Generally when I write, I like to take an objective stance rather than impose my opinion; except of course when I don’t. Due to the nature of this particular piece, however, I think I need to make abundantly clear: I think Peeple is a horrifically awful idea, not because it could not theoretically be used for good, but because so certain is the likelihood it will be incessantly abused. Put another way: the odds of the team behind Peeple successfully implementing this mind-numbing concept — quite literally, a Yelp or TripAdvisor for people you know — without imploding in disastrous, dramatic fashion, are approximately 3,720 to one.

Thing is though, it might just work. Just maybe. If it can survive the social backlash. And the inevitable defamation lawsuits. And more social backlash. And if the team can indeed implement the necessary safeguards, failsafes, anti-abuse mechanisms, and ensure that it is indeed used for a positive purpose, and if they can finally teach pigs to fly, then maybe, just maybe, it could work.

What is Peeple?

A Yelp or TripAdvisor for your fellow Earthlings.

Their website address seems an implicit slogan: forthepeeple.com.  Whether indeed it is for the people remains a delicate question. Quite plainly, Peeple is a Yelp or TripAdvisor for your fellow Earthlings, and yes, it’s exactly what that sounds like: you literally rate — on a 5-star scale (or 5-dot scale, if you prefer TripAdvisor to Yelp) — people with whom you interact, and, just like those famous travel review sites, you can also leave seething, cringeworthypraiseworthy reviews to your heart’s content.

Alarmingly, anybody can leave a review for anybody else, sort of: you need to know their full name and phone number, so presumably then, you can’t write a scathing monologue about the asshat who just cut you off on the freeway, or the creep who was way too aggressive on the dance floor.

Thing is though, although you need a name and number in order to write a review, they do not need to have a Peeple account in order for your review to be publicly visible.

Somebody you’ve just met is now at your mercy to write whatever you feel like about them, on a public forum, even if they haven’t signed up with Peeple yet.

Think about that for a second: somebody you’ve just met, whose name and phone number you know — a seemingly high standard but, when you think about it, not really that high at all, just think of how many names and numbers you get at a social mixer or night on the town, if you’re on your game — is now at your mercy to write whatever you feel like about them, on a public forum, even if they haven’t signed up with Peeple yet, and without their knowledge (though presumably they will be notified once you leave your review).

Already, Twitter is exploding with seemingly unanimous disgust, at what seems on its face not only to be a vile, disgusting concept, but a positively terrifying tool for abuse. In an era where we’ve learned to tread carefully online, to lock down and make entirely private our Facebook profiles, now suddenly there’s Peeple from which nobody can hide at all.

This is quite scary indeed.

So how does it work, and what’s the founders’ story?

I’m not going to go into details — there’s already a great article about it here at theWashington Post — but suffice to say, the founding team is convinced that they’ve got a handle on things, and that their goal with Peeple is precisely not to be a platform for abuse, but rather to legitimately help people help others to understand those around them.

There are, admittedly, a few strict prerequisites for signing up: you must be at least 21; you need to write reviews using your full real name; and you must prove your authenticity by registering with a phone number and a Facebook account that’s been live under your name for at least six months.

If you’re a stellar example of a human being, then why wouldn’t you want to showcase your awesome 5-star rating to the world?

The founders, Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray, are adamant that the whole point behind Peeple is to “showcase your character online,” because why not. After all, if you’re a stellar example of a human being, if you’re someone whom your friends and colleagues respect, look up to, admire, and generally love; if people you’ve dated generally regard you an upstanding, decent citizen and not some bottom-feeding scumbag, then why the heck wouldn’t you want to showcase your awesome 5-star rating to the world? Alternatively, as McCullough says, wouldn’t you want to understand with which of your neighbors to entrust your kids, and why?

When rating someone, you need to affirm how you know them: personally, professionally, or romantically. The point is, you need to explain how and why you know the person whom you’re rating, rather like when you indicate on TripAdvisor whether a place is good for singles, couples, business, and so on.

Once the review is posted, if it’s a positive review – meaning 3 or more stars — it goes live immediately. If it’s a negative review — 2 or fewer stars — then it’s held in a sort of escrow, so to speak, for 48 hours, during which time the person being reviewed may dispute the claim.

Potential for abuse?

Obviously then, the potential for abuse is apocalyptically, biblically high. The notion that anybody can leave a public review for what would likely have been an otherwise private matter — a first date, say — is mind-numbingly staggering.

Moreover, because people who leave reviews for things — Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc. — tend generally to be bifurcated into two camps — those who love and those who hate — it stands to reason by analogy that reviews on Peeple will be similarly very binary in nature, producing stellar examples of human beings on one hand, and wretched villainy on the other.

Obviously then, it seems reasonable to conclude that people subjected — objected? — by Peeple will be at best, ambivalent, or at worst, devastatingly upset, angry, and, unsurprisingly, hugely litigious.

Speaking of litigious, it blows my mind how the Peeple team intends to inoculate themselves from the guaranteed salvo of defamation lawsuits sure to fly their way. And even assuming they’ll be able to casually deflect them with the usual Yelp/TripAdvisor-esque “the views and opinions are strictly those of our users and in no way reflect the views or opinions of Peeple” defense, what then of the Peeple users themselves? In other countries, for instance, Americans have been sued for defamation from hotel owners because it turns out that unless you explicitly make clear that your review is an opinion, leaving a bad review is grounds for a defamation suit against you, the guest who was eaten alive by bedbugs in that 5-star hotel.

In America at least, defamation is a curious thing though: on the one hand, there’s a fairly easy affirmative defense, namely, that the statement was one of fact or one of personal opinion; and in any event, in order for a defamation case not to be tossed out, there must in fact have been harm to the plaintiff.

Thing is though, there are certain types of defamation suits that do not require a showing of harm. For example, a defamatory statement made about one’s professional (in)abilities, one’s health, or one’s personal relationships, is per seinjurious, unless of course you’re a celebrity or other public figure cast in the limelight.

And therein lies the fundamental problem: the three aforementioned categories — professional, personal, romantic — at least one of which is a prerequisite to leave a rating, all fall within the bounds of a defamation per se lawsuit.

This is the perfect storm of startup disaster. It’s like trying to build a Rube Goldberg machine where a candle burns a string to ignite gunpowder to pour water into a cup made of solid lithium.

On its face then, between the massive social media outcry and the potential for a veritable torrent of defamation suits, this seems like the perfect storm of startup disaster. It’s like trying to build a Rube Goldberg machine where a candle burns a string to ignite gunpowder to pour water into a cup made of solid lithium. If you remember even one lesson from your high school chemistry days, you’ll know that lithium and water are a very bad idea, never mind mixing fire and gunpowder.

But here’s why it might just work

To be clear, the chances of Peeple succeeding without a cataclysmic implosion are astronomically remote. Not only does the founding team need to execute everything perfectly — meaning perfect policing of anti-abuse policies at a bare minimum — but the social backlash needs to reverse as people start to recognize that they’re doing things right, that Peeple is actually, on-net, a positive thing for society, and that at the end of the day, all Peeple is is a score no different to your Kout score (does anyone still use that?), your LinkedIn Skills endorsements, or your number of Twitter followers.

No. Obviously this is not just a Klout score; or a tally of LinkedIn Skills upvotes; and it’s certainly far more significant than how may followers you have on Twitter.

But is it really so different in  kind, or is it, perhaps just maybe, different only in degree?

But is it really so different in kind, or is it, perhaps just maybe, different only in degree? Once upon a time, society thought it was the end of times when car manufacturers started installing radios in their new models. Once upon a time, a personal journal entry was precisely that: personal. Then mySpace came along and ruined all that. And once upon a time, who you were dating and what your status was, what you did with your family, and where you traveled on your honeymoon, were things shared only with your closest of friends and family, maybe some work colleagues, and even then, only in brief, rather than an endless barrage of News Feed updates; but then, Facebook.

And yes, once upon a time, there was no way other than your résumé, a ridiculous thing called a cover letter, a few phone calls to previous employers, and a couple interviews, for a prospective employer to get a sense of who you were, what you could do, and whether you were a generally decent person to be around. But then LinkedIn rolled out the utterly useless I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-my-back Endorsements and Skills, and suddenly, just like that, there was an attempt to quantify not only what you could do, but indeed, who you were as a person.

(Incidentally, attempting to quantify and score people based on their skills to more efficiently match them with jobs is what we tried to do with my previous startup, Venturocket, which ultimately ended in glorious failure before we spun out from its smoldering ashes a new company, Twibble.)

LinkedIn, for all intents and purposes, has effectively enabled us to score one another for quite a few years too.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, then, to suggest that LinkedIn, for all intents and purposes, has effectively enabled us to score one another for quite a few years too. They just haven’t come out and said it quite so bluntly.

Well, now someone has come out and said it. Very bluntly. Like, with the blunt-force trauma of a sledgehammer to the face, bluntly. And that someone is Peeple.

I think it’s critically imperative that I reiterate yet again, if only to preemptively deflect what’s sure to be a huge outcry against even suggesting any possible good could come from any of this: Until the Peeple team proves otherwise, I fully expect them to collapse in a spectacular display of lawsuit-laden failure, utterly ripped to shreds by the wrath of social media.

That said, on the infinitesimally small chance that they do manage to avoid all the blackhole-calibre pitfalls, I think they may just have something.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s just suppose, for a moment, that they do execute everything flawlessly. Let’s suppose further that social media does an about-face, and fully endorses what they’ve accomplished, and that people with 4- and 5-star ratings start prancing proudly about.

Obviously, people able to tout their 4- and 5-star reviews elsewhere in life — imagine your Peeple Rating on LinkedIn and other job sites, or Tinder and other dating sites — will be just fine, and indeed, likely excel even further at their professional and romantic conquests.

The question really becomes then, what happens to those people marked with one or two scarlet stars?

The question really becomes then, what happens to those people marked with one or two scarlet stars? Indeed, haven’t we seen such a thing before in a certain town called Salem, and didn’t we deem it a bad idea, or at least a not very nice thing to do?

Again, we must see a bifurcation of sorts: either these 1- and 2-star people will succumb to having been denounced and shamed in public, their tails forever between their legs, or conversely, they may retaliate furiously. Either way, this would likely be a bad outcome for society as a whole.

Alternatively, these same people may double down and try to improve everything that cost them a better rating, not unlike when Scrooge was visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This would arguably be better for them and thus, for society as a whole.

Is this really that different to LinkedIn Endorsements? Let’s see: if you’re a hiring manager, and you’ve got two candidates’ résumés in front of you, all things being equal, aren’t you going to select the candidate who’s got more endorsements? Put another way, aren’t endorsements at least worthwhile as a tiebreaker? Furthermore, when we call previous employers, isn’t that also an attempt at getting an aggregate score of the person in question?

Haven’t we always attempted to arrive at an aggregate score of sorts?

We can apply similar reasoning to dating. Has it not been commonplace for people to Google new dates? To browse their LinkedIn profiles, if only because we (finally) learned long ago to make our Facebook profiles private? Haven’t we always attempted to arrive at an aggregate score of sorts, albeit in a remarkably convoluted and impractical fashion? In high school, college, and even later in life, did we not often get mutual friends’ opinions on a new crush? 

Isn’t Peeple simply attempting to crowdsource everyone’s opinions of you?

Could it not be argued, therefore, that Peeple is simply attempting to crowdsource everyone’s opinion of you, and effectively accomplishing in a far more efficient fashion that which you already try to do anyway?

Probably not. But …. just maybe?

Anyway, it’s just a thought. I honestly have no idea. But until they prove otherwise, I will join all of you with similarly baited breath, in a fair bit of shocked disbelief laced with a healthy dose of disgust, and a bit of fear of the unknown, and admittedly, hope that I do not get an email notification that I have just been rated. Because if nothing else, it would just be weird.

Either way — and I never thought I’d say this about a fellow team of entrepreneurs — I genuinely hope they do not succeed, because despite the marginally small theoretical benefit to society, I just don’t like it as there’s far too much at stake. Because when you think about it, there’s really only three possible outcomes to what is admittedly an already fascinating psychological study:

(1) They fail spectacularly because people get terribly hurt in the process (bad, because people get hurt). Chances: 95%.

(2) They succeed spectacularly despite — or because of? — people getting terribly hurt in the process (more bad, because their success is built upon people getting hurt). Chances: 75%.

(3) They succeed spectacularly because nobody gets terribly hurt in the process, and society is better off for it (good, because society is in general better off). <1%.

Regardless, the world will find out in late November what comes of all this when Peeple launches publicly in San Francisco. Meanwhile, curious foolspeeple people can sign up for their beta program now if they dare.

This story originally published on Quora.


Follow me on Twitter @MarcHoag
Follow me on @Quora

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