Yelp for Humans: Technology Gone Wrong or Sign of a Dystopian Future?

On: September 24, 2017
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About Derrek Xavier


   

Peeple, an application described as “Yelp for humans” launched in 2016, despite being mired in controversy. Even ‘Black Mirror’, a popular dystopian TV series, aired an episode about an app that was eerily similar, cementing Peeple’s distinction as nightmare fuel. However, while negative reviews persist, so does the app, leading us to wonder whether a future awaits where our online reputation controls our personal freedoms.

A still from an episode of Black Mirror called ‘Nosedive’, which deals with a similar rating app.

When Peeple was first introduced publicly in September 2015 by creators Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, it was met with shock and horror. The app in its earliest form allowed users “recommend” individuals they knew or interacted with by rating them on a five star scale. One could be rated on three categories, professional, personal and dating. Opting-out of the app was not an option, and negative reviews could not be hidden or removed unless they violated the terms of service. Tech-blogs, media outlets and users were united in lambasting the app, citing concerns ranging from privacy to bullying. Having delayed the app’s release after the initial backlash, a revamped version was made available on the U.S. and Canadian Apple App Stores in early 2016. The “new” Peeple changed the rating scale such that a user could only be rated as one of three choices- “positive”, “neutral” or “negative”. Opting-out was now also a possibility, and users could hide reviews that they found unfavorable. However, some worrying features still existed. For instance, it is possible to write a recommendation for someone that is not an active user as long as you have their phone number. The recommendation stays unpublished, but a text message will also be sent out, inviting the person you reviewed to join Peeple, read your recommendation, and publish it if they so choose. The creators also considered the idea of monetizing the app by introducing a “truth license”, which allows users to pay a fee in order to reveal recommendations that other users choose to hide.

Peeple is not the first app to explore the idea of rating individuals. Unvarnished, a website initially designed as a LinkedIn-Yelp hybrid also sought to revolutionize the job market through ratings and recommendations, but was met with similar concern. Thus, Unvarnished never gained enough users, and reinvented itself twice, first as Honestly.com, and then as TalentBin, until it was eventually acquired by Monster.com. Similarly, Lulu, a dating app designed to “empower women by letting them rate their dates and empower men by letting them see their scores” (Dewey) had to overhaul several of its features after waves of criticism, being reduced to just a minor dating app in due course. However, Peeple appears to be the only such app that has been persistently trying to turn its negative publicity into growth, without repositioning or repurposing itself.

A key debate that arises from the presence and proliferation of Peeple is that of “lateral surveillance”. Mark Andrejevic explored the term at length, in his work titled ‘The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk and Governance’:

Lateral surveillance, or peer–to–peer monitoring, understood as the use of surveillance tools by individuals, rather than by agents of institutions public or private, to keep track of one another, covers (but is not limited to) three main categories: romantic interests, family, and friends or acquaintances (488).

While social networking websites/apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the chief facilitators lateral surveillance, Peeple has the potential to combine surveillance with scrutiny and criticism, through the assignment of ratings and recommendations. While lateral surveillance “makes us spies in a disciplinary society” (Albrechtslund), Peeple combines the act of spying with the power to influence someone’s “online reputation”, making it a far more dangerous tool to entrust individuals with. Another distinguishing factor is that surveillance on popular social networking websites is often “participatory” in nature. Participatory surveillance involves a user willingly consenting to and even facilitating their own surveillance by continuously contributing information to databases, thus disrupting the power hierarchy and snatching control away from the observer by engaging in a “self-construction of identity” (Albrechtslund). While Peeple primarily markets itself as a participatory or opt-in experience, the aforementioned ‘recommend and invite’ feature blurs lines of consent and could potentially “nudge” unsuspecting individuals to “participate” by joining the app.

Power, and who wields it, is also an important factor to consider when discussing Peeple. Michel Foucault envisioned power as being “productive”, and urged one to analyze what it “incites, encourages, or produces” rather than its propensity to constrain (Stanfill 1060). In giving users the ability to “produce” or “assign” ratings to individuals, Peeple thus situates its users as the primary wielders of power within its ecology. With neoliberalism being the predominant ideology in most “developed” parts of the world, Foucault would term the contemporary individual as a neoliberal subject or “homo economicus”. Foucault describes the homo economicus as an “entrepreneur of himself” (Foucault 226), and this entrepreneurial spirit fosters competition as the motivation to improve one’s “human capital” (Read 5). Thus, when the neoliberal subject is given the power to rate the people that it is actively encouraged to compete against, would it not seek to undermine the competition by rating them poorly? The integrity and validity of the recommendations available on the app are therefore questionable.

The power debate also has a rather insidious angle. TechCrunch reports that Peeple’s Terms of Service do not make for a pleasant read, as demonstrated by the following extract:

Once Content is published it may not be able to be removed,” and that by joining, “you hereby irrevocably grant to Peeple the continuous, non-exclusive, royalty-free right to use your Content for any purpose whatsoever and in any format. These rights shall be assignable, transferable, and licensable by Peeple (Perez).

A thorough perusal of these terms, which need to be agreed to for the app to be utilized, indicates that the users may not have as much control as first imagined. Peeple’s ability to “transfer” or “license” the content that users generate essentially posits them as the owners of most of our personal data, and arbiters of our self-worth. This revelation may not be surprising to those that are aware of the data trading that sites like Facebook indulge in, but when one considers the number of “negative recommendations” that Peeple could access, things take a turn for the worse.

Peeple’s failure to take the world by storm can be charted down to reasons other than its scope to be used as a tool for bullying or its insistence on reducing individuals to numerical values. It can be argued that the removal of some its most controversial features left behind an app that is “sterile”. After all, a user would be far more likely to use the app if they could be entertained by reading negative reviews about others rather than only see what other users choose to show them. Facebook, Instagram and other popular social networking sites already effortlessly propagate a person’s construction of themselves, so why shift to another, less used medium? Peeple also disallows users under 21 years of age from using it, and restricts anonymous recommendations. This helps in countering cyber-bullying, but also hinders the app’s growth. For instance, apps like ‘Sarahah’ and ‘tbh’, where one can register to receive and deliver anonymous reviews, recently soared to the top of app stores due to the anonymity clause and the appeal they held for a younger demographic.

Peeple’s refusal to fade away like other “rating apps” poses several questions for further investigation. Is it possible that our stance towards technologies that dehumanize us is softening? Would our reliance on the sense of connectedness and community that social media generates lead us to accept these features if they were introduced by Facebook or Twitter? If these features are embraced could one’s rating effectively act as a means of segregation and discrimination?

Is prettier packaging the only thing standing in the way of such an app’s success?

References

Andrejevic, Mark. “The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk and Governance.” Surveillance & Society, 2005, pp. 479–497., Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.

Albrechtslund, Anders. “Online social networking as participatory surveillance.” First Monday, firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949#5. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.

Conditt, Jessica. “Peeple is boring.” Engadget, 14 July 2016, www.engadget.com/2016/03/09/peeple-is-boring/. Accessed 23 Sept. 2017.

Dewey, Caitlin. “Everyone you know will be able to rate you on the terrifying ‘Yelp for people’ — whether you want them to or not.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Sept. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/09/30/everyone-you-know-will-be-able-to-rate-you-on-the-terrifying-yelp-for-people-whether-you-want-them-to-or-not/?utm_term=.a3636763f106. Accessed 23 Sept. 2017.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1978-79. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Loizos, Connie. “Much Ado About Peeple.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 5 Oct. 2015, techcrunch.com/2015/10/05/much-ado-about-peeple/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.

Morris, David Z. “Here’s What Hot New App ‘tbh’ Gets Right About Anonymity That Sarahah Doesn’t.” The Hot New Teen App ‘tbh’ Is the Next Sarahah, But Better | Fortune.Com, Fortune, 17 Sept. 2017, fortune.com/2017/09/17/new-sarahah-tbh-anonymous-app/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.

Perez, Sarah. “Controversial people-Rating app Peeple goes live, has a plan to profit from users’ negative reviews.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 8 Mar. 2016, techcrunch.com/2016/03/08/controversial-people-rating-app-peeple-goes-live-has-a-plan-to-profit-from-users-negative-reviews/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.

Read, Jason. “A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity.” Foucault Studies, Jan. 2009, pp. 1-14.

Stanfill, Mel. “The interface as discourse: The production of norms through web design.” New Media & Society, vol. 17, no. 7, Feb. 2014, pp. 1059–1074.

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