Forgetfulness can be frustrating: an appointment missed, or a name that hovers just out of reach. But forgetfulness can also be a good thing, and a new app to rate people you know may make that harder than it should be…. (More)

Peeple and the Value of Forgetfulness

The Squirrel looked at today’s news and groaned. Aside from Congress passing and President Obama signing a short-term funding bill to keep the government open until December, and the Clinton campaign fighting back at the now-admitted Benghazi witch hunt, the rest could have been copy-pasted from yesterday or last week. So he took a day off.

“Imagine every interaction you’ve ever had suddenly open to the scrutiny of the Internet public”

But there was this bit of news:

You can already rate restaurants, hotels, movies, college classes, government agencies and bowel movements online.

So the most surprising thing about Peeple – basically Yelp, but for humans – may be the fact that no one has yet had the gall to launch something like it.

When the app does launch, probably in late November, you will be able to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to everyone you know: your exes, your co-workers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out – once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews – that would defeat the whole purpose.

Imagine every interaction you’ve ever had suddenly open to the scrutiny of the Internet public.

“Integrity features”

The developers promise there are safeguards to limit abuse:

Given the importance of those kinds of decisions, Peeple’s “integrity features” are fairly rigorous – as [co-developer Julia] Cordray will reassure you, in the most vehement terms, if you raise any concerns about shaming or bullying on the service. To review someone, you must be 21 and have an established Facebook account, and you must make reviews under your real name.

You must also affirm that you “know” the person in one of three categories: personal, professional or romantic. To add someone to the database who has not been reviewed before, you must have that person’s cell phone number. (The app was originally supposed to scrape names automatically from Facebook, but the site’s API wouldn’t allow it – to Cordray’s visible annoyance.)

Positive ratings post immediately; negative ratings are queued in a private inbox for 48 hours in case of disputes. If you haven’t registered for the site, and thus can’t contest those negative ratings, your profile only shows positive reviews.

On top of that, Peeple has outlawed a laundry list of bad behaviors, including profanity, sexism and mention of private health conditions.

“That’s feedback for you! You can really use it to your advantage.”

And maybe those “integrity features” will filter out some of the worst-of-the-worst. But they will let other harms slip through, as the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey explains:

Where to even begin with those harms? There’s no way such a rating could ever accurately reflect the person in question: Even putting issues of personality and subjectivity aside, all rating apps, from Yelp to Rate My Professor, have a demonstrated problem with self-selection. (The only people who leave reviews are the ones who love or hate the subject.) In fact, as repeat studies of Rate My Professor have shown, ratings typically reflect the biases of the reviewer more than they do the actual skills of the teacher: On RMP, professors whom students consider attractive are way more likely to be given high ratings, and men and women are evaluated on totally different traits.
It’s inherently invasive, even when complimentary. And it’s objectifying and reductive in the manner of all online reviews. One does not have to stretch far to imagine the distress and anxiety that such a system would cause even a slightly self-conscious person; it’s not merely the anxiety of being harassed or maligned on the platform – but of being watched and judged, at all times, by an objectifying gaze to which you did not consent.

Where once you may have viewed a date or a teacher conference as a private encounter, Peeple transforms it into a radically public performance: Everything you do can be judged, publicized, recorded.

“That’s feedback for you!” Cordray enthuses. “You can really use it to your advantage.”

“I don’t remember”

Cordray ignores something even more fundamental: the value of forgetfulness in human relationships.

Herself and I have been together for over 20 years. We love each other deeply. We also get on each other’s nerves at times. I know that because I remember, in a very general sense, the experience of being annoyed. But here’s the thing: with rare exceptions, I don’t remember the specific incidents or what annoyed me.

That is not an accident. It is also not because I’m generally forgetful. It’s because I know how memory works, and how to work it.

For example, there was a car in front of me as I drove to the grocery earlier this week. I paid attention to that car at the time, because I was driving. But I didn’t comment on it, and nothing exceptional happened, so my brain had no reason to put that transient event into long-term memory. I know a car was there, but I have no idea what kind of car it was, or what color, or whether it had any bumper stickers. If a cop asked me about that car – perhaps because a traffic camera noted some crime to which I was an unknowing witness – I would have to answer “I don’t remember.”

We all do that, every day. We notice and pay attention details while an event happens. But unless we take some specific action to put them into long-term memory, we forget those details within hours if not minutes. And I quite deliberately use that memory limitation to my advantage in human relationships.

By not dwelling and certainly not commenting on transient, trivial annoyances, I give my brain no reason to put them in long-term memory. Like the car in front of me as I drove to the grocery earlier this week, I have a vague, general memory that something happened, but the details are lost. So if you asked me when Herself last annoyed me, or what she did, I would have to answer “I don’t remember.”

And I’m glad about that. I’ve met people who remember every passing slight, every momentary annoyance, cataloging others’ petty human failures in an ever-expanding mental database of self-righteous judgment. I don’t like those people, and I don’t want to be one of them.

Quite apart from the harms of those being rated – and those risks are real – using Peeple will also harm those who do the rating. By recording trivial annoyances they would otherwise forget, transient irks will become permanent judgments … inscribed in both their and their targets’ memories, reviewed and commented on and argued about by others who come along later …

… because a cell phone app made it easier to publish a fit of pique.

Most things that annoy us are better forgotten. Peeple will make that gracious forgetfulness more difficult. And that’s a mistake.


Photo Credit: Destinations, Dreams, and Dogs


Happy Thursday!