After pillorying Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough for about a week, everyone promptly forgot about Peeple, the phone app that would allow you to rate human beings like you would restaurants on Yelp.
The app was initially slated to be released this month, but has now been delayed until mid-December to early January for the IPhone and mid-2016 for the Android.
According to these two developers, the data provided by their app about your personal, professional, and romantic lives by the anonymous masses would be a useful form of feedback. Unfortunately for them, the masses have spoken and they seemingly hate the idea of a people rating app.
The outcry against Peeple began when the Washington Post ran a story about the pair of entrepreneurs, describing the app as “inherently invasive, even when complementary.” Celebrities and activists who are, by now, used to dealing with social media harassment campaigns began speculating and the chaos that trolls might be able to wreak using the platform. For example, actress Jessica Blank points out that the app could be “truly dangerous to people w/ stalkers, harassment victims” and musician Gavin Dunne writes that the app will be used as “yet another tool to enable bullies.” An avalanche of negative ‘feedback’ including name-calling, slurs, and death threats directed towards Cordray and McCullough followed quickly on the heels of the story, prompting them to take down their Facebook and Twitter pages and their webpage (which is now back online but features nothing but a logo and a place to sign up for a mailing list).
The women quickly moved to re-brand, describing their product as “a POSITIVE ONLY APP” (capitalization theirs) in which “there is no way to even make negative comments “ because if a user doesn’t “explicitly say ‘approve recommendation,’ it will not be visible on our platform” (although this directly contradicts this earlier statement by Cordray: “it’s important to know the negative too. I wouldn’t want this app to just be positive… it would be pointless if it was all positive.”).
They also emphasized the built-in safe guards designed to protect against abuse such as the fact that users must be at least 21 years old and must post using their real names. Another of what the developers called “integrity features” originally floated by the team would only allow those who knew an individual’s private cell phone number the ability to create a profile on their behalf. Jamie Lutz at Bustle asks
How, exactly, were they planning on making that part of it work? It’s tough to say, because Cordray and McCullough haven’t actually released any technical information about it yet. I’m guessing, though, that the app in its previous incarnation — the one that drew so much ire last week — confirmed your identity as the owner of the cell phone number by sending you a text message asking you to confirm it. (Why they expected anyone to say “Yes, that is my phone number, please let a torrent of random people publicly criticize me now” is another story.) But maybe not; again, we don’t actually know, and we don’t know whether or not Peeple was actually meant to store the numbers it collected.
These planned safeguards will not protect those who are most vulnerable to abuse. After all, abusive ex-partners have access to their victim’s cellphone numbers and “doxxing” or stealing and publicizing someone’s private personal information (including, oftentimes, addresses and cell phone numbers) has become a common tactic of trolls and online harassers.
Furthermore, the ability to screen out negative ratings might come in handy for disposing with the occasional crank pot. But what will happen to the next Walter Palmer or Justine Sacco or Anita Sarkeesian who, for whatever reason, are targeted by a virtual mob? Will they be inundated with hundreds if not thousands of negative reviews that get routed straight to their cell phones? The app might prevent abusive comments from following them around online forever (at least on this particular platform), but they would also be forced to confront every single one of those comments as they came in. This would be akin to rolling out a red carpet for harassers: “Step right up and know that your target will definitely be directly exposed your most recent hateful screed!”
Furthermore, the identification safeguards operate on the assumption that the majority of the people out there conducting harassment campaigns are what we think of as stereotypical Internet nerds: cowardly teens and tweens who hide behind anonymous monikers. But research by Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Whitney Phillips, author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture shows that this is not necessarily the case. Instead, these writers posit, the rhetoric of trolling and abuse has become so normalized on the Internet that we are, in a sense, all of us trolls at one point or another. Phillips writes, “While trolling behaviors might fall on the extreme end of the cultural spectrum, the most exceptional thing about trolling is that it’s not very exceptional. It’s built from the same stuff as mainstream behaviors” such as the regular and sometimes brutal public shamings that take place on social media.
In fact, as Ronson describes, we are seemingly so used to the entertainment provided by these roastings that we start “to feel weird and empty when there wasn’t anyone to be furious about. The days between shamings felt like days picking at fingernails, treading water.” There is no mysterious evil anonymous mob that orchestrates online shamings, Ronson writes. Rather, “the powerful, crazy, cruel people were now us,” people of all ages and from all walks of life, and we felt free to harass and abuse using our own names and Facebook pages when we could feel the reassuring pressure of the rest of the mob at our backs.
There are some who suspect that Peeple is too bad an idea to be true, that the app’s unveiling might be an elaborate hoax. And indeed, the app is literally the stuff of science fiction, from Cory Doctorow’s futuristic society based on the reputational currency called Whuffie to the dystopian social order formed around a people-rating app Meow Meow Beanz on the sitcom Community.
If it is a hoax, then our collective, overwrought reaction to the app’s announcement is the perfect indication of why such a product would be a terrible idea. And if it is real, as the creators are insisting, then it looks as though its creators have a lot of re-tooling to do. Luckily, it looks like they have plenty of their beloved ‘feedback’ to guide them.
And now: John Oliver