If you were to be rated—as a person—on a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you’d get? Questions like that might have been lurking in people’s minds since news broke a couple of weeks ago about Peeple, an app that was pitched as “Yelp for people“. Initially, the idea was that anyone, once they’ve confirmed they know you, could leave a review of you on the Peeple site, positive or negative, for everyone in the whole world to see, whether you like it or not.
The idea was widely condemned, or at least loudly condemned, and the creators of the app have altered the plan:
First, the platform is 100 percent opt in—other people will not be able to create a profile on your behalf and especially not without your permission. And second, users will be able to review all content posted about them with the option to reject any content that they deem unacceptable—for any reason. We recommend you create a balanced profile of yourself in our platform that shows you as a normal person with areas you can improve on as expressed by the recommendations people give you. Third, you can deactivate your account at any time. We’ve always meant for Peeple to be all about positivity and think that these changes can bring us closer to achieving that goal.
Regardless of what Peeple’s people are planning, the world of rating people is already here. Lulu, for example, is an app that lets women give scores to men. The proliferation and expansion of such services has a feel of inevitability to them.
What should we think of these developments and the changes they might bring to our social lives and self-understanding? How should we live with these apps? To help with these and related questions, a few philosophers have graciously volunteered to contribute some brief remarks. They are:
- Paul Gowder (University of Iowa)
- Karen Frost-Arnold (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)
- Sophie Horowitz (Rice)
- Tamler Sommers (University of Houston)
I give each of these people a ★★★★★ rating for agreeing to participate in this post on such short notice.
The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to prompt further discussion among philosophers about issues and events of current public interest, and also to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to the public conversation. Others are, of course, welcome to join in. Additionally, if you come across particularly valuable relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere, please provide a link in the comments.
What’s so special and horrid about Peeple? After all, we rate one another all the time. In addition to actual Yelp (not “Yelp for Humans”), we have networking websites like LinkedIn, transactional websites like eBay, Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, a slew of dating websites… we are obsessed with rating one another.
Well, our usual ratings systems are (a) more-or-less voluntary, and (b) more-or-less organized transactionally. Even in Web 2.0 (N?.0), one typically subjects oneself to the ratings of others, or at least steps into a domain where ratings are likely, for a purpose—usually because one has something to sell, and it turns out that being vouched for by other buyers is a good way to sell things to people, whether the selling is one’s products, one’s labor, or even one’s value as a romantic partner. By contrast, Peeple is (will be? was to be? never really would have been?) thrust on one: anyone who has your cellphone number gets to rate you, and the rating would be unhinged from anything we ordinarily understand as transactional.
I can’t help but think of the commodification debate (here comes the loose gesture at actual philosophy) among moral and political philosophers. Much of the commentary about Peeple resembled a lot of the talk from critics of commodification—in particular, the claim that what went wrong with Peeple was that it treated people in a degrading way by forcibly reducing them to the logic of market evaluation—there’s something unfit for humans about rating people’s inner qualities and non-transactional social interaction the same way you rate their market offerings, even when the market contrast isn’t the commercial market but the dating market. Yet nobody was talking about exchanging ratings for money, or otherwise directly buying and selling social interaction. What’s the connection?
I think it’s right to draw our worries about Peeple from the same source as our worries about commodification. It’s not really about the money, but about the entry (particularly involuntary entry) into an arms-length and self-interested transactional relationship rather than a social relationship; and the way in which being so thrust undermines the social reasons for the decisions that the participants actually should be making.
So one argument from the market direction is that if there’s a market for kidneys or babies, then when you need a kidney or want a baby, you don’t appeal to the goodwill of others, or their concern for their fellow human beings, or their special relationship to you; instead, you nakedly appeal to their self-interest, you communicate to them that you have something to offer to them, and in exchange you’d like the thing they have to offer you. The personal qualities of the people in play—the genuine need of the person who is seeking the kidney, the love and care to be invested in the baby, are no longer the focus of the arrangement. And, worse, instead of offering the kidney or the baby to the person whose story most moves us, or the one to whom we most feel a moral obligation, we offer it to the highest bidder, that is, to the one who can do the most for us. This is a kind of corruption, not from the involvement of money but from the involvement of self-interest. In Elizabeth Anderson’s words: “the pregnancy contract endorses a way of regarding [parental] rights not as to be exercised out of love for the child, but as to be exercised out of regard for the interests of the adults who have them” (Anderson, 2000 “Why Commercial Surrogate Motherhood Unethically Commodifies Women and Children: Reply to McLachlan and Swales”). To this we might add that it offers not just an endorsement, but an outright incentive to exercise parental rights that way.
It may be that these objections do not apply with full force to markets. Brennan and Jaworski, in their recent book on commodification (Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests, Routledge 2015), offer some serious challenges to the whole line of argument that I cannot possibly answer in a portion of a blog post. So just bracket that.
Suffice it to say that if the objection works for markets, it also works for transactional sociality more generally, independent of the process of commodity exchange. But, more importantly, even if the objection does not work for markets, which are, after all, voluntarily entered into (at least in some cases—see a paper of mine in Critical Review called “Market Unfreedom” for some objections to the notion that economic desperation and participatory freedom are compatible), it might still work for cases in which self-centered transactional exchange is thrust on those who would have preferred to instead carry out the relationship in question on the basis of non-transactional motivations.
We can see these ideas in the outrage over “Peeple.” Instead of basing your interactions with your neighbor on your esteem for him or her, or a genuine relationship, it would have given you an incentive, perhaps compelled you, to base your choices about how to treat your neighbor on the number of stars it was likely to yield. It would entitle either of you to thrust your relationship into a transactional rather than social domain. And the marketing pitch was that you could use that transactional sociality to get access to other kinds of transactional sociality: you butter up your neighbors enough, you get a lot of five-star ratings, and you can leverage this quantified reputation to, I dunno, get access to the extra-cool softball league or something. In doing so, if it caught on, it would give everyone an incentive to create social relationships based on a nasty balance of suck-ups and threats, rather than authentic human sociality.
Peeple and similar apps raise many questions of trust. These can only be fruitfully addressed if we focus on how structural injustices shape our online and offline lives. For example, do we have reason to trust the Peeple developers to protect us from online harassment? Online harassment disproportionately affects women, and it often draws on sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic stereotypes and slurs. The creators of Peeple initially assured us that they will implement tools to prevent harassment, but their proposed tools were problematic for a couple of reasons.
First, reviewers must use their real names on Peeple. It’s common to blame online anonymity for many of the internet’s ills (e.g., harassment, trolling, hoaxes). Many believe that if we just get rid of anonymity, we can hold people accountable and thereby make internet users more trustworthy. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, anonymity can be an important shield for groups who experience harassment, discrimination, and violence. Peeple adopted Facebook’s policy of requiring users’ real names, which is harmful to LGBTQ people (especially transgender people), indigenous people, and survivors of domestic violence and stalking. A real-names policy may help in some ways, but it also comes at considerable costs, which are often borne by victims of injustice.
Second, Peeple’s creators initially said users would have an opportunity to address negative reviews. If someone were to write a negative review about you, you would have 48 hours to “work it out” with the reviewer and “turn a negative into a positive.” If a woman’s stalker ex-boyfriend posts a negative review, how exactly is she supposed to “work it out” with him? It’s an absurd and dangerous suggestion. If a woman of color receives a racist negative review, how exactly is she supposed to “work it out” in 48 hours with the reviewer who may be oblivious to their own racism? The process of recognizing, unlearning, and changing one’s racist habits can be a long process requiring changes in thinking, emotional growth, and character development. This is unlikely to happen in 48 hours over a social media platform, and it places an unfair burden on oppressed people to expect them to do this work.
In a blog post the other week, CEO Julia Cordray announced changes to Peeple’s plans (and Peeple’s website was subsequently deleted). Citing online harassment she has received in the past weeks, she says that Peeple will now only be about “positivity”—no negative reviews will be allowed. She should not have had to endure harassment; no one should. But there are also problems with this move towards positivity. A politics of positivity can be used to silence marginalized people who protest the injustices they face. We don’t need a world in which people only say positive things. What we need are social media platforms that are thoughtfully designed to allow critical dialogue in ways that protect the vulnerable.
Some have speculated that Peeple is a hoax. I hope this is true. That would spare us many future Peeple problems. But it would also give us an opportunity to consider other important questions of trust. Did we trust the news reports about Peeple because it seems so plausible that someone would create such an absurd and harmful app? Is it so plausible because there are already so many social media platforms that fail to handle online harassment well? Do members of oppressed groups have justified distrust in Silicon Valley’s developers, admins, and venture capitalists? What can they do to be more worthy of our trust?
It’s safe to say that everyone who has ever used Yelp has had the idea for Peeple—and then, three seconds later, realized why such a thing should not exist. The other week Peeple’s founder, Julia Condray, responded to some of the most obvious worries about bullying and harassment by changing the app so that it would only accept positive comments. Of course, this does not eliminate the problem entirely; catcalling can be a form of “positive feedback” and is abusive nonetheless. But setting that worry aside, would a positive-only Peeple have any value at all?
One possible use of Peeple is as an aggregator of testimony, like Yelp. This is how the app was originally billed: you could use it to hire a babysitter, or to refine your own character. But I doubt that Peeple could be very useful on that score. The problem is not that the evidence will now be biased; what people choose to write carries information about what they did not write as well. (Think “X has excellent penmanship” on a letter of recommendation.) Rather, there is a problem with Peeple that would exist whether or not the evidence was biased: testimony collected through Peeple will be public to everyone, including the person evaluated. The social incentives at work here count against sincerity. (This is why recommendation letters are typically confidential.) Positive-only or not, Peeple cannot hope to be as epistemically valuable as testimony-aggregators like Yelp, where there is little to no ongoing social relationship between the evaluators and the things being evaluated.
However, according to Condray’s new spin on the app, Peeple was never supposed to be a source of good evidence. Rather, it is a platform to express love and affirmation. Indeed, Condray writes, of the new Peeple: “We want to bring positivity and kindness to the world.” How nice! But Peeple is still a terrible idea. The form of positive feedback that this app would likely showcase is a bad thing: it is something that is already bad about existing social media, and it does not need a new platform all to itself. I’m talking about trends that many of us surely recognize from our own social media feeds: fishing for compliments, sycophantic fawning over high-status acquaintances, grudgingly “liking” pictures of one’s friends’ vacations or fancy meals while complaining about those friends behind their backs, and the like. Such public demonstrations of positivity often come from a bad side of human nature, although being on the receiving end can feel good. The motivating drive behind them is something we should be working to rein in – not something to cultivate further.
Peeple is a bad idea; but we already knew that. Thinking about why it is bad should make us rethink our behavior elsewhere.
Yes, I’m scared. Not about getting a bad rating, although I’m sure I’ll get plenty. Not about the app’s potential to inspire bullying, prejudice, narcissism, insecurity, and procrastination. Not even about my eleven year old daughter—an app where middle schoolers can rate each other, what could go wrong there? No, it’s the commentary. It’s the columns, the articles, the twitter and Facebook threads, the phony outrage, the genuine outrage. That’s what terrifies me. We’re already seeing it. I’m already participating in it. If and when it actually arrives, ‘Peeple’ will bring out the worst in online discourse, perfect storm of posturing, paranoia, sanctimony, hot-takes (“Here’s Why I LOVE the Peeple App—and You Should too!”), and worst of all generalizations about “millennials.”
The more idiotic the topic of online debate, the more likely that one or more parties will claim to be receiving death threats. This app hasn’t even come out yet and we’re there already. So here’s an idea. What if we just stop? What if we don’t read about it? What if we just let it peter out, like chatroulette or hotornot.com? What if we don’t express a single opinion about the app’s consequences, what it symbolizes, how it reflects the new generation or modern culture? What if we used that time to read and discuss important matters like mass incarceration, rising inequality, factory farms, and Mr. Robot?
I’m kidding myself. It won’t happen. It can’t happen. Resistance is futile. I’ve violated all my rules just by writing this. I’ll start over. Did you hear about this new app? Yelp for people! But you can’t opt out. I’m calling my lawyer. How can I protect my daughter? It’s appalling!…
Pace Professor Sommers, your thoughts are welcome…