Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
A new app, Peeple, if launched, will allow people to rate one another based on a one-to-five star rating system
Jeff Yang: It's like getting a FICO score for life -- another popularity contest that creates opportunities for abuse
What if your value to the world could be summarized in a single rating of one to five stars, generated by the opinions of the people around you — a simple score that reflects your reputation, goodwill and general likeability?
It’s a compelling idea — and a singularly terrible one: While there’s certainly an upside to being able to know immediately whether someone is creepy or trustworthy with the click of button, the dangers of context-free judgment, translated into a dimensionless grade system, should be patently obvious.
And yet, according to the Washington Post, entrepreneurs Nicole McCullogh and Julia Cordray are poised to unleash an app called Peeple that gives anyone the ability to review anyone else, without their voluntary participation or even their knowledge.
It’s “Yelp, but for humans,” as Post columnist Caitlin Dewey aptly puts it — a tool that promises to bring the same knee-jerk assessments, slanted critiques, shady vendettas and corrosive ranting that Yelp and other crowdsourced review platforms bring to small business, products, travel, literature, film and television and basically everything else in our lives.
Yelping humans would seem to be the last frontier in the digital economy’s quest to invade, disrupt and reductively simplify the relationships that make up what used to be referred to as “civilization.”
Older folk may recall that back in the days before the Internet, we often decided who we wanted to interact with based on personal recommendations and mutual friendships. But the temptation to find faster and more standardized ways of judging people has always been there.
Those temptations frequently turned into reality. The Middle Ages had heraldry, the crests and symbols worn on shields and banners to proclaim one’s ancestral background and individual worth. The Victorian Era had its social register, in which all the families and persons of prominence and good character were documented. Postwar America saw the rise of “Who’s Who” lists. The 1970-80s gave birth to our still-feverish obsession with lists, records and statistics. And of course, our academic, professional and business worlds have always featured grades, test results, ranks and audits of our knowledge, skills and experience.
So Peeple isn’t exactly a new idea — not even in the digital space. Back in 2008, Joe Fernandez and Binh Tran founded Klout, a service that assesses your “social influence” on a scale of 1 to 100 (with 100 being reserved for luminaries like Lady Gaga and Barack Obama). Though it originally tracked your activities on Twitter and other social networks to calculate its mysterious ranking, rather than directly asking your friends and acquaintances for their opinions, it later gave members the ability to tag one another with areas of influence, allowing you to accrue the status of the Web’s most influential voice on meerkats or elbow macaroni or eyebrow lint.
“This kind of thing has been tried many times before,” says serial entrepreneur James Hong, founder of the early ranking website Hot or Not, which allowed people to anonymously rate self-portraits uploaded by its members, who could then see how attractive they were to total strangers. “Try searching for Unvarnished” — a service that encouraged people to provide anonymous ratings and reviews of bosses, co-workers and business relationships — “or Lulu, an app that’s been doing this with scale for a while on the dating market,” by providing women with a way of sharing reviews and ratings of guys with whom they’ve had romantic relationships.
All of these sites have run into similar problems.
There’s the vast potential for abuse, either through concerted efforts at bullying or through the kind of logrolling and excessive praise that makes even positive online evaluations suspect. And there’s the feeling of dehumanization that comes with the distillation of our identity into a single number. Like a FICO score for life!
For all of the minor potential benefits that might come from advance scouting of prospective acquaintances, there’s something icky in general about services that turn the world into even more of a popularity contest than it already is. Imagine being subjected to the whims of that weird ex-boyfriend you broke up with, that former colleague with anger issues, or that high school classmate who still thinks you’re in high school.
The Internet can be a social hell, full of anonymous slams and idiotic flamewars. But you always have the option of logging off. If Peeple has its way, the manic preschool reality of the digital world could be unleashed on meatspace. To paraphrase the wise sage Pogo, we will have met the trolls — and they’ll be us.