When Peeple entered the online limelight in October, it was instantly pilloried as an app that went too far for no good reason. It was hastily described as "Yelp for people," a tagline that's about as appealing as "dog food for people." Denizens of the internet expressed concern over the app's potential unintended consequences -- surely it would be used to harass and defame some humans, regardless of whether they signed up for the service.
After months of defending, beta testing and tweaking Peeple, creators Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough released the app unto the wild this week. It's slightly different than the service they first described; it appears the founders have taken the early criticism to heart and stripped out some of the most concerning features. Unfortunately, what remains is largely useless.
Originally, Peeple was designed to allow any adult with a Facebook account and a cellphone to rate their fellow humans on a scale of one to five across three categories: personal, professional and romantic. Even if you didn't sign up for Peeple, anyone with your phone number would be able to rate your behavior in those fields. To dispute negative reviews, you'd have to catch the unfavorable rating within two days.
That's not the case anymore. The final version of Peeple won't allow any ratings to go live without the rated person's consent. No more two-day time bomb. This means, if you sign up for the app, you get to choose which recommendations actually make it to your profile page. On the one hand, this is an effective way to prevent public shaming. On the other, it makes the app incredibly sterile. The online ecosystem provides plenty of ways to collect and share favorable quotes about ourselves: about.me, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Facebook or any resume site can get the job done. By solving the bullying issue this way, the creators have neutered the app's core concept.
The rating system also receives a spit shine in the launch version, and people are no longer judged on a five-star system. The Dating category (formerly called "romantic") isn't live yet, but there are three rating options in the Professional and Personal sections: positive, neutral and negative. Users are able to rate someone and then write a recommendation for (or against) that person. Submitting the recommendation shoots it to the rated person's inbox, where they can then publish it to their own profile, delete it, report it or block the user who sent it.
If you rate someone who doesn't have Peeple, the app handily creates a text nudging them to read your review and register. If they never sign up, your review will never see the light of day, however glowing it may be.
Publishing other people's recommendations is how you level up your overall score -- there's a small orange circle with a number in it next to every user's profile picture, and it ticks up as you publish the recommendations other people have sent your way. The more reviews you allow on your profile page, the higher your number. Since you can cherry-pick the recommendations that hit your profile, that little orange circle essentially shows how many flattering reviews you've received, which is almost an intriguing concept. Almost.
The app itself is attractive enough, but it's infected with a few bugs. You need two things to use Peeple: a Facebook profile that's been active for at least six months and a cell number. Peeple is supposed to import your Facebook friends so you can rate them all and prompt them to download the app, but that function appears to be busted at the moment. Otherwise, it pulls from your phone's address book, so when you search for a name it displays results from your contacts. You need to have the phone number of every person you review, after all.
That's all fine and dandy, but without the imported Facebook contacts, Peeple is fairly barren. It has a "Nearby" search function, and after one day on the market, there are just five people with the app installed near me in Phoenix, Arizona -- and one of them is my boyfriend (and app-testing partner).
Here's the crux of Peeple's problem: If users can't freely publish positive and negative reviews of the people they know, it's not an honest "rating" app. Now, it's a bragging service or perhaps a narcissist's dream, but it doesn't offer legitimate reviews of the people around us. That was the app's initial pitch, and as unsettling as it was, at least it was novel. In its current iteration, Peeple might as well be called Humblebrag, The App.
Founders Cordray and McCullough are aware of the shift in their branding. On the app's official site, they're adamant that Peeple is "a positivity app for positive people." It's all about building your personal brand in a safe, controlled space and sharing happy reviews of your character with the world (wide web). That's a fine goal, but there isn't exactly a hole in the market for this kind of thing. We have plenty of places to talk ourselves up online, and most of them are infinitely easier to use.
Peeple doesn't feel malicious anymore -- but it doesn't feel like anything else, either. Essentially, Peeple is a more boring, less accessible version of a LinkedIn profile page. And, sure, the tagline "More boring than LinkedIn" may be better than "Yelp for people," but that doesn't mean it's good.
Then again, Peeple may revive its malicious vibe soon enough. Cordray and McCullough are considering implementing a feature called "The Truth License" that lets anyone pay to see everything written about you, regardless of whether you publish it (or whether you register for the service). To use one of Peeple's favorite words, that sounds positively gross. But, at least it's not boring.