If you know me, you know it’s weird for me to bash an app. Usually, I’m one of the people extolling the virtues of technology. There are limits, however, and the new Peeple app crosses the line. Peeple lets you rate everyone from your friends, neighbors and co-workers to ex-romantic partners just like you rate businesses on Yelp. It’s a bad idea and is not going to work out well. The reason I’m generally so positive is that I look at technology based on psychological fundamentals. I ask a simple question: Is the technology in question supporting core human goals? Peeple does not. In fact, it does the opposite. According to various reports, Peeple developers Cordray and McCullough felt it would be useful to research people the same way you research other things, like hotels, cars and toasters, before you make a commitment. McCullough, a mother of two, thought it would be a great way to find out whether or not she could trust her neighbors. This is such a gross simplification of human experience it’s hard to know what to say. People are not hotels or cars. They are unique and dynamic beings with multiple skills and propensities that make them fit differently as circumstances and relationships change. Trust–that most valued of human attributes–is not a bank shot or a product of hearsay. It is the result of an intentional and mutual exchange of information between people, not about them. The developers say that people are reacting negatively to this app because it’s new and throughout history, people have resisted new technology. The second part is correct. There has been rampant technophobia ever since Socrates and Plato opposed chiseling words into stone for fear we would lose our ability to remember things.
Their logic, however, doesn’t hold. Just because we have a tendency to resist new technology
doesn’t mean that all new technology will be good once we get used to it. People are reacting negatively to Peeple because it violates core psychological principles driving human behavior. Cordray and McCullough are either naïve or severely misguided if they think ‘Yelping your fellow citizens’ will be a source of accurate information and not just a free-for-all. The Washington Post reported that this app was driven by the women’s desire to promote empathy. For anyone who thinks this is a manifestation of empathy; guess again. Empathy means viewing the world through the other person’s eyes, not your own. This is the exact opposite. I like digital solutions that support human goals. However, the basic premise of Peeple breaches fundamental social rules.
Etiquette and netiquette, although always an evolving set of norms, exist for a reason. They facilitate social interaction. They allow people to know the “rules of the game.” This app, however well intentioned the developers may be, is much more likely to have negative outcomes than anything else. It opens the door for all kinds of abuse, whether it’s “social shaming,” disgruntled acquaintances, gaming the system, general trolls and haters or ‘traditional’ bullies. (I make this distinction because bullies generally know their targets, whereas trolls and haters receive their emotional pay-off from spewing negativity to random targets.) Consider the legitimate concerns over Facebook instituting the “Dislike” button and extend that to a rating system where all you need is someone’s phone number.
No matter what restrictions are put in place. it is much more trouble than it’s worth for everyone except the troublemakers. The developers say that negative ratings will be held so the target can “rebut” them before they go live. Boy, that’s how I want to spend my time–rebutting anonymous ratings. Not to mention that there isn’t a chance that this won’t end up on the phones of middle-school kids. Tell me one thing that this app will accomplish that can’t be done better and safer using another tool or platform–without even taking the time to walk over and knock on your neighbor’s door.
For those who say that honest feedback is valuable, I agree. But feedback without the benefit of context and personal connection is meaningless. Feedback is a relationship. Both the provider and the receiver have to be party to the social contract. Peeple isn’t feedback. “Rating” people without a relational exchange is gossip at its worst. It removes all context and accountability. In these circumstances, people fall back on heuristics and stereotypes, give preference to superficial attributes, such as attractiveness, promote double standards for things like gender representation (like we see in the response to selfies), and exhibit all the other inherent cognitive and biological biases and instincts we use to deal with incomplete information.
The human brain is hardwired to react to social evaluations. We care how other people think about us at a deep, instinctive level. Social collaboration and social knowledge have been, and continue to be, critical to our physical and emotional survival. Our world has changed a lot since we were wandering the Savannahs fending off sabre tooth tigers, but our reactions remain the same. Social wounds have as much impact as physical wounds. They genuinely and literally hurt. “Honest feedback” from anonymous raters can’t “help” anyone. It won’t even be heard in any way that approaches useful because it will be interpreted as an attack by our reptilian brains long before the conscious brain kicks in.
Recommendations are only as good as the recommender. Developer Julia Cordray writes that she is horrified that her flip remark about Peeple as a Yelp for People has been so misconstrued. She argues that she is only trying to reinforce the positive: "That’s why Peeple is focused on the positive and ONLY THE POSITIVE as a 100% OPT-IN system. You will NOT be on our platform without your explicit permission. There is no 48 hour waiting period to remove negative comments. There is no way to even make negative comments. Simply stated, if you don’t explicitly say “approve recommendation”, it will not be visible on our platform.” Essentially what Cordray says in her defense of Peeple is that the information on the app is SO curated that it is of no value whatsoever except providing a pat on the back. In a society where “I have little patience for those less __(Fill in the blank)___ than I am” is the stock answer for our shortcomings in a job interview, no recommendation short of five happy stars will make it through. While I can make a legitimate case for an app that allows people to reinforce others’ good qualities and strengths, that is an entirely different thing. Positive reinforcement functions as grooming – social reinforcement. While positive, it is generally incomplete. That’s the point. This positive use has absolutely nothing to do with the original example of getting information about which ones of your neighbors to trust. There’s a serious disconnect here somewhere.
I hope it is youthful exuberance that leads the developers to think that either “trust” is a function of hearsay and not a relational exchange or that limited and de-contextualized information gives you an accurate picture. There are so many positive things that technology can do; I hate to see such obvious energy and creativity devoted to a project without considering user psychology and social wellbeing. The bottom line? If it makes it to launch, Peeple will provide an unhealthy sport to those who enjoy mud slinging and countless hours of deleting a new form of spam. A version of this article was published on Psychology Today on Positively Media.
About Dr. Pamela Rutledge Pamela Rutledge is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and Faculty in Media Psychology MA and PhD programs at Fielding Graduate University. She consults on a variety of media and marketing projects bringing together the ancient art of storytelling with the science of human behavior. Her perspective is a synthesis of cognitive, social and positive psychologies with emerging findings from social neuroscience.