The Problem with Peeple

It’s kind of shooting fish in a barrel at this point to take aim at the new “peeple” app – it’s being panned thoroughly everywhere. But what the heck.

[LATER ADDITION: I’m also seeing speculation that it’s a hoax. If it is, the willingness to believe in the existence of “peeple” shows how disengaged our culture has become and how afraid we are of such disengagement.]

I’m not going to talk about harassment/stalking/bullying issues – the inherent problems are obvious and already well-stated by a lot of people. Similarly the legality of it is another issue. Nor am I going to discuss the problems with ratings systems in general – everyone already knows about ratings abuse on Amazon, why would this be different? What I want to talk about is the illogic behind the app.

From the Washington Post article about peeple: “Co-founder Nicole McCullough comes at the app from a different angle: As a mother of two in an era when people don’t always know their neighbors, she wanted something to help her decide whom to trust with her kids.”

WHY WHY WHY would you decide whom to trust with your kids on the basis of ratings from people you don’t know yourself? Character valuation – which we all participate in – only works when you know and trust the people whose opinion you are asking. Deciding whether or not it’s safe to ask a neighbor to watch your kids while you run to the store is not the same as asking a reference you’ve never met if your potential tenant paid the rent on time.

The problem with peeple is not that it rates people – we all rate people, all the time, though we don’t assign number values. The problem is that it attempts to shortcut thousands of years of human social adaptation. We are social animals, and we have evolved ways of being with other humans that are by and large successful. Entrusting your kids to someone is something that requires personal knowledge and experience. Trust is about trusting your instincts, paying attention when someone gives you the creeps, following in the experience of friends you trust, evaluating the surroundings. This is all reptilian brain stuff, atavistic survival of yourself and your offspring mode, and ratings can’t possibly take the place of that.

Don’t know your neighbors? Get to know them. Have a yard sale. Offer to take care of plants when they travel. Return their library books, or let them return yours. (And if you won’t trust them with a library book, then maybe you know you wouldn’t trust them with your kids.)


The other major problem is not a problem with the app – it’s a problem with the mindset that conceives of such an app. Its fundamental origins lie in fear. (To the extent that it lies in a desire for salacious gossip, that’s not worth talking about.)

I am becoming more and more convinced that fear is the root of all the other damaging things that happen in our society. Fear of loss, fear of difference, fear of being superseded, fear of being abandoned, fear of being imperfect, fear of failure. To compensate for fear, people engage in hate, exclusion, power-grabs, bullying, abuse, you name it.

The fear that leads to an app such as peeple is the fear that led people to form social groups in the first place: a need for safety, order, predictability, shared resources, etc. But fear isn’t a viable basis for a social group’s continued existence. A constantly defensive posture is exhausting and will eventually destroy the group’s cohesion. The kind of fear that justifies peeple is the sign of a diseased society. There are too many of us, too close together, without the time to personally engage.

I think the peeple app will fail – the digital backlash is already tremendous. Human beings by and large trust other human beings more than they value gossip or paranoia. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be 7 billion of us. But the fact that an app such as peeple could be conceived and receive financial backing is another warning sign of cultural breakdown and decay. (We already have plenty of such warning signs.) Instead of just shouting back at the creators of peeple, it’s up to us to create and affirm positive social interactions so that fear of other good people withers away.

This requires energy and time that a lot of us feel we don’t have. If we don’t find it somewhere, another peeple-like app will try to save us the bother. Be kind to someone today.