On November 5th I’ll be presenting my latest paper at a one day ESRC conference at Cambridge on ‘bridging the structure/agency divide’.
UPDATE: This post has been edited to remove reference to the user being unable to opt-in to the app and to contest negative reviews; features which have since been removed in light of the public backlash to the originally proposed app. As of launch you can now hide negative reviews that are posted about you, however, a ‘truth licence’ can be purchased whereby anyone can buy access to negative reviews you have hidden. In essence this new ‘safety’ feature does not stop abuse, does not allow you to truly hide abusive comments, and is particularly harmful to members of the LGBT community, and to abuse and rape survivors. Monopolizing from negativity, hate, and abuse is ethically hideous and morally bankrupt.
Peeple is due to Launch March 2016. The email announcing this launch is shown at the bottom of this piece. They have made some changes such as making the app opt-in, and adding features to screen and hide negative comments behind a paywall, but it is noticeable that though they insist that they have included safety features they still have not addressed the key concerns of many; the virtual panopticon they have created to assign value to pre-determined characteristics, and the very real possibility of abuse and harassment that this app fosters.
Peeple reinforces normative social Discourses by ranking us & making sure we adhere to these Discourses to improve our rating. It’s hideous. The creation of a Discourse of positive and negative social identities which also have a literal metric attached to them is still worrying and I sincerely hope that everyone rejects and questions the truly problematic core of this application’s aims. It is an application that exists to rank people against each other, to enforce unhelpful normative social expectations and values, and to assign metrics and values to these ideals in order to justify and perpetuate them.
I hate to scaremonger on the internet. I’m generally of the opinion that we should let the internet develop as its own beast, and that we shouldn’t restrict what is possible online. However, I can’t help but feel that the internet is taking an awful step into Charlie Brooker’s imagination. The Black Mirror is coming thick and fast.
A new app is on the horizon. An app that is more than probably going to garner popularity and that is going to bring out some of the worst aspects in people. Already valued at over $7 million, It’s due to launch late next month, and it’s called Peeple.
For those who haven’t heard of Peeple, it is an app that allows you to rank people that you know. Much like Yelp reviews of businesses, you will be able to rank people that you know and leave a ‘review’ for them.
Currently, to leave a review, you have to be over 21 with a ‘real’ Facebook account. They assure those nervous of bullying that this will lessen the chances. In order you review someone, you have to prove you know them, currently by having their phone number.
Some say that Facebook and Twitter are just popularity measures, Peeple, in essence, suggests that we shouldn’t hide this, but instead just jump to the point, and put a number in front of it rating you. The founders suggest it will be useful for checking out people in your life, or, for example, reviewing and researching babysitters.
Putting aside the awfulness of attaching a number and value to a person (and it truly is awful)… This app has some rather large questions to answer ethically. Although they assure potential users that this app has protection from fake reviews, there appears to be no protection in terms of accuracy of reviews. How do we protect from inaccurate reviews? How do we verify reviews? How do we control/allow for bias? How can subjective opinion be made objective? And, importantly, what affect does this have on the people being reviewed? Studies on Yelp have shown that you tend not to see the ‘middling’ every-day reviews of businesses, but instead only see the polar extremes of love and hate. Other review sites such as ratemyprofessor have shown that there is inherent sexism in such a concept. Peeple will undoubtedly be plagued by the same issues.
Most of the problems stem down to the fact that people are not treated as subjects. In Peeple, we will literally be treated as objects, as commodities, and ranked on our pros and cons. The agency will be removed for the person being ranked and rated; instead, they will become non-agentic – unable to act and make a choice. They are literally being acted upon, they are being judged against subjective opinion. The subjective opinion of others that you have encountered becomes an object that is used to rank you and rate you.
One of the co-founders recently said “we want to spread love and positivity…We want to operate with thoughtfulness.” in an ideal world this works but in reality it is ethically problematic to assume that only positivity will be spread via an application that ranks subjective reputation. It’s naturally going to facilitate bullying and hatred, it is open to abuse and treating behavior, and arguebly could even encourage these traits. Think of the impact of such an app to a gay person who is not yet ‘out’, to victims of rape and domestic abuse, to the trans community, to those already facing online abuse and harassment.
In essence, it is the endpoint of what Foucault was talking about with his work on the Panopticon. For those who aren’t up to speed, a quick, if glib, introduction. Foucault use a prison design by Jeremy Bentham in which all prisoners could be seen at all time by a central watchtower, and thus, began to police themselves and behave in case they were being watched. Foucault suggested that this was how humanity policed itself, under the threat of observation. If we think we were being watched and viewed, we are more likely to conform to societal norms and behave in line with expectations.
Peeple will extend this idea, and make any encounter public and permanent. A passing statement or a throw-away line could come back to haunt you, and be always attached to your rating and ranking. Something that you said whilst drunk could follow you around on Peeple forever. Much like the episode ‘the entire history of you’ from the eerily dystopic black comedy, Black Mirror, we are facing a reality in which we may not be able to live without constant review of every encounter.
And one does not have to go far to imagine the effects this may have psychologically upon even the most ‘well-adjusted’ people.
If I sound passionate and angry about this, it is because I am. I truly believe this is a hideous and unwanted application. If you choose to subject yourself to being ranked and judged, that is fine, and entirely your choice; more power to you, but I cannot justify using an application to objectifies the subjective opinions of others and uses this as a metric to rank and compare humans.
The app hasn’t launched yet, and it is still in beta, meaning things may change, but as it stands the app is due to launch in a month’s time.
UPDATE. The email announcement for the launch of the application can be found below.