It’s rare for an app to inspire as much loathing as Peeple managed to do before it even launched. Not-so-affectionately known as the “Yelp for people,” the app lets you write and share your honest reviews of friends, coworkers, and exes. What could go wrong! Within a few hours of the concept’s announcement back in September, Peeple was torn to shreds by the rest of the Internet. Who on Earth would think an app to let you rate other humans was a good idea? Who would give the Internet that power, knowing the thousands of ways strangers have already found to harass each other online? Peeple was so riddled with flaws, not to mention poor taste, that many were convinced it had to be a hoax.
Peeple’s co-founders Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough added fuel to the Internet’s bonfire when they showed stunned surprise at the intense backlash they received. They scrambled to ban commenters from the app’s Facebook page and retreated from Twitter after Twitter did what it does best: harassed them. The Peeple saga burnt out as bizarrely as it began, with a truly awkward Dr. Phil episode. As Peeple vanished, we were all left wondering how two women who seemed to know so little about the Internet could possibly believe they could create an app for it.
Buckle up, everyone, because Peeple is back.
On the surface, Peeple’s updates have rendered the app toothless. The initial concept of the app allowed anyone who knew your phone number to create your profile for you, rate you on a scale of 1 to 10, and write a review, absolutely none of which required your consent. It now claims to be opt-in; no one else can create your profile for you, and no reviews will be posted on your profile without your approval. The Peeple website stresses its positivity while highlighting its shiny, new block features and authorisation hurdles. Peeple desperately wants us to believe it has listened to criticism (or, shall we say, reads its reviews) and returned to us a better app.
There are two glaring problems with Peeple’s launch. The first is that it is very difficult to foster constructive criticism on the Internet, but that flaw has been discussed plenty. The second problem is the “truth license,” a feature to be introduced after the app’s launch that Cordray discussed at length with Buzzfeed. This paid feature will allow users to see the reviews an individual has not elected to make public, which flies in the face of all of the reassurances of control and privacy stressed by the app’s website. If a user can delete a negative review about herself, but someone else can still pay to see it, how exactly does that work? Can you actually delete a review on Peeple? Does your consent mean anything at all?
This contradiction reflects Peeple’s biggest flaw: a huge failure to understand the experiences of members of marginalised communities who have been terrorized both online and off. The creators of Peeple have displayed no interest in hearing how their app can be used to do real harm, and now they are teasing a future for the app would monetize that harm.
There are many alarming scenarios in which Peeple can be abused. What if you’re not public about your gender or sexual identity, and a well-intentioned ex writes a positive review outing you by accident to your co-workers? What if you’ve changed your name to escape an abusive partner who still has your phone number, and they use the app to find your new identity? What if you expose the harassment of one of your superiors at work and they use Peeple to get revenge by sullying your reputation?
As a survivor of an emotionally abusive relationship, my first reaction to Peeple’s announcement in the fall was that, in the hands of my ex-boyfriend, the app could do real damage. My ex and I haven’t spoken in years, and I have blocked him on every social media network that has a block function. Theoretically, he would be able to review me on Peeple before I am able to block him—I see no logical reason his review wouldn’t be available through this “truth license” if Peeple administrators didn’t determine it suitably “abusive” in nature. He could even write a positive review of me if he felt so inclined. Either way, the app would give him access to my notifications, my attention, once again.
With a “truth license,” my ex’s grievances would be available for purchase. Peeple’s updates are shallow: I still do not have control of my profile.
The idea of a “truth license” is as stunning as it is distasteful. It’s in the same genre of revenge porn and grievance websites—instead of charging victims to have their violations taken down, they’re charging people to read them. While the everyday user may not pay for access to hidden negative reviews, a potential employer would be willing to make the investment. Depending on the price, so would parents, college admission boards, journalists, and anyone with morbid curiosity or an axe to grind. Either way, irreparable harm has been done to anyone who has experienced harassment, assault or abuse. Peeple’s launch shows a callousness and a stubbornness that truly boggle the mind.
Many of us will be tempted to download the app out of curiosity, to know what the hype is about and be a part of the conversation, even if only to hate it. But every download validates Peeple, because a hate download is still a download. This is not a hoax or a trend piece or a new scandal leading to the Internet shaming of its creators (round two). Peeple is very real and reflects irresponsible, clueless and tone-deaf technology at its worst. It is not a joke to the millions of men and women who recognize this app for what it is: a tool in the hands of our abusers, and a gigantic ‘fuck you’ to our experiences from two white ladies from Canada.