A new "Yelp for people" app is potentially the biggest disaster on the Internet. It could ruin reputations, cost people their jobs, and destroy relationships. It could become a platform for hatred and cyber-bullying. Or, it could be all smiles and happy dances. You decide.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

October 2, 2015

6 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thumbs_signal#/media/File:Disapprove.jpg" target="_blank">sudoneighm</a> via Wikipedia)</p>

Google's Android Event: Pixel Tablet, Served With Marshmallow

Google's Android Event: Pixel Tablet, Served With Marshmallow

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It has been dubbed "slander-as-a-service" and "the most odious creation of the Internet so far." It is Peeple, the upcoming app that bills itself as "Yelp for people." Not surprisingly, anything that lets you "rate people" is going to get quite the reaction. There's every reason to hate it, and yet, it is so strangely 1950s Mayberry and Leave It to Beaver quaint in its beliefs that it is almost sweet.

(Editor's Note: At the time of this posting, the link to the Peeple home page http://forthepeeple.com/ was experiencing intermittent outages. We received no response to repeated attempts to contact the site's operators.)

Basically, Peeple lets you rate people from 1 to 5 stars on three different aspects of their character: romantic, professional, and personal. For now, let's skip the fact that those are very vague terms. You can leave a review of the person as well. Here's the scary part: You can review a person whether they are a member of Peeple or not, and they can't take down your review. At best they can comment on it.

[Stop! Don't take that new job until you get these questions answered.]

"People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions," said Julia Cordray, one of the app’s founders in an interview in this article, "Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?"

True, but when you read a car review, you're reading opinions about an inanimate object that is being marketed by a company. Unlike a car, I'm a human. I have feelings. I may or may not be trying to sell myself to anyone. If I do, I choose to whom I am selling.

There are major issues with Peeple, including:

  • There is no opt-out option at all. If someone rates you, you are in the system. At best, you can comment on the negative review. I can see it now, "Dave is good writer but a terrible kisser. I give him 2 stars." My only recourse is to say, "I got better at kissing, and I'm still a good writer."

  • There is no fact-checking. I am a darn good kisser! Seriously, you can basically say what you want as long as you swear you know the person.

  • Internet reviews are horrible. When do you see a restaurant called anything but "best place ever" or "like eating in the darkest pit of hell"?

  • There is no recourse for mistaken identity. Even if you assume all people are honest and fair (have you seen Twitter?), what keeps someone from confusing the good-writing David Wagner and the bad-writing David Wagner? It is such a common name, I'm constantly confused for an IT professor with the same name. Bad enough we slander people, but if we slander the wrong person there is no say to say "hey, it wasn't me."

There is a 48-hour review process where people who are being rated are allowed to contact the person rating them and convince them to change the review and/or bribe them and/or beg them not to ruin their lives.

Basically, this app gives someone the chance to ruin anyone's life at any time without any recourse whatsoever. The app will, if you rate too many people too low, rate you as a bad person, too. But seriously, there is little danger of this, considering how easy it is to assume an online identity.

Yet I see some positives here as well.

We all make mistakes in our relationships, especially our romantic ones. What if Peeple becomes the way to make amends? What if you really did wrong to someone in the past, and that was revealed on Peeple? Aren't there people in your life you wish you could apologize to, but you don't know how to reach? Peeple might just be a positive force for change, the great social media apology site.

There is also a practical and real problem of the 21st century to solve here. We live in a world where we interact with strangers on a daily basis. We no longer live in the small town or cozy neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else. When you meet a person at a bar or on Tinder or anywhere else, basically the only ways you have to judge whether that person is safe to go out with (or trust to babysit your children or hire to bring into your office) are by their looks and other trivial aspects. You look at them and think, "Well, they seem OK."

Is that the way we want to live? Do we go out on dates with the men who wear suits, but not the ones who wear jeans? The ones who shave, but not the scruffy ones? That attitude is shallow and dangerous. Bad people (not to mention rapists, muggers, or people who shoot up offices) can dress nicely and act nicely.

If you are a nice person who treats others well, wouldn't you want it known to the other people in the bar? Wouldn't you like your "treats people with respect" 5-star rating tattooed on your forehead? Wouldn't the other people in the bar like to gravitate to that person for a date or for friendship? Wouldn't you rather avoid the person who doesn't have that 5-star rating?

In the "good old days," everyone in the bar knew who the "wrong people" were, because everyone in a neighborhood knew each other. We have replaced that knowledge, essentially, with snap judgments, intuition, blind trust, and sometimes prejudice. What Peeple does, intentionally or not, is return to local knowledge regardless of the locale.

In other words, it is possible this will save as many lives as it ruins. What if you could look up the Peeple score of your Uber driver before you got in his or her car?

In fact, the people behind Peeple seem really well meaning, naively so. This is the company's response to the criticism it has received:

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.

I'm willing to take Peeple at its word. Instead of branding this thing as the worst invention of a terrible Internet, let's talk about how to fix it before it is too late. The app isn't out until November. The founders have a chance to fix slander-as-a-service and make it social justice-as-a-service, but only if they make key changes to privacy policies.

What they got wrong is the naïve idea that people who have nothing to hide don't mind advertising the fact. It is like defending surveillance laws by saying, "I've got nothing to hide." That shouldn't be how it works.

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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