Last October, a two-person tech company based in Canada gave an interview to The Washington Post to talk up their new app, Peeple. The idea — “Yelp, but for people” — was, to put it lightly, not popular. It immediately kicked off a wild outburst, prompting furious reactions on every social platform imaginable and a glut of thinkpieces pointing to the app as a sign of the end times.
Peeple was reviled by the internet at large and Julia Cordray, its co-creator, received the full weight of that outrage. The general consensus boiled down to a collective belief that reviewing other human beings is a bad, bordering on dangerous idea. The cheery, somewhat tone-deaf nature of the app didn’t help — it was a purely hatable phenomenon. A lot of people even thought it was a hoax; surely such an app couldn't really exist?
Despite a huge number of people saying, loudly, “we don’t want this thing to exist, ever,” Cordray stuck to her gameplan, making slight changes to the app but maintaining its core idea. Today, Peeple comes out, with a few changes from the original version. First, only people who opt into the app are eligible for review – you can’t create profiles for anyone. The app requires a Facebook login to ensure valid identities, and you can only be reviewed if you opt in. You can now block and report abusive users and reviews. And, crucially, if you get a negative review, you can hide it — but anyone that pays for a yet-to-be-released premium version of Peeple will be able to see those negative reviews.
Cordray talked to BuzzFeed News about what it was like to have the whole internet yell at you, and why she still thinks Peeple is a good idea.
Let’s talk about October 1, 2015, when the Washington Post interview with you came out, and the backlash started. The level of venom was insane. What did that day feel like for you?
[Laughs] First of all, I didn't eat that day at all. Because we were getting calls from every talk show, every media outlet possible. LinkedIn messages, thousands of emails, hundreds of phone calls. It was so intense that I booked a flight for my colleague to fly from Calgary down to San Francisco the very next morning to help me navigate it all. I just couldn't handle the amount of inbound information. I didn't anticipate it. We spent 20 hours a day just monitoring and taking notes on all the feedback. I just wanted to understand: what is it that the world wants, what is it that they're upset about, where is the confusion, what can I do about it, and how can I better explain it?
That day I was like, "whoa... this is amazing. We may have created the biggest app launch in tech history, but oh my god, we're not even available yet." It's fascinating, because it was compounded with my private information being given out, me being bullied on every single social media platform, including ones I thought were actually safe (which weren't). That fueled me even more. It made me want to build this app even more to make a safe place for people to manage their online reputation.
If you look at me alone, I'm the perfect example of what's wrong with our current social media, and why you need something like Peeple. It was such an ironic twist of fate, and I'm grateful for it. I'm grateful for it. I've transcended most of my fears.
When the whole world hates, you, what's left, right? What are you scared of? Nothing.
That's an extremely zen approach. But there had to have been some moment where it felt bad.
Yeah, the day it felt bad was the first Saturday of October, when our website was hacked multiple times and taken down, when we got death threats on YouTube and all over the internet. That was the low point – where I ended up calling the San Francisco police and the Canadian police. My home address was given out but it was an old address of the house I had just sold, so I was worried about the safety of the person currently living in it. It was just nuts. That was the low day.
That day for sure impacted me and my team, but the reality was, "with fear comes anger". They were just scared. They made those death threats for whatever motivations they have, but when it comes down to it, they're scared. And they want to create such a ripple on our end that we take action. What we decided to do was go radio silent for two weeks, to calm everybody down. So we went quiet until we ended up on the Dr. Phil show.
How serious did you think the death threats were? You went to the police – were you scared for your safety at any point?
I was at one point. What would happen is that every time I would pull out of my house in San Fransisco, people were recognizing me. I remember I went to the Traction conference – that was happening during our media storm. I showed up halfway through the conference and people just started surrounding me, and I got nervous. They were recognizing us, and they wanted to take pictures with us. And they weren't angry, they were admiring us. But I was worried about some of the people that might be angry. So I talked to the hotel about having some security people watch us at all times, because I was nervous. It was overwhelming. It was shocking how quickly we became recognized in public.
Was there ever a moment where you thought, maybe these people are right, maybe my idea isn't so good? Did you ever doubt yourself?
No. I still and always did firmly believe in what we were doing. But I think what was more important is the way we were going to do it, and the way we were going to execute, and what product we were going to bring. So I'm grateful to have made those changes. Because that feedback just made our product even better. I never doubted us. I always held firm to the concept and why we were doing it.
Part of the backlash was that the objections seemed really obvious – people are going to get hurt and trolled. How did that not ever come up during the process of building it, and working with a lot of different people? That this could be used for evil instead of for good?
We had a lot of people involved in building this company and product. We have a lot of shareholders who saw our presentation and pitch deck and what the product is going to become. And I guess what the public didn't know is all the safety features we had in place to protect our users. All they heard was bullying, and "it's a bullying app". Which, we already knew we had built these failsafes and check and balances and terms and conditions into the app to hold people accountable. But that never got heard, because people were so focused on what they thought the product was. Whereas our team knew what it was. I think that was the disconnect.
To answer your question, no one was concerned about bullying or anything else. Because we had already done of all of that.
Do you think if you had been a male tech founder, people would've reacted the same was as they did? Some of the online reaction that was so over the top, venomous, and hateful – maybe because you're a woman.
I think if I was a guy building this app we would've gotten hi-fives around the boardroom table. It's just interesting how rude people were because we were female. Photoshopping us into porn, or degrading us, or calling us names, saying anything about our physical selves. I don't think they would've done that to a male.
The other thing which is so fascinating, is that during the media storm, I'm driving back from California, I'm feeling excited, injured, confused, all these emotions. And I arrive back in my hometown where there's a million people, and most of them are talking about me. And I was nervous – nervous to go out in public, nervous to show my face. And you know what? there was nothing to be scared of. I would go out, and people would be so excited. They wouldn't be mad at me at all. They would ask questions, they were curious, they were starting controversial conversations, and they just loved that they got to hear it from me and they felt so much better and they got so excited about the concept.
So whatever I thought was reality, wasn't reality. And still isn't reality. The online community that doesn't like us? There's a hundred more that do that are coming forward, telling me nice things over LinkedIn, supporting us, signing up for beta testing. It's incredible.
What is "Truth License"?
It doesn't exist right now in the current app, but basically the Truth License is a paid upgrade in the app to see all the recommendations that were not published on people's profile.
Would that include ones people had flagged for being inaccurate, right?
No, whenever there's any sort of reporting or blocking going on, we're paying close attention to those recommendations. We are leaving it up to the user to police what's going on and bring things to our attention. But if there's a recommendation that breaks our terms and conditions or is inappropriate, we have the right to remove those recommendations and delete them forever. We also have the right to remove users from our app.
To be clear, when the Truth License does come out, you'll actually have the ability to rebut anything that anybody has said about you. But more importantly, you'll be able to see all the recommendations that someone has written about others to really get a good read on what that person's character is like, too. So it's not just about what you receive as a recommendation, it's also about how others treat each other.
If you're going to leave a negative recommendation for a lot of people, and I can see all those recommendations that were never published, it looks like you're a pretty negative Nelly and I can't believe a word you say.
[In a follow up call, Cordray clarified that Truth License would reveal hidden negative recommendations that didn’t qualify as harassment or violations.]
There's already a lot of places for professional recommendations – you can give endorsements and recommendations on LinkedIn, there's industry specific sites for doctors or babysitters. What will drive people to use this instead of going to those industry specific professional sites?
Because we're not anonymous. RateMyProfessor.com or RateMyMD.com – great sites, but what what they miss is the anonymous portion. It's not fair to have a system where you can game it to say whatever you want. Doctors could be writing reviews of other doctors and the reviews can be completely fake just to take that doctor's reputation down a notch.
That's our problem with Yelp – it's anonymous. I don't believe in making anonymous recommendations; I don't think they're as useful as when you really are who you say you are. Too many of those systems can be gamed.
There’s a “nearby” feature that shows the profiles of people near you. Is this something that you have to both have to be actively using at the same time, or if you're at a bar and want to see who's around it just automatically pulls up who's around?
It's the second part. So if you're at a bar, and you and I both have the app, you'll be able to see that I have the app and that I'm nearby, and you can see within a 10 mile radius and you can click on my profile to learn more about me and make your decision from there on how to approach me.
Does that seem like it might have a privacy problem? If you're on the app because you want people to know about your skills as a teacher, and then you go to a bar and some random guy now knows your name?
Have you heard about Badoo? Badoo is famous for this exact feature. It allows people to connect when they see someone nearby.
But Badoo is a dating app.
They are a dating app, but remember we have a dating section in our app that allows you to be recommended romantically. So this is important to find out about people if you're interested in this romantically. And if you're NOT single, you can actually de-activate the dating section of our app by just going into your settings and toggling your "single" settings.
Will that deactivate your location settings? If you're a married dentist and you want it just so that people know you're the best dentist, you might not want single people at a restaurant knowing you're nearby.
Yeah, I get it, but when we looked into what other features would make the app useful for the majority of the users, this is something that they really liked. And you'll start to see a lot of geographic location features in apps because people really like them and they have more benefits than disadvantages.
[In a follow up call, Cordray clarified that location services are opt-in, and you can also turn them off in your app settings].
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brendan Klinkenberg is a tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Brendan Klinkenberg at email@example.com.
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