Thoughts on Peeple app

For over a month now I've been looking into phatic studies and inching towards a semiotic or communication theory approach to social media networks. There's a lot of literature about phatic aspects in social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, but the new app, Peeple, presents completely new challenges. Here I'd like to dwell a bit on it, even though the app has not yet officially launched. My opinion is that if Peeple does launch and people do start using it, it will introduce something very new into the social media landscape. At the core of this novelty, I think, is our understanding of social networking in itself.

Before reading some opinion pieces about it, I'd like to phrase my concern, which has a lot to do with agency. On social media sites like Facebook and Twitter it is the primary user ("me") who is in the position of agency. My online activities are my own making. So whatever blunder I make I am responsible for. But Peeple presents a completely different model: agency now falls on secondary users ("other") who are in position of reviewing me.

When Peeple is described as "Yelp for people" it pretty much captures this dichotomy, because on Yelp people review businesses and establishments. These are made by or constituted by people, but they are not people themselves (unless you take the "corporations are people" view seriously, which you can only do in a legal sense). With your negative review of a business you can offend people who work for said business, but you can't offend the business itself, because it is not a person.

So when this "Yelp for people" launches, people in a sense become like businesses. It is a salient paradigm shift from viewing personal interactions as personal - "private" in a sense - to a view of personal interactions as public - "commodified" would be the term. Although I dislike the term "commodification" due to its overuse by polemical writers who more often than not subscribe to some form of Marxist ideology, here I think it might actually be apt.

That is, communication itself - our personal interactions, our social relationships - become like economic commidities, marketable items. It transforms your everyday interactions with people into "goods" and "services" that can be review as such. I may think that I'm living my own private life and interaction with other people is just part of that, but all of a sudden these interactions are under public scrutiny. Any and every faux pas I commit that would otherwise have remained private could now become attached to my public self, visible in a public record about my person.

This is the greatest "threat to face", to use Erving Goffman's phrase, imaginable. It opens up the floodgates to what social psychologists call "attribution error". Let's say that I'm having a bad day. I'll be grumpy and irritable and this will show in my interactions. Currently, if I'm having a bad day and annoy others with my bad mood, that is that. I was just having a bad day. But if everyone annoyed by my bad mood takes to Peeple and writes a negative review of me, my bad mood will become my public "face", a quality infinitely "attributed" to me.

Ultimately, there will be two broad outcomes: A) I will have to manage my interactions more closely, will have to pretend to be likeable even when I'm having a bad day, lest I will garner too many negative reviews. Or, B) I will begin limiting my interactions with other people so as to diminish negative outcomes. While it would be ideal to live in a world where all people are happy and sociable all the time, that's not the reality we live in.

Another concern that I have right off the bat is related to the cumulative effect of social traces that once again has to do with agency. All of us do stupid things when we're young. It is often said of Facebook that it will record everything we do and will embarrass us in the future. But you have control over the public content of your Facebook profile. Once you've grown up and realized that your Facebook timeline no longer reflects you as you now are, you can actually just delete your account and begin again. Not so with a public profile composed by others.

Just think about the long-term effect of a public record of yourself that you can't control. Forget "having a bad day" and receiving a few negative reviews. What if you happen to be down on your luck for several years, perhaps due to illness, being out of work, or something else. What you do when you're down on your luck will reflect your person even when you do manage to struggle out of that sinkhole and become a better, well-off person.

This concern is reflected in criminal records. If you come from a poor income family and you have to do something illegal to get by, if you get caught and punished it will depend on the severity of your crime whether it will follow you for ever. I was once young and dumb and stole a can of bug spray from a store. I had to pay a fine, disappointed my parents, and learned from it - I never stole again. There wouldn't be any way to know this aside from me confessing this now because it was such a small crime that it got erased from my record after some time(I was underage and in my country they do that for kids).

But imagine a permanent record that isn't as lenient, and not for crimes but for your social character. That is what we are dealing with here and that is why I think people are so angry about Peeple. It would be a fine thing to have in a perfect world full of happy well-off people who can enjoy life to the fullest. But we live in a world that is as of yet still imperfect, where even the best of us are sometimes deeply unhappy, and where social conflict is a frequent occurrence. I do not think that we are ready for an app like Peeple.

That is what I currently think about this issue, and why the title of this post begins with "thoughts on" - which is rather exceptional in this blog, otherwise almost completely dedicated to review. But now I will continue with my routine and review what others thing about it.

Ed West, 02.10.2015 "Now you can rate people like hotels" online comment on London Evening Standard.

Easily the most terrifying thing I’ve discovered this year is a new app that allows individuals to be rated like restaurants or hotels. Peeple, launched next month, will give users the chance to mark others out of five. It’s all very interesting for evolutionary biologists.
According to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene human society is a never-ending battle between three types of people, suckers, grudgers and cheats, but technology is making life impossible for the latter. I suppose the biggest worry is not getting bad marks but lots of ironic five-star reviews, like David Hasselhoff’s musical oeuvre on Amazon.
Alternatively, perhaps having no reviews at all would be worse. Oscar Wilde said something along those lines — but then look what happened to him.
These few paragraphs are all that pertains to Peeple in this article. "Terrifying" seems to be the correct adjective for describing the idea of Peeple (we have not yet seen Peeple in action so I emphasize "the idea of"). Going on what La Barre wrote about types of socio-cultural agents, I'd say that the idea of Peeple is not very consoling. The idea that others will be able to write reviews about me without my consent does not make me more at ease with where social media might be heading (the commodification of social interaction, see above). To paraphrase La Barre: "Rather, [it] increases our anxiety."

And why does even the idea of an app like Peeple increase our anxiety? Because it doesn't seem to be thought through. Even this journalist here has caught on to at least one pertinent way to cheat the system as it has been introduced thus far: this idea of "ironic five-star reviews" is not off the mark. A youtuber going by the username MisterMetokur has noted in a video titled "Peeple: The Worst Kind Of People" that a negative review would be a two-star review, and the person reviewed would have 48 hours to contest this kind of review. But what would stop someone from giving a three-star review and writing, as MisterMetokur put it, "He fucks kids. I'd have given him a five-star if he maybe stopped banging ten-year-olds. Didn't want to give him two stars, I thought that might be too mean because I know him in real life."

It's not a good sign that long before an app has been launched people already know full well how to cheat the system and make it into a social weapon. And "weaponization" is definitely what some people are afraid of. There are plenty of means to ruin someone's life if a collection of like-minded individuals decided to do so. What would stop so-called Social Justice Warriors from utilizing Peeple to completely tarnish the reputation of someone they, according to god-knows how ideologically bent views, consider to be sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, ableist, etc. There are already well-documented cases of public shaming on social media that ruined lives of innocent people whose off-hand comments were misinterpreted as malicious (fork those repos, fork 'em!).

Rachel Johnson, 03.10.2015 "I suppose new people-rating app Peeple was inevitable" online comment on Mail on Sunday.

I suppose new people-rating app Peeple was inevitable, as it is now compulsory to assess everything and everyone. I’m a four-star passenger on Uber. Someone once reviewed me on Amazon with the words: ‘I only gave this book one star as it didn’t let me give it no stars.’ And when I met my son’s headmaster at a party once he gazed at me in contemplation and said: ‘A seven, yes, very much a seven out of ten.’ (As a parent.) Hell is other Peeple, but do we really need to tell them every five minutes how awful they are? This app truly is the pits.
I now have to acknowledge that the selection of items reviewed here are very limited because I didn't use Google to find them, but EBSCO. Since this post is so inconsequential I have no problem with this selection - at least they're easy to reference (there is a reliable record of them). The idiom, that something "is the pits", means that this something is the worlt of all possible worlds, or the worst or most despicable example of something.

I agree with this author from the very first. I, too, hold that something like Peeple is ultimately inevitable. I'm a bit of a utopian, and in a perfect world I would see little if any downside for such an app. In fact, it would probably be most useful for finding new friends and acquaintances not on the basis of previous real-life exposure, mutual friends or any of the like, but purely according to similar interests and dispositions. In such a world I would imagine using the app for finding people who have a compatible character with mine.

But as it stands, the plan seems terrible from the go. We live in an age when the internet is basically going through puberty. And it doesn't have to be a metaphor: many kids who have been on the internet their whole life are quite literally going through puberty. Even on the technological level, the internet is currently still going through physical and psychological changes. Whether this puberty is metaphorical or literal, the simple fact is that the internet at large is frequently immature, obnoxious, simultaneously offensive and easily offended, and often set on stirring up as much shit as possible.

To introduce such a utopic idea - a centralized registry of personal descriptions - at this time consequently seems to come across as either naive or malicious. One of the problems Peeple raises is anonymity. Personally, I'm a big believer in anonymity on the internet. I see no reason why people should use their given name on websites other than those pertaining to school, workplace, or government. On the internet at large there is no need for given names. I think people should give themselves a unique name when they go on the internet.

But my view on this is conditioned more by practicality than ideology. In my small country there are three people that I know of that have the exact same given name as mine. To make it worse, one of them happened to live in the same part of town where I grew up. Knowing full well that my given name is not a unique identifier I took to the internet with a pseudonym and I still do, when not imposed to do otherwise for whatever reason. In my view real world and the internet are two different universes - virtual and actual - and although they do meet in a lot of ways, in most areas they seem to exist as exclusive domains.

What makes Peeple troublesome in this relation is the insistence on given names and phone numbers, which belong to the real world, not to the internet. Although they should ideally be means to limit the people who can review you to the people you've actually met in real life and who consequently know your telephone number, as it has already been proven by finding out the telephone number of one of Peeple's representatives, it's not all that difficult to cheat this ill-conceived system.

What makes it doubly problematic is that there is currently no precedent for real names. As far as I know U.S. and U.K. don't even have digital registries of their citizens. Estonia does, and if it were an exclusively Estonian app it would be possible to just link the relevant tables in respective databases and voila, every citizen would have a Peeple account by default. But the U.S. is currently struggling to even make voting possible for every single citizen - which seems unconceivably bizarre from across the pond.

The fact that Peeple received 50 thousand dollars from an undisclosed government agency makes all this all the more suspicious. It comes across as a scheming way to collect personal data. In all probability, said government agency probably gives two shits about the ratings, but it may be interested in communication patterns and identities in an exclusionary tactic (say you want to find a terrorist or a foreigner and you have an anonymous list of telephone numbers - an automated comparison with Peeple database would simply exclude people who have been as if "validated" or "corroborated" by Peeple reviews).

This journalist here has actually pointed out another pitfall for Peeple. While the last one pointed out that the system can be cheated, this one points out that its fundamentally slanted. You can't assume people to be honest and positive reviewers. People are full of shit. Peeple will very likely be another channel for that shit to find an output. You will be judged according to your looks and not your personality. You will be given shitty reviews because of innocuous paux pas. You will be judged according to your socio-economic status. It is almost guaranteed.

And on that note, I also have to contradict myself a little. Part of the anxiety and why we find it to be terrifying is exactly the unpredictability. It is currently unforeseeable what social consequences this will have. Will reviewing people on Peeple become a social norm and an obligation? In that case any presumption of honesty will fly out the window. One can already imagine the endless barrage of conversations like "OMG he gave me a negative review!" perhaps followed by an instigation to retaliate with a mass of negative reviews. Not to mention the sexist and racist undertones that will no doubt find new ways to manifest themselves. (I'll treat this aspect a bit more below in relation with personology.)

Elizabeth Weise 05.10.2015. "'Peeple' app lets you rate anyone from 1 to 5" a section on pg 3 in USA TODAY .

As of now, there's no way to stop someone from creating a profile on you
This one is from a paper publication - the link leads to a "viewer" behind a paywall - but EBSCO has the story in plaintext form. Since it's quite a bit longer than the previous two mere "mentions" of Peeple, I'll break it down more and comment as I usually do here. The headline reflects the inevitability aspech, which is a big part of the outrage. Above I dealt with it in terms of agency. But here I'd like to take another angle. In my view Peeple comes at a disopportune time. As far as I know, legally, we are still working out the kinks in what is called "the right to be forgotten".

I think Peeple rubs us the wrong way because it goes against our intuitive right to stay "off the grid" if we so wished. This is not about the right to be forgotten, this is the right to not be remembered in the first place. These may seem to be equivalent on the surface but there's an important distinction I'd like to draw attention to: your right to be forgotten concerns something you've done that you would like not to be remembered; but Peeple goes against our intuitive right to not be remembered when you haven't done anything worth remembering.

See, we currently have public profiles for people who do something, or who have made a public profile because they chose to do so. But Peeple dismisses the treshold for profiling as well as the volition for self-profiling and opens the floodgates for others to decide for us if we should have a public profile or not. Referring back to the aspect of "commodification" above, we are not "businesses" that should have a public mirror for clients to find goods and services. My person is currently my own business. Not so on Peeple, where my person is everyone's business.
It's like a bad nightmare from middle school -- an app that lets people rate anyone they know on a scale of one to five for all the world to see. And it's scheduled to launch in November. The app is called Peeple. As imagined by creators, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, there's no way to opt out.
Here the latter two bold parts conclude the first. To telescope: Peeple is a nightmare because you cannot stop others making a profile for you, you cannot opt out from it, and it's for all the world to see. Compare these aspects to Facebok: you make your own profile, you can delete your own profile, and you can limit who sees your profile. It's a nightmare because it feels like someone has decided to break into your house, now invites everyone to take a look at your shit and judge it, and you apparently can't do anything about it.
The app's tag line is "Character is Destiny." The creators see it as a way for people to learn what the world thinks about them and showcase the content of their character.
But what if you don't want to know what the world thinks about you? What if you don't want to showcase the content of your character? With Peeple, you don't ask for any of it: you are forced to take in what the world thinks of you, and the content of your character is showcased against your will. Above I referred briefly to Erving Goffman and the "threat to face". Consider the word person. The word comes from Latin persona meaning actor's mask, or character in a play. Your person is the "face" you present to other people - as a "mask" it hides your true self, your content, which you are not obliged to divulge just because. Peeple gives others the opportunity to do that for you - to approximate something that they can't possibly know unless you're very intimate, and reduce it to a score and possibly a verbal description.

The tag line, "Character is Destiny", is not as innocent as it would seem. When the world begins communicating about your character and showcasing what they think of you, your character will become your destiny. While you continue to learn, change, and adapt throughout your life, your public character will be nailed in place, fixed, made to stagnate with the momentum of public opinion. What other people think of you will in subtle and novel ways start to influence your trajectory in life.

For example, to create a hypothetical scenario, had the police officer who registered my teenage bug spray theft been malicious enough to use my telephone number to score me on Peeple and wrote a comment to the effect of "this kid is a dumbass low-life", it could have very well years later had an effect on me getting into the university. These kinds of possibilities will be on the table when Peeple becomes a thing. The potential for ruining lives, of making "character" someone's "destiny", is definitely there. Instead of these lovely words the tag line could very well just be "what people think of you will be your lot in life".
The idea is that if you know someone's cellphone number, you can create a listing for them. You then rate them with between one and five stars, saying whether you know them personally, professionally or romantically. If someone creates a listing for you, you'll get a text telling you they've done so. As of now, there's no way to say you'd rather not participate and no way to keep someone from creating a profile on you. That could change. In a posting to the app's Facebook page Thursday, CEO Cordray wrote "We hear you loud and clear. No.1: You want the option to opt in or opt out. No.2: You don't want the ability for users to start your profiles."
At least it seems like the creators are taking the public uproar into consideration. It may be a bold statement, but I don't think it's only that we are not pleased with there being no option to opt out or the fact that others will be able to create a profile for you. It could be that we don't want such a service, point. The bigger question here is: are we ready for a platform of people's opinions of each other?

At issue is again the concept of "person". Currently, social media is oriented to produced content. You take a selfie for Facebook and people like it and comment on it. You write a short quip or share a link on Twitter and people respond to or retweet it. You share a link or write a comment on Reddit and people vote and comment on it. All of it is oriented towards some content. Even on Yelp, it's not (ideally) the business itself you are reviewing, but the "content" of said business: how it's goods and services stand up to standard and compare to other businesses, etc. But on Peeple, you are the content. That's what the issue here is.

And what are you, after all? Is it your self-conception, your private and intimate understanding of yourself, your feelings, your thoughts, your goals in life? Or is it what others think of you, how they perceive you? All other social media sites are oriented towards the first facet: your public profile is what you make it to be. On Peeple you are what others make you out to be. Your person will now have to contend with whatever misunderstandings, misinterpretations, biases and malicious intent others may have.
The app's creators didn't respond immediately to emails Thursday, but on their Facebook page they say to create profiles on the site you must be 21 and have an established Facebook account, and all reviews must be made under your real name. Positive ratings post automatically. Any rating with two stars or less goes to the inbox of the person being reviewed. According to a post on its Facebook page, negative reviews do not go live on the app for 48 hours. "Assuming you can't turn a negative into a positive, the comment goes live and the person can now publicly defend themselves," the creators said.
But do we need any of it? Do we need our lives to contain a platform for constant public negotiation of our characters? Even if there's a possibility of opting out, there's a possibility for Peeple to take off in an unprecedented manner and technological habituation ultimately demanding, due to social norm, for everyone to have a Peeple account. If you don't you're a suspicious outcast with diminished social life and fewer job opportunities.
Only positive reviews show up in the profiles of people who haven't signed up. That creates what appears to be something of a Catch-22. To see what people have said about you, you would have to sign up for the service. But in doing so, you would automatically allow negative reviews about you to go up, reviews that wouldn't be posted if you hadn't gone on the site. The creators say the app will ban profanity, sexism and discussion of private health conditions.
As others have pointed out (above), there is nothing stopping malicious people from giving positive score and writing an ironic review. I'm especially interested in how profanity, sexism and private information will be stifled. The creators apparently underestimate the creativity we can have in various forms of ellipsis and insinuation.

And this is exactly the topic I want to finish on. I mentioned at the beginning of this post that modern social media or networking sites have revitalized so-called phatic studies, i.e. the study of contact and relationships in computer-mediated communication. Even in Peeple there is a phatic component. For example, will it necessitate more connected presence? What if I go on a week-long nature hike without internet connection and return to a bunch of negative reviews, since I couldn't connect within 48 hours to defend my honour? Other such issues are imaginable.

But there's another aspect I'd like to mention. If Peeple becomes successful, which at this point seems like a pretty big if, there is potential for another half-way forgotten academic subdiscipline to revitalize. I'm refering to what the Soviet semioticians Piatigorsky and Uspenski call personology. I emphasize their variety of personology, because it's not exactly what Westerners call personality psychology.

Personological classification as a semiotic problem becomes relevant in relation with Peeple because it would in fact be the first site that is primarily oriented towards descriptions of the type "this person is lucky," "this person is decent," or "this person could be decent". Our local extinct socal (dating) site rate.ee and Google's now defunct Orkut did have something like this, a feature that enabled one person to characterize or describe another. I'm not aware if Facebook, Twitter, etc. have something like this, but it's quite possible that an unofficial, widely unrecognized, form of this exists in these sites.

Peeple, on the other hand, foregrounds what people think of each other. It would in effect create the first fully personological database, in time perhaps becoming a comprehensive registry of everything anyone could actually say about another person (what a hyperbole). In any case it would present linguists with a novel type of corpus. Most likely it would be taken up not by personology (there is no explicit need for such a field as an autonomous entity) but by something like personological discourse studies.

What I'm saying is that it would be possible to data-mine and study what people think of each other and how they express their opinions of each other. While this could very well be done on the basis of other sites, Peeple would present a pure, unadulterated, corpus of such data. By way of paranoid speculation it is even possible to imagine what this data could be used for. Imagine a world in which news articles are indeed written by algorithms. Let's say that someone has contributed a large sum to skewer public opinion of a celebrity or a politician. How would this go about?

Presently we have only our intuition to go on when it comes to ways to describe other people. But with a corpus such as Peeple, enough computing power and fine-tuned algorithms, the successful ways to describe a person so as to either uplift public opinion about said person or to subtly tarnish that person's reputation through well-targeted keywords could be elucidated and manipulation of public opinion take on a quite more sophisticated form. But this is just conjecture.

In any case it is a bit terrifying. Partly because it's affiliation with an undisclosed government agency is suspicious. Partly because it doesn't seem to be well thought out and seems to enforce a future regime of centralized public humiliation and character negotiation. Partly because it introduces unpredictable social responsibilities. Since Peeple is not yet launched and we don't yet see what it looks like and how it operates the imagination runs wild through a nightmarish terrain. Let's see how it goes.


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