The Orwellian effects of people-rating apps
I was running late for a dinner party when I got into the Uber. “You know,” the driver said, after 10 minutes of silence. “You have the worst rating I have ever seen.” I sulked in the back seat for the rest of the trip, probably making my terrible Uber rating even worse.
I mentioned this incident at dinner. My friend flaunted his five-star rating and insisted on comparing it with everyone there. The group agreed that, in future, I should go out of my way to ingratiate myself to drivers. I refused, saying that living in a democracy meant I was free to choose who I was and wasn’t nice to.
Lucky I don’t live in China. By contrast, our northern neighbour will soon be introducing a social credit system where the behaviour of all citizens will be monitored and ranked. According to Business Insider, bad behaviour might include frivolous spending and buying too many video games. Punishment for a bad rating could entail being prohibited from purchasing flights or getting a loan, or a job. It could even result in public humiliation.
The response in the West has been critical. Labels such as “dystopian” have been thrown around by journalists due to its echoes of 1984. Yet, with online ratings becoming more prevalent, could Australians be following a similar path, albeit less consciously?
Humans will do just about anything to be liked. As seen with social media, when given the choice we often portray idealistic versions of our lives to the public. This embellished depiction is then used as a standard against which others compare themselves, thereby generating widespread discontent. A 2017 study linked social media use to low self-esteem, psychological distress and even suicidal ideation.
The effects of social media are slowly migrating into our offline lives. If we continue at this rate, we’re in danger of reaching a point where nobody feels comfortable revealing their true emotions for fear of being socially exiled. Think this sounds Orwellian? It’s already happening.
Peeple, a people-rating app, launched in America in 2015 generating worldwide criticism and controversy. The Washington Post dubbed it “the terrifying Yelp for people”. When Peeple failed, its collapse was met with collective relief. But one glance at the reviews reveals there were plenty of users eager to get on board if it weren’t for the technical glitches.
Fifteen years ago, people thought social media was invasive and exclusively for youths, that sharing online with no specific intention was attention-seeking and internet dating was for creeps. Now, influencers run the world, your mum is posting photos of her breakfast on Facebook, more than 300 million people share videos of their lives daily and about 4.5 million Australians are looking for love – or maybe just lust – online.
What if the reason people-rating apps haven’t taken off is less to do with morals and more to do with timing? Like the boiling frog fable, when things are introduced incrementally, people tend to be more acquiescent to change.
And the heat may already be rising. Do I Date, a British online dating app launched globally in February, is gaining popularity in Australia. Members can rate their dates out of five and leave a review. All you need is a person’s phone number, whether they have a profile or not.
Terry Amsbury and James Forsyth founded the app following a pub session with friends. “Our friends were complaining about being bombarded with dick pics,” James tells me. “We couldn’t believe there were no real consequences for that sort of behaviour.”
Asked if someone can get a negative rating removed, Terry replies, “We have codes of conduct. At the same time, everyone is free to their opinion. You have to allow some stuff to stay.”
“It’s great for transparency and an opportunity for people to warn others when they encounter someone who is dangerous,” James adds.
Even if Do I Date succeeds in creating an environment in which constructive feedback can be shared diplomatically, it may pave the way for competing apps that may not have such benign intentions.
Most critics of people-rating apps are concerned about the potential for cyberbullying. As John Oliver said in response to Peeple: “The internet essentially exists so people can say vicious things about each other, and we don’t need another app to facilitate that.”
But positive reviews may also have potential for harm. Carrie (not her real name) is an attractive 40-year-old commercial lawyer who used the dating site RSVP many years ago. The site’s home page displays its top 100 members.
On RSVP, members must pay to message a love interest and, explains Carrie, “to get into the top 100 you had to have the highest number of people paying to contact you”.
“I was picky at the start,” she says. “But my friend accepted every request and got into the top 100 quickly. The men who contacted her were way hotter than the guys contacting me.” Carrie lowers her eyes. “I feel bad, thinking about it. I led so many men on so they’d pay to contact me. I literally cut and pasted responses until I got into the top 100.”
Would Carrie have done the same thing if, rather than online messaging, she’d had to go on a date with these men to get into the top 100?
“I’d like to say I wouldn’t,” she says sheepishly. “But, I mean, I made those poor guys pay when I had no intention of ever dating them, so who knows?”
If you think you’d never use an app that rates you, think again. If you’re on the “social search” app Tinder, you already have. Tinder developed a formula that calculates a member’s desirability through what they call an Elo score. They use it as a matching algorithm, but google “Elo score” and you’ll find a treasure trove of sites offering tips to increase your desirability, essentially gaming the system like Carrie did, to upgrade your love-interest selection.
If Do I Date takes off, and other online dating sites follow, ratings could become so ubiquitous that a date’s review could make the difference between finding your dream partner and spending the weekend alone watching a season of The Sopranos.
Would this development then create the right conditions for people-rating apps to flourish?
Imagine a world where every conversation you had could be rated publicly. According to a health psychologist from The Mind Room in Melbourne, Dr Lauren Hamilton, this could cause serious psychological damage.
“If you don’t feel comfortable being yourself, relationships stay in what we call a weak bond zone,” Hamilton explains. “We don’t get the benefits of social connection if we’re not being authentic. People might start to feel anxious in social situations, so they avoid them. Then they feel lonely, which quickly leads to depression.
“We’re wired to be social animals. Studies show being rejected has the same effect on the brain as being physically tortured. It’s incredibly painful.”
And due to rating apps I too know the physical – if not psychological – pain of being judged in the cyber world. I was being punished for my terrible Uber rating. While my friends would get an Uber instantly, I had to wait ages for a driver. A missed flight, after three Ubers cancelled on me consecutively, was my rock bottom. I decided I needed to find out direct from a driver what was going on.
“I wouldn’t pick anyone up who had less than four stars unless I was in a deserted area and there was nobody else available,” Uber driver Abdul tells me. “Even then I’d wait for a better option.” (I gave Abdul five stars, in case you’re wondering.)
I could only assume my bad rating was due to an early experience with a sleazy driver, which resulted in a reluctance to be friendly. And so, hand forced, I capitulated. I offered sweets to drivers, became talkative and laughed loudly at their (often unfunny) jokes. When my rating climbed to 4.9 stars, I was thrilled. I became obsessed with getting five stars. With my recalibrated rating, Ubers were bountiful, even during peak times. I felt like the belle of the Uber ball.
Recently, basking in the glow of my five-star reputation, I was sitting in the back of an Uber, glad that my troubles were behind me. Then the driver parked the car and turned to me. After glancing at my cleavage, he said, “You know, you should smile. Girls are much more attractive when they smile.”
Looking squarely at the driver, I pushed the rage back down into my stomach, forced a smile and said, “Thank you.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "As you like it". Subscribe here.