Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Social media can leave a funny taste in your mouth. Legion are the companies declaring that their platform will help you reach full actualization whether this occurs through connecting with friends, finding dates, lining up job prospects, or sharing photographs of what you had for breakfast while on a fantastic vacation. Social media winds up being portrayed like a glass of fruit juice – it’s healthy for you! Drink it! Everybody else is drinking it! Don’t read the nutrition label! But when one goes along and drinks deeply of social media, the taste that remains is often not quite what was expected – the flavor is rather off – it’s as if the imbiber had brushed their teeth with minty toothpaste moments before knocking back the beverage.
Granted, people can become accustomed to strange tastes. Taste buds can adjust to a platform that is full of trolls, they can become numb to advertisements, and they can ignore the acidic belches of rampant corporate surveillance, but periodically a new social media platform is announced for which the mere scent is enough to make people wretch. Such is the case with the, soon to be launched, app Peeple – which allows users to rate other people in much the same way that people currently rate restaurants on Yelp or movies on Netflix. Peeple drew particular scorn for a rather novel feature – that one did not need to join Peeple in order to find oneself being rated there. Indeed, if a person wanted to rate another person all they needed was to click through some meaningless legalese, have the other person’s cell phone number and *presto* they could rate that person – though only ratings of three stars or higher would appear on a public profile if a person did not actually deign to join the site. The company has taken as its tagline “character is destiny” – and claims that its laudable goal is to provide a space where people can rate one another’s character, though the site seems woefully ignorant of the general character of online discourse. And thus, rather predictably, Peeple quickly sparked a fair bit of outrage – with much of this anger being directed at this not-yet-launched social media platform through already existing social media platforms.
Yet the intention here is not to simply lambaste Peeple (though those pieces certainly exist elsewhere) but to consider the app in the broader social framework that makes up the context in which this app is couched. After all, it is easy and makes one feel righteous to go on a tirade against Peeple, but what is more important is to realize that there is nothing particularly surprising about Peeple, it is just a particularly galling example of a tendency which has become endemic to the tech industry today. All that being said, it should still be noted that Peeple is so transparently a terrible idea that one cannot help but think that the app really could turn out to be part of an elaborate hoax – perhaps it’s part of a cheeky advertising campaign to get people excited about another season of Black Mirror? Nevertheless, even if Peeple does turn out to be a hoax – the fact that it seemed credible for even a moment should give us ample reasons to pause and reflect.
It should be acknowledged that there is nothing particularly new about being able to rate things online. We rate restaurants, all manner of shops, museums, movies, books, albums, professors, video games…and the list could go on…and on. Therefore, the idea of an app/platform/site that allows a person to rate other people is not a particularly revolutionary idea. What is surprising about it is simply that somebody was willing to build this app, and that others were willing to fund it, as – not to be overly repetitive – an app that lets people rate one another is a fairly obvious bad idea, while it should have been equally obvious that the unveiling of the app would result in a torrent of negativity. Yet, Peeple does not exist in isolation – no technology does – rather, as Judy Wajcman has written in her book Pressed for Time:
“technologies result from a series of specific decisions made by particular groups of people in particular places at particular times for their own purposes. As such, technologies bear the imprint of the people and social context in which they develop.” (Wajcman, 29)
It may be that Peeple’s founders are sincere in their belief that Peeple will help people to become their best versions of themselves – but it also seems likely that a major factor motivating Peeple’s founders was a simple desire to cash in. After all, the “social context” in which Peeple is embedded is one with a booming tech industry, wherein numerous people are hoping to launch the next billion-dollar start-up. There are investors looking to plunk down large sums of money and there are people eager to see some of those funds in their bank accounts. The current tech climate can be derisively described as one wherein statements such as “Like Uber but for jet skis” or “Like AirBnb but for caves” appear as perfect pitch statements – and in such a situation “Like Yelp but for people” has quite a ring to it. Facebook may have become the dominant platform in social media but there seem to be plenty of investors willing to bet on new social networks that might be able to bite into Facebook’s audience (as the brief enthusiasm for Ello showed) – granted, one needs an active Facebook account to sing up for Peeple. In other words, Peeple is just one amongst a legion of start ups trying to attract attention and investors – it is a climate in which bizarre ideas can find somebody willing to fund them (See: Yo), and so it should be no surprise that somebody is willing to fund something as clearly ludicrous as a people rating app. And while it is important to bear the current financial situation in mind, Peeple cannot be reduced to a simple matter of huge sums of money flowing into start-ups. No, there is something more significant at work.
Take a moment to seriously ponder the following words: Peeple is an app that lets you rate other human beings, regardless of whether or not they want to be rated on Peeple.
Done ruminating? Good.
The above statement about Peeple would be almost humorously absurd if it were not for real. And while Peeple raises numerous questions – about harassment, about opting out – the key questions that it raises are variations of: what gives them the right to do this? Or, who do these people think they are? And to these questions the best response may be to answer a question with a question: what gives Google (now Alphabet)/Facebook/Apple the right to do what they do? Who does the CEO of Uber think he is?
Now, some may respond that one does not have to use Google or Facebook – but this does not mean that one is not still impacted by the decisions of those companies. Don’t use Google? Fine – but will that protect your home from showing up on Google Maps, will it keep your online writings from being indexed by Google and will it protect you from people strutting down the street wearing Google Glass? Answer: Nope. Don’t use Facebook? Fine – but will that guard you against the company’s facial recognition software still learning to recognize your face thanks to your friends and family members who have uploaded pictures in which you are featured, and what about the app you use which has just been purchased by Facebook? Answer: Nope. In many cases people simply shrug their shoulders and do not dwell on the question of “who do these companies think they are. “ After all, “I am not a cab driver so what do I care what Uber does” is an easy sentiment to hold – but Peeple takes this issue and throws it viciously into your (yes, your) face. For the potential victim of Peeple’s rating system is – just to be clear – you.
So, Who does Peeple think it is? What gives Peeple the right?
The answer to those questions is, alas, very easy. Peeple thinks that it is a tech company, and Peeple thinks that which gives it the right to do whatever it wants is precisely that it is a tech company. Our current technological moment is one in which numerous tech firms seem to operate under the logic that being able to do something is enough of a reason to do it. That a company can do something means that it has the right to do so. This may be partially motivated by a sense that if they do not do it than somebody else will – but what this ultimately speaks to is a dramatic unwillingness to say the word “no” to admit that sometimes restraint is wise. To recognize that “can” does not automatically imply “should.” Peeple is what happens when the tech industry discards the basic vestiges of human concern and decency – it is what happens when companies feel that they can do whatever they want to you and your world without much fear of reprisal. Heck, they think that you will eventually thank them for it. And frankly, one can understand how they have come to feel this way; from self driving cars to delivery drones to making you reliant upon their closed proprietary platforms to tracking your every move and covering themselves by sneaking another line into the “user agreement” (which they know nobody reads) tech companies have spent the last several years doing whatever they want with little in the way of opposition. “Should we do this?” is a question that has disappeared from tech company lexicons, if the response to “can we” is “yes” than that is all that seems to matter.
These companies may have their headquarters in nominally democratic nations but that does not mean that they are interested in any democratic interference in what they do. It is as Langdon Winner observed in his book The Whale and the Reactor – in the chapter devoted to the politics of technology:
“It is characteristic of societies based on large, complex technological systems, however, that moral reasons other than those of practical necessity appear increasingly obsolete, ‘idealistic,’ and irrelevant.” (Winner, 36)
Peeple is an apt demonstration of Winner’s point – it is precisely the type of platform that can emerge only once moral constraints (like a basic sense of respect and decency) on technology have broken down. The desire not to have a profile on an app becomes “obsolete,” to say that people are too complex to possibly be rated appears as “idealistic,” and to raise concerns about harassment is cast as “irrelevant.” But it is essential to recognize that these are not quirks of Peeple, rather these are tendencies that shoot through numerous products and platforms in technological society, it is just that Peeple has made them particularly visible. That Peeple was an idea that nobody dared implement until now is only a testament to the way in which tech companies’ presently feel as though they have carte blanche.
In the end it may be that Peeple will simply disappear into the garbage bin of failed apps. For it truly is very difficult to imagine the app being successful. Peeple runs afoul of one of the big challenges that the tech industry has still not figured out how to cope with – the app is simply too creepy. Just as Google (Alphabet) found itself having to retreat from Google Glass once it became obvious that the device was deemed too unsettling, so too may Peeple find that it cannot catch on as the site is viewed too negatively. If the term Glasshole helped sink Google Glass, than perhaps the term Creeple will help sink Peeple. The idea of an app that lets people rate other people is so obviously creepy that many people will simply avoid using the platform out of a sense of respect for their friends who they would never dare rate, and simultaneously it is likely that people will judge a person having a Peeple profile as a sign that such a person should be avoided. And then there is the matter of what happens once Peeple starts getting pointed to in lawsuits over slander. In short – even if Peeple isn’t actually a hoax, it is very difficult to imagine it being particularly successful, who would want to spend time on a social media platform filled with a bunch of Creeple?
And yet it should not be forgotten that Peeple is not an aberration – it is just a particularly visible example of a tendency that can be detected from numerous tech companies today. It is important to ask “who do these people think they are?!” when it comes to Peeple, but it is also important to ask that question of Facebook, Twitter, Google (Alphabet) and any other tech company you may care to name.
The tag line for Peeple is “Character is Destiny” – and you can tell a lot about a person’s character if they think there is nothing wrong with rating other human beings online.
Character may be destiny. But Peeple is just a caricature of the technological ideology from whence it comes.
[Update – it seems that Peeple is bending under some of the negative attention. There is still absolutely no reason why anybody should use this app.]
Wajcman, Judy. Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.