Hurray! By now you’ve probably heard that the app you’ve never wanted, the one that allows every rando you’ve ever had an interaction with to publicly pass judgment on you, is finally becoming a reality. It’s called Peeple, and we can all give thanks to the courageous work of Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, “two empathetic, female entrepreneurs” who “want to spread love and positivity.” Because what better way to fill the world love and positivity than by creating a system wherein that guy you were nice to once during freshman year of college and who turned out be a creepo stalker who blogged about you on the internet and broke your dorm room window can tell the whole world exactly what he thinks of you, amirite?
Peeple’s founders are calling it “Yelp for people.” Using a similar 5-star rating system, with the ability to add comments (positive or negative), it’s intended to be a database of humans that allows you research what other people think of you, and of your friends, family members, and acquaintances. Says Cordray, “People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions. Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?”
Sure, why not? In an era when we’re increasingly isolated from our communities, might it not be valuable to know if anyone else thinks that old guy who lives at the end of the street is totally sketchy, or if that’s some unfounded prejudice on your part? In an era of online dating, might it not be valuable to know what kind of messy breakups your potential partner has been through previously? I mean, really, why not give everyone you’ve ever clashed with an opportunity to air your dirty laundry in a public forum?
Ok, to be fair, your creepo stalker from college can’t add you to the database unless he has your cell phone number (though how exactly the app knows my cell phone number is a different issue). Though if you’ve already been added by that guy from OKCupid you were texting and then accidentally ghosted when life got complicated, presumably stalker boy can find your profile and add his own thoughts. And in order to add or rate anyone, users have to do it under their own real name (though, again, I’m not clear on how the app is verifying this information).
Look, the app is slated to launch in November, and the internet is already chock-full of commentary calling this a harbinger of the dystopian hell-future we’re all inevitably sliding towards. But let’s leave aside concerns about sharing all your petty disputes and breakups with the world. Let’s even leave aside the obvious fears many have expressed about the potential for this app to be used for bullying and stalking. These are all very valid concerns, but if you’ve read anything about this app, you’ve almost certainly encountered plenty of criticism about them.
I have another concern about Peeple, though, that I haven’t seen being addressed. The way the rating system on this app works gives it special potential to be destructive for the lives of people who are closeted in any way. In order to rate someone, you must identify how you know them — personally, professionally, or romantically. It’s that last category in particular that gives me pause. Peeple doesn’t care whether you want or need to keep your romantic/sexual activities discreet for some reason (maybe to protect your career, or because you aren’t out to your family, or you live in a conservative community and don’t want to get run out of town, or whatever). Peeple thinks “you deserve to make better decisions with more information,” and that “more information” includes what the assorted people you’ve fucked think about you.
That’s potentially scary for any ol’ heterosexual monogamous person out there, but when you start adding QUILTBAG and nonmonogamous folks into the mix, things can get especially fraught. A system that allows someone’s romantic partners to publicly self-identify, regardless of that person’s say-so, is essentially a system that people the power to out each other.
Now, sure, to some extent your romantic partners have always had that power. I’m out as both bi and nonmonogamous to my friends, and as bi to many of my acquaintances, but as neither to coworkers or to most of my family. Right now, if I sleep with a woman, that woman has the ability to go on the internet and declare that I’m a big ol’ lesbian and she’s got the proof, and I can’t stop her from doing that. What that hypothetical woman doesn’t have, right now, is a direct and virtually unassailable pipeline to share that information with my assorted friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Sure, if I’m a little lax with my Facebook privacy settings, she might be able to post her announcement on my wall, and then some of those people would see it. But I am the curator of my Facebook profile (and of all the rest of my social media profiles); as soon as I’m aware of her post, I can delete it. I can block her from further interactions with my profile. I’m in control.
With Peeple, though, I’m not in control of my own profile. If she identifies herself as a romantic partner of mine and posts a review, I don’t have the power to immediately remove that information. I have to contact Peeple and ask them to remove it. And since the app hasn’t launched yet, we can only speculate about how responsive they’ll be, or what they’ll consider a valid reason for removing a review.
This matters, of course, because being outed can have potentially devastating consequences. I used to be a teacher — being outed as nonmonogamous could have ruined my career. For young people, in particular, being outed as gay or lesbian or bi can lead to a host of negative consequences, including familial rejection, which in turn too often leads to homelessness and poverty.
To be fair, Peeple’s FAQ does make some attempts to allay my concerns. In order to join, you must be 21 or older. Theoretically, then, especially vulnerable QUILTBAG teenagers shouldn’t end up in the system. Realistically, we all know how well age requirements actually work on social media. Realistically, too, young people don’t suddenly stop being vulnerable at the magical age of 21, although they are more likely to be in a better position to support themselves if your family cuts them off than they were at, say, 16.
Peeple states that it does “not tolerate profanity, bullying, health references, disability references, confidential information, mentioning other people in a rating that you are not currently writing a rating for, name calling, degrading comments, abuse, derogatory comments, sexual references, mention of confidential information, racism, legal references, hateful content, sexism, and other parameters in our terms and conditions.” This is all vague enough to be mostly meaningless until we see how things actually play out when the app is released. What constitutes “confidential information”? It seems safe to assume that something like HIV status would be covered under “health references.” But does sexual orientation count as confidential? Does monogamy, or lack thereof?
There is also (and I was honestly a little surprised by this) a provision about those “romantic” connections based on your relationship status. Per the FAQ, “When you login to our app we ask you if you are single. If you say ‘yes’ you can rate and be rated romantically in the app and the dating features are wide open for your use. If you say ‘no’ we respect your relationship and no one can comment on you romantically and you cannot comment on anyone romantically.” Theoretically, I guess, because I am married, if I log into the app and state that I am not single, no one else will be able to claim romantic partnership with me. My various other partners will still be able to rate me via a “personal” connection, but they can’t claim me as a “romantic” one.
But that, as best as I can tell, only works if I log into the app. This seems to be the case for a lot of Peeple’s “protective” features. In order to fully access them, even as inadequate as they are, I have to be willing to log into the app myself and claim my own profile. That doesn’t seem so unreasonable, you might think, but here’s the rub: As long as I don’t log in and don’t claim my profile, Peeple will only display the positive reviews I’ve received. By logging in, though, I am implicitly agreeing to monitor my own profile in some way. From that point onward, I get 48 hours from the time a negative review is posted to “work it out with the user.” If I can’t convince my reviewer to change what they’ve written, it goes public at the end of the 48 hours.
This puts me, the potential user, in a nasty catch-22. If I don’t log in, I can’t claim what little control over my own profile Peeple is willing to offer me. If I do log in, I now have to deal with negative reviews that never would have been made public if I hadn’t logged in.
Though, the truth is, even a positive review can have unintended negative effects. Let’s go back to my hypothetical lady date — the one who for some reason feels the need to inform the world that I’ve been having lesbian sex. Maybe she and I had a lovely time together, and she just wants to spread a little positivity via her favorite “positivity app,” so she posts a very nice review about what a nice date she had with me. Unfortunately for me, I’m no less outed because she put her comments in a positive context.
Alright, so maybe if it’s important to me that I not be outed, I can personally go claim my profile and list myself as not single. Now she can’t claim a romantic relationship with me, but she can still claim a personal one, and can write exactly the same comments.
But what about my friend, who is both unpartnered and nonmonogamous, who manages a retail store with a large number of employees and is actively climbing the corporate ladder? He is single but has had a large number of romantic/sexual partners in a nonmonogamous context. Does that really need to be public knowledge? Do his employees need access to this kind of information about him? Do his bosses?
Cordray and McCullough seem unwilling to get bogged down by these sorts of questions. In their YouTube videos, they’re unrelentingly upbeat and in full positive-spin mode. “I can tell you are actually a really modest guy,” Cordray says to some uncomfortable-looking fellow she’s accosted in a bar. “You would never tell people how great you really, but maybe the network that loves you would.” But what if that network also wants to share information that I don’t need or want the world to know?
After an immense amount of backlash that would have left any genuinely self-reflective person reeling into “maybe I made a mistake” territory, they instead posted an update on their website that begins with this laughably tone-deaf statement, “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.” The trouble with Peeple’s “gift” is that you can’t return it. You can’t opt out, and like the great-aunt who insists you try on your new sweater and then pulls the tags off after declaring that it fits you perfectly, Peeple seems determined to do everything in its power to get you to opt in, whether you want to or not.