If you want to restore your faith in humankind, you need look no further than the public response to the controversial, and as yet unreleased, iOS app Peeple. Typically described as “Yelp for people,” Peeple has met widespread derision and horror ever since Caitlin Dewey wrote on it for the Washington Post. Responding to the rhetorical question, “If we have it for restaurants, why [don’t] we have it for people?” one Twitter user offered the withering reply, “[B]ecause restaurants [don’t] kill themselves??”
This hurricane of disgust should quell most fears that Peeple is likely to become a real success when it’s released, supposedly in November. No one I spoke to seemed to think it was anything other than a nightmare product. “An idea like this should be treated like smallpox and not exist outside of a few well-guarded laboratories,” one of my Slate colleagues told me. Others followed suit, many of them angry that it existed at all. While I’d like to believe that my friends and co-workers are unusually good people, I suspect they’re a representative sample where Peeple is concerned. Everyone—everyone who’s speaking up, at any rate—seems to think that Peeple is a tragedy in the making.
Is all our hysteria and hullaballoo misplaced, then? There’s arguably something self-congratulatory about our dismissal of the app, our public performances of distaste a sign that we are tasteful. Of course, one reasonable fear about Peeple is that we’ll be forced into using it, whether or not we want to. As Dewey explains, someone needs nothing more than your phone number to start reviewing you. In this light, Peeple might not need widespread acceptance to find traction. Its mere existence could create the conditions for its ugly world, effectively blackmailing all of us into joining in.
Some have sought out the lighter side of participation. “I can’t wait for everyone to give the creators of Peeple terrible reviews on Peeple,” one journalist joked. Many apparently didn’t bother to wait, needling the app’s creators so aggressively that they soon made their official Twitter page private. (It has since gone public again.) If nothing else, this temporary profile lockdown suggests that many of us are more than capable of being nasty on our own, no app required.
Peeple’s creators, for their own part, seem baffled by the anger their app has elicited. In a statement posted to the company’s website after Dewey’s article ran, they suggest that it’s all a misunderstanding. Veering into martyrological terrain, they write, “We are bold innovators and sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift.” And what is that gift, exactly? The gift of community, of connection, of contact: “You deserve better and to have more abundance, joy, and real authentic connections,” the update’s authors declare. Here, Peeple emphasizes the good above all else. “We are a positivity app,” the statement reads in a phrase sure to baffle many. What does that mean? It means that they want “the opportunity to prove how great it feels to be loved by so many in a public space.”
It would be too easy to laugh off Peeple’s insistence that it has everyone’s best interests at heart. How could an app that would allow us to rate one another on a five-star scale invite anything other than the basest negativity? And yet the app really is set up to encourage affirmations. Any review of two or fewer stars is subject to a 48-hour arbitration period before going live, during which you’re encouraged to “work it out” with your critic. And if you haven’t set up an account, only more positive reviews of you will show. (Here, there’s a lilkely loophole: Since it’s the numerical rating that triggers review, someone could presumably give an acquaintance five stars but write nasty things about him or her.) Users are also assigned a “positivity rating,” based on the ratio of good to bad reviews that they leave for others. This figure will allow us to quickly judge others on the way they judge, separating the cruel from the kind.
Such features lend some credence to the developers’ claims that Peeple is about recognizing that you’re loved, not about cultivating hate. Maybe the Peeple people are baffled because they recognize that much of our contemporary social media environment is already centered on the positive. It’s this cultural climate that they seem to think they’re participating in. I’ve argued before—and I’m hardly the only one to do so—that Facebook is changing the way we share our sorrows, encouraging us to emphasize the affirmative at even our darkest hours. Above all else, Peeple seems likely to produce something like the irritating follow-back mentality of Twitter—five-star me and I’ll five-star you!
Of course, despite its creators’ protests, it could easily become a haven for bullies; it could be much worse for some groups than others. And to use it at all might well be to court lawsuits. But at a more general level, it belongs to our culture of empty affirmation. It’s of a piece with the implicit obligation to rate eBay sellers or Uber drivers as high as possible. And as the language of Peeple’s statement suggests, it builds on the same foundations as positive thinking fantasias like The Secret.
So, if we’re all blackmailed into using Peeple, I don’t worry that it will make us uglier. I worry that it will further polish us to an artificial shine.