Entrepreneurs Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough have found a way to monetize and weaponize the worst that humanity has to offer, like some beast made out of reality TV, slankets, and spray cheese. They're launching "Peeple," a web site where people can rate each other romantically, professionally, and personally. The human condition: reduced to one to five stars and a blurb.
This is controversial, and it's probably intentionally controversial to get buzz. The Peeple people assert that they've developed methods to prevent abuse: you must be 21, you can only register to review people if you have a phone number and an established Facebook account, you can (as of now) start a page for someone else but it can only show positive reports unless the person joins Peeple, negative comments are embargoed for 48 hours to give the target a chance to respond, abusive content will be forbidden, and there will be a system to adjudicate claims that reviews are false.
Given an opportunity, some folks will use Peeple in good faith and some will use it to abuse, harass, and antagonize others. That is the natural and probable consequence of its existence. Are these measures sincerely intended to ward off those consequences, or are they a mere gesture? If they are sincere, that's sweet but dumb. Bomb always eventually beats bunker; the urge to screw with other people always eventually beats technological innovation. Cell phone confirmation and a review structure stand no chance against a nation chock-full of mood-disordered twitchers will too much free time on their hands.
How could you abuse Peeple? Let me count the ways. If they're really going to let you open up a "page" for someone else involuntarily — and they may retreat from that — it would be childishly easy to submit a profile picture that is non-obscene but as unflattering as possible.1 Peeple limits you to "positive" reviews of people who aren't members, and embargoes negative reviews? That's fine. Let's see how helpful three-out-of-five star reviews are to your professional reputation. Or let's test their negative-review filter against my creativity and mood. "Julia Cordray is more generous and giving to her household catamites than anyone I know." "Nicole McCullough's slow but steady rehabilitation is nothing short of amazing."
And the review/adjudication process? Either it's going to be hideously expensive to staff and supervise — calling the profitability into question — or it's going to be box-checking automated nonsense.
We'll see. For now, at least, Peeple itself will be protected from defamation claims by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally prevents such platforms from being liable for defamation committed by their users. But judges are people too, in a way, and sites like Peeples may induce them to erode Section 230's protections, as the gripe site Ripoff Report has started to do. Edited to add: A commenter points out that Peeple has a Canadian presence. I offer no opinion on how a defamation suit against Peeple would go in Canada.
Peeple's people gush that they want to spread "love and positivity" . . . on the internet. I hope they don't act surprised when people on Peeple act like people. It brings to mind the Blackadder scene when Samuel Johnson catches the oafish Prince Regent looking up dirty words in his new dictionary:
Johnson: Sir! I hope you're not using the first English dictionary to look up
Edmund: I wouldn't be too hopeful; that's what all the other ones will be