovered, when undiscerning reviewers don't understand the impact of their review.
But just imagine integrating something like Peeple with Tinder or Craigslist or LinkedIn. I want to be able to meet my right swipe for a drink or select a new roommate without fear of some terrifying unknown. Imagine the freedom of always feeling like it's okay to trust, of having some kind of assurance built into every interaction with a stranger.
"Peeple will enhance your online reputation for access to better quality networks, top job opportunities, and promote more informed decision making about people," Peeple's website tells us.
Peeple is probably not going to be the startup that figures out how to make our reputations easily searchable online. It's tried to erect safeguards against bad behavior, like banning anonymity, giving users 48 hours to dispute negative reviews before posting them and only allowing positive posts about people who have not signed up. But sites with a similar purpose that have launched before (and caused similar outrage) have hit roadblocks. Lulu, a site that launched in 2013 with the promise to make dating better for women by allowing them to review their dates, was eventually forced to allow men to opt out, and now includes ratings only for men who opt in. It never really caught on as more than a fun party trick.
But we are barreling toward a future where we use third-party data to assess people in all modes of life. Algorithms can already help us figure out how to phrase an e-mail based on a person's personality or use facial recognition to tell us who we might like to date. Being able to know someone we don't really know is seemingly something we humans desperately want.
Like it or not, we live in a reputation economy. Our driving and hosting are already rated. That our personalities and "romantic-ness" will be too is not only useful, it's inevitable.