What Rating People Like Products Says About Consumer Culture

The release, in beta, of what’s been called a Yelp for people is proving controversial.  Many are asking whether new app Peeple, which lets users rank people on a scale of one to five without their consent, is just innocent people-watching, or something more sinister. But it seems it was only a matter of time before consumers, ever more keen to rate their consumption of products and services, became ready to do the same for friends and associates. “People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions,” said Julia Cordray, one of the app’s co-founders. “Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?”

It feels like an odd time to release a tool promoting the appraisal, even commodification of individuals. The internet, while still a very judgemental environment, has also more recently become a place where people can fight back against putting up with unfavourable comments. Celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez and Lena Dunham have criticised those who have spoken out against them, for instance.  It is an arena where brands like Uber and Airbnb are starting to answer back and rank users too, as well as putting up with being rated themselves. Some critics have already condemned the app as a license to bully and a platform for extreme feedback: either from people with a grudge or those with a motive to flatter.

“A positivity app for positive people”?

The Peeple app enables anyone with a Facebook account and a mobile phone to rate another person and assign them a star rating from one to five in any of three categories: Romantic, professional and personal. Creators of Peeple are dismissing objections on blogs, social media and from journalists. Julia Cordray told the Washington Post that the app’s “integrity features” such as the requirement for a Facebook account of at least six months and the fact that reviewers must make reviews under their real name,  will overcome objections. The founders enthuse that when launched in November, it promises to be “A positivity app for positive people”.

Heavy promotion taps into consumer idealism

Peeple’s creators talk idealism. They consider themselves “bold innovators” who help people get “feedback” on their lives. A blog they’ve created is absurdly called “An Ode to Courage”.  It, they say, is “sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift”. Nicole McCullough, fellow co-founder, is a mother of two who claims to have been driven to create the app looking for a trustworthy babysitter.

Thousands have already signed up to be beta testers, maintain the Peeple creators. The company’s shares are currently valued at US$7.6 million, says the Washington Post. “This is about abundance for all, and lifting people up and finding out who the really good people are” says Cordray, in a clip showing the founders driving. This feels very much like part of the trend seeing brands appropriate popular socially-inspired ideals. Indeed, the footage shows Cordray giving food to a homeless woman while enthusing about how the app gives her purpose.

A growing chorus of critics

A growing chorus is highly critical of the new app, however. The damning headline of a Washington Post piece on the app reads: “Everyone you know will be able to rate you on the terrifying ‘Yelp for people’ — whether you want them to or not”.

Joseph Reagle in his “The Conversation” blog adds: “The web is bemused and irate about an app that will let people rate other people as if they were baubles purchased on Amazon”, while highlighting how other services have already let users rank co-workers and even dates.

For some, this is just another app charmed by the perceived magic of crowdsourced data and blinkered to the harm it can unleash on ordinary people. Such a ratings process is inherently invasive too, even when complimentary, as well as objectifying and reductive.