Peeple: the Commodification of Social Control?


Meet Peeple

We are a concept that has never been done before in a digital space that will allow you to really see how you show up in this world as seen through the eyes of your network.

Peeple is an app that allows you to rate and comment about the people you interact with in your daily lives on the following three categories: personal, professional, and dating.

Peeple will enhance your online reputation for access to better quality networks, top job opportunities, and promote more informed decision making about people.

My first interest in reputation in online spaces came from a particular kind of knowledge –knowledge that any girl who went to high school has -- that “reputation” and “dating” are never a good combination. Such evaluations are never as objective or truthful as they purport to be, and never without a cost to those who are being assessed/rated.  Maybe everyone knows this, but I’m inclined to think that some of us—those who by virtue of our Otherness are inevitably the object of critical review—internalize that knowledge at a much deeper level.

Given this, I confess that I smiled ruefully when I saw a photo of the two founders of Peeple—the self-described “positivity app launching in November 2015” that purports to enable users to rank people the way other apps (think Yelp) rank restaurants and, say, public restrooms. Peeple’s founders are blondish, youngish, and conventionally attractive.

                    Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray  

                    Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray



I’m not noting their appearance to be dismissive…but I am suggesting (fairly or not) that those who are least likely to have been socially marginalized and ostracized are also perhaps most likely to believe that an app designed to rate and comment on other people could “spread love and positivity.”

Frenzied media coverage has raised many of the most obvious problems with this business idea including:

  • Users can set up profiles for others without  the consent of the person being rated
  • Ratings are inherently subjective
  • There aren’t credible safeguards for accuracy or protections from bias
  • It will be up to a combination of automated software and human site administrators to determine if feedback is “positive” or “negative”, whether to publish it or remove it, etc.
  • It presumes, without evidence, that crowd-sourced opinions are reliable
  • The fundamental concept is an invasion of privacy and threat to reputation
  • The approach objectifies human beings and commoditizes interpersonal relationships.

These are all important concerns, but I’d like to take a step back and look at the larger overarching potential impact of Peeple in terms of creating a state of perpetual surveillance that itself enforces and reinforces particular (mainstream) expectations of behaviour.

This project brings to mind the Panopticon—an architectural concept for institutional buildings, designed so that inmates/inhabitants can be observed from a central point without knowing whether they are being watched at any given moment. It’s based on philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s assertion that “the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose X of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time.” (Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings by Mweran Bozovic at Letter 1). 

Philosopher Michel Foucault later elaborated upon Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon, seeing in it a metaphor for the exercise of power in modern societies.  He explains that “…it arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint, to the functions it invests, but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contact. (See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison).

What does this have to do with Peeple?  What overarching control could there be when the app itself clearly states that it is simply sharing feedback?  These reports aren’t happening in a vacuum – inevitably ratings are made with reference to a shared community standard  – setting and reinforcing community norms and reviewing whether or not individuals’ have appropriately met or performed those standards. 

Traditionally, surveillance within the panopticon was intended to impose and enforce chosen norms/rules/behaviours.  Its goal was the production of “docile bodies” – to remove the need for policing of behaviour via force, replacing it instead with the creation of a state of vulnerability induced by the perception of perpetual visibility that resulted in individuals self-policing their own behaviours towards the desired outcome. 

With Peeple, we run that same risk of creating docile bodies and enforcing desired behaviours – knowing that information is collected and shared will (perhaps inevitably) influence the behaviour of an individual who is subject to those reviews. Anyone who wants to continue active and productive participation in a community must be aware of this information repository and the standards that it maintains and enforces.  The collection and sharing of reputation becomes in essence a form of social control. 

Worryingly, in the case of Peeple, it’s a form of social control that is both privately administered and inherently commodified.