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Like Uber, but for online harassment: Why we should be very afraid of new app Peeple

By now it’s a cliche to make fun of Silicon Valley copycat-ism with the “this app is like Uber, but for x” joke, which has produced some amusing permutations. But it turns out what we needed to be afraid of was “it’s like Yelp, but for people.” 

That’s the elevator pitch of the forthcoming Peeple app, which essentially allows crowdsourced star ratings and reviews of… people. It’s being developed by Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray, who both have a background in business. Cordray, who has successfully spearheaded two marketing companies, wanted to create an app where people could “showcase” themselves and their personalities; “Character is Destiny” thunders their inaugural slogan.

The Washington Post’s Caitlyn Dewey interviewed the co-founders for a withering column on the subject published yesterday afternoon. She discusses the ways in which the app is supposedly secure against abuse:

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 cell phone number.

These supposed safeguards are woefully inadequate, not least because a phone number is often one of the pieces of private information that doxers release to online mobs. It also evinces the profound naivete of believing that lack of anonymity prevents abuse. There are thousands of examples one could use, but one will suffice. Illustrator and vlogger Kat Blaque wrote a comprehensive account of how she was repeatedly and viciously harassed by a man on Facebook who said things like “please girl you know you’d like a real man not these white knight bitches… I’d throw you on the bed and ravage you and you’d fucking love it” with his legal name, photo, and workplace attached to it all.

I emphasize this because this sort of thing happens to marginalized people on the internet every day. People don’t harass because they’re anonymous; they do it because they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. Blaque reveals how she got her harasser fired by reporting him to his (now former) employer, New York Life Insurance; in the aftermath the man portrayed himself as the victim, refusing to so much as even apologize: “First off aggressive sex isn’t rape stupid… i.e. you would enjoy it you dumb cunt.”

Clearly there’s more at work here than anonymity; this something that Cordray and McCullough fail to consider. Even in the wake of mountains of criticism on Wednesday, they took to Facebook to say that they were listening to criticism but defended themselves by saying that their site would be even more “positive” than Yelp (defined by the total percentage of positive reviews) because “we are not anonymous as users of the Peeple app which should make our positivity even higher.” They also told critics condescendingly that they needed to learn that “people are good.”

I do believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity; it’s something to rely on in our darkest hours. But even if we have inborn empathetic instincts, they require cultivation and direction. Simply throwing people into a digital arena and expecting them to sort themselves out is what got us into this mess, which tech writer Sarah Jeong aptly calls “The Internet of Garbage,” in the first place. A Wild West will be treated as such by the most amoral actors, looking to expectorate without consequence as any trip to YouTube comments will verify.

Peeple venerates online rating culture in much the same way many entrepreneurs and CEOs have historically: a way to harness the wisdom of crowds and provide a reasonably objective, democratic metric for the quality of a good or service. The flaws with that system are apparent: we’ve all encountered one-star reviews on Amazon that either had nothing to do with the product (e.g. a complaint about the shipping) or were for extremely trivial or petty reasons. In theory, at an economy of scale, the bell curve will iron out the impact of such poor reviews, but that just barely works with basic products. When you get to, say, political books, review aggregation in the form of star-rating averages becomes next to useless. To return to Amazon, just look up your favorite feminist books. Odds are that many of the one or two star reviews are from MRAs.

Now, scale this problem up to the even more nebulous and subjective world of rating human beings. Dewey’s article has a good rundown of the way that smaller-scale, data hungry sites of the same nature, like Rate My Professor, express such profound bias that they cannot be said to communicate useful information. She writes:

In fact, as repeat studies of Rate My 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.

Then factor in Peeple prioritizing anyone who knows you “personally, professionally, or romantically.” What if you’re reviewed by a bitter and abusive ex? Or a sexually harassing co-worker who wants to ruin your reputation for turning down their advances? Or a controlling parent or spouse? Again and again, as dystopian as this app is the cardinal adjective I return to for describing it is “naive.” The idea that personal ties may not be toxic is breathtakingly naive.

In a society where women are more likely to be raped by someone they know, where domestic violence remains rampant, and where online harassment — particularly against marginalized groups — is metastasizing into ever more organized, collectivist hate campaigns, such an app as Peeple can only be construed as another vector for abuse.

Peeple itself may fizzle under this torrent of criticism, but the idea isn’t going away. We are sleepwalking into a future where we are metamorphosing from citizens into “content,” and Peeple’s premise is the logical endpoint of this.

If you think the problem of harassment is bad now, wait until we all become forcibly commodified before the baying crowd of the entire internet.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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