Internet Slander Machine | Peter Mehit


downloadI admit it.  I was under a rock.  I hadn’t heard about Peeple until I watched John Oliver’s hysterical send up of it on Last Week Tonight.  Touted as Yelp for people, the application would have allowed you to create a profile for someone you wanted to rate (without their consent) and then rate them using 1 to 5 stars along with comments.  If you posted something negative, the subject had 48 hours to talk you out of posting it.  If negotiations didn’t work, the posting went up and you could engage in rebuttal on the site.  And all of those comments would stay up forever because you couldn’t delete your account.

What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

The Washington Post saw the possibilities for abuse and slammed the site as it was coming out in its beta launch to a limited number of opted-in users.  Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough pitched Peeple as a ‘positivity app’ designed to ‘lift up people’.  To be fair, they also limited profanity, sexism and discussion of private health conditions.  But the fundamental premise, that others have the right to rate you on a public platform without your permission and that you are reduced to a star rating was what the Post found most disturbing.

I could not agree more.  Performance reviews were a big motivator in my deciding to start my own business: I hated them.  Even if you got a good one this time, your next one is dependent on many things beyond your control, including the bias of the person giving it.  Peeple is like that, except it’s more like having a performance review at random, from people who make their judgments based on a small sliver of experience with you.  The stats are that people are seven times more likely to leave a bad review than a good one, so how do we think this will likely go?

Something magical happened when the Post review came out.  People hated Peeple.  It was slammed everywhere by everybody.  It turns out nobody, except internet trolls, wanted a ‘burnbook’, a place where the rater has control over the rated.  The firestorm sent Cordray and McCollough into full retreat.  They went as far as to take down their social media pages and pull Peeple off line.

After this taste of their own medicine, Cordray appeared on Dr. Phil to state that her app was always one of positivity that was met with skepticism.  Indeed, her own web series put the lie to this, where she stated that the app would be, “pointless if it were all positive.”

She went on, in a separate video, to express her petulance regarding the fallout by telling viewers she didn’t have time for them.  She comes across as the girl that was in the ‘in-crowd’ in high school: Nobody says anything bad about her (that she actually hears), so there can’t be a problem with her idea.  And if you have a problem with her idea, well, you’re just insecure.  From Entrepreneur magazine:

“All the people who love it aren’t saying anything.  Or they’re sending me these lovely messages over LinkedIn, or emails or texts.  The people who are the loudest right now are the angriest and most scared.” 

Right.  Not saying anything.  More like all of your potential defenders have run for the hills.  As well they should.  Who in their right mind would want to be associated with Peeple.  Things are bad enough on Facebook.  WorldStarHipHop is awash in cell phone videos of people throwing down over Facebook comments.  There have been numerous suicides over posts on Facebook.  How much worse would it be on an app whose sole purpose is to pass judgment on you as a person?

All of this plays out as a social media star Essena O’Neill takes her final bow.  The 19 year old Instagram star who had a half million followers, was trotting the globe and making money from endorsements, sat down in front of a webcam and tearfully admitted her success made her feel hollow and lost.  She describes how she became obsessed with collecting likes and users.  Each level of accomplishment only opened the door to the next; an endless treadmill of building a false dream life that others wanted to believe was true.

“I told myself that when I have heaps of views people will view me, I will feel valued, I will feel happiness.  I let myself be defined by numbers,” she said.  “I had it all and I was miserable.”

What would app like Peeple do to someone who followed Essena, someone craving the attention and approval of others through social media, who did not possess her beauty and skill?

This is the point, and why the rejection of Peeple is a great day for people.  A lot of us are obsessed with friend counts and likes and hits.  We become convinced that our worth is tied to popularity.  Facebook and similar apps just extend the same stupid high school mentality that what is popular is what is good.  As adults, I hope, we know this is not true.  Sometimes the person that speaks most quietly is the smartest, the most unpopular is the kindest, the least physically attractive the most spiritually beautiful.  None of this can be known if we allow people to be boiled down to a rating.

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