The ter­ri­fy­ing ‘Yelp for peo­ple’ will show how you rate, whether you like it or not

The Washington Post Sunday - - THIS WEEK - CAITLIN DEWEY caitlin.dewey@wash­post.com

You can al­ready rate restau­rants, ho­tels, movies, col­lege classes, gov­ern­ment agen­cies and bowel move­ments online.

So the most sur­pris­ing thing about Peeple — ba­si­cally Yelp, but for hu­mans — may be that no one has had the gall to launch some­thing like it.

When the app does launch, prob­a­bly late next month, you will be able to as­sign re­views and one- to five-star rat­ings to ev­ery­one you know: your exes, your co-work­ers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out — once some­one puts your name in the Peeple sys­tem, it’s there un­less you vi­o­late the site’s terms of ser­vice. And you can’t delete bad or bi­ased re­views — that would de­feat the whole pur­pose.

Imag­ine ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion you’ve ever had sud­denly open to the scru­tiny of the In­ter­net public.

“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. “Why not do the same kind of re­search on other as­pects of your life?”

This is, in a nut­shell, Cor­dray’s pitch for the app — the one she has been mak­ing to de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies, pri­vate share­hold­ers and Sil­i­con Val­ley ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists. (As of Mon­day, the com­pany’s shares put its value at $7.6 mil­lion.)

A bub­bly, no-holds-barred “trendy lady” with a mar­ket­ing de­gree and two re­cruit­ing com­pa­nies, Cor­dray sees no rea­son you wouldn’t want to “show­case your char­ac­ter” online. Co-founder Ni­cole McCullough comes at the app from a dif­fer­ent an­gle: As a mother of two in an era when peo­ple don’t al­ways know their neigh­bors, she wanted some­thing to help her de­cide whom to trust with her kids.

Given the im­por­tance of those kinds of de­ci­sions, Peeple’s “in­tegrity fea­tures” are fairly rig­or­ous — as Cor­dray will re­as­sure you, in the most ve­he­ment terms, if you raise any con­cerns about sham­ing or bul­ly­ing on the ser­vice. To re­view some­one, you must be 21 and have an es­tab­lished Face­book ac­count, and you must make re­views un­der your real name.

You must also af­firm that you “know” the per­son in one of three cat­e­gories: per­sonal, pro­fes­sional or ro­man­tic. To add some­one to the data­base who has not been re­viewed be­fore, you must have that per­son’s phone num­ber. ( The app was orig­i­nally sup­posed to scrape names au­to­mat­i­cally from Face­book, but the site’s API wouldn’t al­low it — to Cor­dray’s an­noy­ance.)

Pos­i­tive rat­ings post im­me­di­ately; neg­a­tive rat­ings are queued in a pri­vate in­box for 48 hours in case of dis­putes. If you haven’t reg­is­tered for the site, and thus can’t con­test those neg­a­tive rat­ings, your pro­file shows only pos­i­tive re­views.

On top of that, Peeple has out­lawed a laun­dry list of bad be­hav­iors, in­clud­ing pro­fan­ity, sex­ism and men­tion of pri­vate health con­di­tions.

“As two em­pa­thetic, fe­male en­trepreneurs in the tech space, we want to spread love and pos­i­tiv­ity,” Cor­dray stressed. “We want to op­er­ate with thought­ful­ness.”

Un­for­tu­nately for the mil­lions of peo­ple who could soon find them­selves the un­will­ing sub­jects — make that ob­jects — of Cor­dray’s app, her thoughts do not ap­pear to have shed light on cer­tain crit­i­cal is­sues, such as con­sent and bias and ac­cu­racy and the fun­da­men­tal wrong­ness of as­sign­ing a num­ber value to a per­son.

To bor­row from the tech­nol­o­gist and philoso­pher Jaron Lanier, Peeple is in­dica­tive of a sort of tech­nol­ogy that val­ues “the in­for­ma­tion con­tent of the web over in­di­vid­u­als”; it’s so ob­sessed with the per­ceived magic of crowd­sourced data that it fails to see the harms to or­di­nary peo­ple.

Where to even be­gin with those harms? There’s no way such a rat­ing could ever ac­cu­rately re­flect the per­son in ques­tion: Even putting is­sues of per­son­al­ity and sub­jec­tiv­ity aside, all rat­ing apps, from Yelp to RateMy Pro­fes­sor, have a demon­strated prob­lem with self-se­lec­tion. (The only peo­ple who leave re­views are the ones who love or hate the sub­ject.) In fact, as re­peat stud­ies of RateMy Pro­fes­sor have shown, rat­ings typ­i­cally re­flect the bi­ases of the re­viewer more than they do the ac­tual skills of the teacher: On RMP, pro­fes­sors whom stu­dents con­sider at­trac­tive are way more likely to be given high rat­ings, and men and women are eval­u­ated on to­tally dif­fer­ent traits.

“Sum­ma­tive stu­dent rat­ings do not look di­rectly or cleanly at the work be­ing done,” the aca­demic Ed­ward Nuh­fer wrote in 2010. “They are mix­tures of af­fec­tive feel­ings and learn­ing.”

But at least stu­dent rat­ings have some log­i­cal and eco­nomic ba­sis: You paid thou­sands of dol­lars to take that class, so you’re jus­ti­fied and qual­i­fied to eval­u­ate the trans­ac­tion. Peeple sug­gests a model in which ev­ery­one is jus­ti­fied in pub­licly eval­u­at­ing ev­ery­one they en­counter, re­gard­less of their ex­act re­la­tion­ship.

It’s in­her­ently in­va­sive, even when com­pli­men­tary. And it’s ob­jec­ti­fy­ing and re­duc­tive in the man­ner of all online re­views. One does not have to stretch far to imag­ine the dis­tress and anx­i­ety that such a sys­tem would cause even a slightly self-con­scious per­son; it’s not merely the anx­i­ety of be­ing ha­rassed or maligned on the plat­form, but of be­ing watched and judged, at all times, by an ob­jec­ti­fy­ing gaze to which you did not con­sent.

Where once you may have viewed a date or a teacher con­fer­ence as a pri­vate en­counter, Peeple trans­forms it into a rad­i­cally public per­for­mance: Ev­ery­thing you do can be judged, pub­li­cized, recorded.

“That’s feed­back for you!” Cor­dray en­thuses. “You can re­ally use it to your ad­van­tage.”

That jus­ti­fi­ca­tion hasn’t worked out so well, though, for

JU­LIA COR­DRAY, one of the founders of Peeple, an app that rates hu­mans “Peo­ple do so much re­search when they buy a car or make those kinds of de­ci­sions. Why not do the same kind of re­search on other as­pects of your life?”

the var­i­ous edgy apps that have tried it be­fore. In 2013, Lulu promised to em­power women by let­ting them re­view their dates and to em­power men by let­ting them see their scores.

Af­ter a tsunami of crit­i­cism — “creepy,” “toxic,” “gen­der hate in a pret­tier pack­age” — Lulu added an au­to­mated opt-out fea­ture to let men pull their names off the site. A year later, Lulu fur­ther re­lented by let­ting users rate only those men who opt in. In its cur­rent it­er­a­tion, 2013’s most con­tro­ver­sial start-up is ba­si­cally a mi­nor dat­ing app.

That windy path is pos­si­ble for Peeple, too, Cor­dray says. True to her site’s rad­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, she has promised to take any and all crit­i­cism as feed­back. If beta testers de­mand an opt-out fea­ture, she’ll de­lay the launch date and add that. If users feel un­com­fort­able rat­ing friends and part­ners, maybe Peeple will pro­fes­sion­al­ize— think Yelp meets LinkedIn. Right now, it’s Yelp for all parts of your life. That’s at least how Cor­dray hy­pes it on YouTube, where she is pub­lish­ing a re­al­ity Web se­ries about the app’s process.

“It doesn’t mat­ter how far apart we are in likes or dis­likes,” she tells some bro at a bar in Episode 10. “All that mat­ters is what peo­ple say about us.”

It’s a weirdly dystopian vi­sion to de­liver to a stranger at a sports bar: In Peeple’s fu­ture, Cor­dray is say­ing, the way some amor­phous online “crowd” sees you will be defini­tively who you are.

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