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Why Peeple, the "Yelp for people," shouldn't freak you out

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The Washington Post calls it "terrifying." Dubbed "Yelp for people," Peeple is a new app that lets people rate their friends, professional contacts, and even romantic partners. And everyone is freaking out.

But there's not actually much reason to be terrified of Peeple. Yes, the app is a bad idea. But it's not really a new bad idea. It's an idea that entrepreneurs have repeatedly tried and failed to make work. It turns out that people aren't as interested in publicly burning their ex-lovers and friends as Peeple thinks they are. And even if some people do want to publicly trash their acquaintances, Peeple has promised safeguards that will make that hard to do.

You're only hearing about Peeple because it sounds like such an outrageously bad idea that people love denouncing it. But that's not the foundation of a successful business. In a few days, the internet will move on to being outraged about something else, and Peeple — which won't even become available until November — is likely to sink back into obscurity.

What is Peeple?

Peeple is a forthcoming smartphone app that will allow people to rate anyone they know, whether or not the subjects want to be reviewed. Founded by Canadian entrepreneurs Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, the company behind Peeple says it has already raised $250,000 in funding.

The service is designed to cover all aspects of people's lives. You can use it to rate professional contacts, friends, and romantic relationships.

Peeple says it will take a number of precautions to prevent the service from becoming a cesspool of nasty reviews. Reviewers will be required to use their real identities as verified by Facebook, and new Facebook profiles won't be allowed to participate.

Positive reviews of another person — those rated three or more stars on a five-star scale — will be posted immediately, but negative reviews will be held until the subject has time to review them. If someone refuses to register for the site, those negative reviews will be kept private indefinitely.

So the emerging caricature of Peeple as an app for stalkers and disgruntled exes may turn out to be wrong. It may actually be harder to harass people on Peeple than on existing social media platforms.

How have people reacted to Peeple?

The reaction has been swift and overwhelmingly negative. Across the internet, people have condemned the app as an invasion of privacy and an invitation to online harassment. So many people are angry about Peeple that the app recently became a trending topic on social media sites.

The backlash has been so intense that Peeple has been trying to play damage control. "We hear you loud and clear," the company said in a Thursday Facebook post. "You want the option to opt in or opt out."

But no one seemed to be mollified. "This is not Yelp for people. This is a harassment tool for abusers," one commenter said.

"This app is a vicious and disgusting idea that can only cause harm," another added, describing the app as "the ugliest Pandora's box in internet history."

Has anyone built an app like this before?

g-stockstudio / Shutterstock

(g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

The idea behind Peeple isn't really new, says Eric Goldman, a legal scholar who focuses on online privacy issues.

"For the grizzled internet veterans like me, I'm confused about why people are freaking about this idea," he says. "People reviewing other people for their personal behavior is a perennial topic."

He pointed to PlayerBlock and Don't Date Him Girl as examples. Both are sites that allow women to rate the men they date, with an eye to filtering out "players" who cheat on their partners.

When PlayerBlock was released in 2007, it got a reception much like the one Peeple is getting now. "I for one think that such a service is a disgusting invasion of privacy," one reviewer wrote. "The potential for abuse of such a system is enormous."

Lulu is another app with the same premise: helping users — mostly women — review people they've dated. The app got a writeup from the New York Times in 2013.

Perhaps the closest analogy is Unvarnished, an app that was released in 2010. An LA Times writeup even used the same "Yelp for people" framing that's been used for Peeple. Unlike Peeple, Unvarnished allowed reviews to be posted anonymously.

Is it legal to run a service like Peeple?

A number of armchair attorneys have warned Peeple's founders that they're opening themselves up to liability. But Goldman says that — at least under US law — the company has nothing to worry about.

The reason, ironically, is the Communications Decency Act. Most of this controversial 1996 internet censorship law was struck down by the Supreme Court, but the courts left in place Section 230, which gives broad immunity to website operators hosting user-submitted information. "This is clearly governed by Section 230," Goldman says.

If someone posts defamatory information about another person online, the poster could face liability under libel laws. But Section 230 shields an online service like Peeple from any liability, even if the posts are ultimately found to be defamatory.

Does Peeple the app have anything to do with Peeple the keyhole gadget?

No, and the other company is pretty frustrated about it.

Peeple is a small camera that can be mounted to the keyhole in your front door. It has a built-in wifi chip, allowing you to check out who is standing at your front door with your smartphone, no matter where you are.

There's no connection between the two companies, but the tsunami of outrage surrounding the Yelp-for-people app has engulfed the gadget company too.

"This was supposed to be our moment in the sun," the gadget company's founder told Wired. "We just won a major competition … then this happened yesterday and completely swallowed up our press. Our branding is in tatters."

Should I be worried about my name showing up on Peeple?

We won't know how popular Peeple will be until the app's launch, which is scheduled for November. But there's reason to be skeptical that it will get very far.

For one thing, you probably hadn't heard of the other people-rating services I mentioned earlier in this article. This is an idea that has been tried before, and it's never really worked.

And the furious reaction helps explain why. People find Peeple, and other apps like it, creepy. They have a strong intuition that rating friends and romantic partners is different from rating businesses. Given that Peeple will require users to attach their real names to reviews, most people will be reluctant to participate.

Yelp works because customers and businesses have an arms-length relationship. Most people aren't friends with the owners of businesses they patronize; they don't have to worry that leaving a negative review will later lead to awkward encounters at social events. So while Yelp has caught on, there's no reason to think that many people want to use a "Yelp for people."