The New App That Could Help You Lose Friends

Yelp for friends? This may not be a great idea.

Posted Oct 02, 2015

 Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock

It feels weird for me to bash an app, because usually I'm one of the people saying how great technology is. 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 it's not going to work out well.  

According to various reports, Peeple developers Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough felt it would be useful to research people the same way we research other things—like hotels, cars and toasters—before making a commitment to them. McCullough, a mother of two, thought it would be a great way to find out whether or not she could trust her neighbors. But 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 human attribute—is not a bank shot or a product of hearsay. It is the result of an intentional, 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 that 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.

That logic, however, doesn't mean that all technology will be good once we get used to it. People are reacting negatively to Peeple because it violates the psychological fundamentals of 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 the app was driven the developers' professed desire to promote empathy. If anyone thinks this app is a manifestation of empathy, guess again: Empathy means viewing the world through another person’s eyes, not your own. Peeple 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 more likely to have negative outcomes than anything else. It opens the door for all sorts of abuse, whether it’s social shaming, disgruntled acquaintances gaming the system, or the encouragement of general trolls, haters, and "traditional" bullies. (I make this distinction because bullies generally know their targets, whereas trolls and haters receive their emotional payoff from spewing negativity to random targets.) Consider the legitimate concerns raised recently over the possibility of Facebook instituting a Dislike button, and extend that to an entire rating system for which all you need is someone’s phone number. No matter what restrictions are put in place, it is 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. This app would surely end up on the phones of middle-school kids—the worst possible place. I can't conceive of one thing that this app will accomplish that couldn't be done better and safer using another tool or platform—or simply taking the time to walk over and knock on a 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 receiver have to be party to a social contract. Peeple isn’t feedback. “Rating” people without a relational exchange is gossip—at its worst. It removes all context and accountability. In such circumstances, people resort to heuristics and stereotypes; give preference to superficial attributes, such as attractiveness; promote double standards for things like gender representation (as we already see in 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 wandered the Savannahs fending off sabertooth tigers, but our reactions remain the same: Social wounds have as much impact as physical wounds: They genuinely hurt. “Honest feedback” from anonymous raters can't “help” anyone. It won’t be heard in any useful way because it will be interpreted as an attack by our reptilian brains long before our conscious brain absorbs in.  

Hopefully, few people will give credence to this type of rating as valid evaluation—recommendations are only as good as the recommender. Anyone who makes judgments about who their children should hang out with based on Peeple-ratings should be reported to child protective services. Hopefully, it is simply youthful exuberance that leads the developers to think that "trust" is a function of hearsay and not a relational exchange. There are so many positive things that technology can do that I hate to see such obvious energy and creativity devoted to a project without considering user psychology and social well-being. 

The bottom line? If it makes it to launch, Peeple will provide an unhealthy sport to those who enjoy mudslinging.