Much Ado About Peeple

“Imagine every positive and ugly opinion about you— from your mother to that awkward co-worker you rejected at the company Christmas party— centrally located on one online profile. Sound scary? It is.”

That’s the way people are characterizing Peeple, a year-and-a-half-year-old, Calgary-based company whose app is currently being beta tested by 35,000 people and has garnered an almost endless stream of publicity since being described last week in the Washington Post as “terrifying.”

Peeple lets people rate other people on a scale of one to five stars, as well as to write a review explaining the rating. But it’s not the first outfit to take a swing at encouraging people to present a picture of other people. In fact, that quote above? It was written by former TechCrunch writer Evelyn Rusli in a 2010 review of a similar app called Unvarnished that also used a five-star rating system and invited people to explain the rating.

You may not remember it, because Unvarnished didn’t work, and its path strongly suggests that Peeple may head in the same direction.

Let’s start with what went wrong at Unvarnished, which, like Peeple, was widely vilified in the press at its launch — so much so that it changed its name to Honestly six months after its public debut.

Honestly co-founder Pete Kazanjy — who later remodeled the San Francisco company into a recruiting startup called TalentBin and sold it to Monster  — says Honestly ran into a number of obstacles in its attempt to become an enduring reputation management site.

First, as you might imagine, there’s was a disconnect between the people who were being rated and the users who were doing the rating (anonymously, it should be mentioned).

“People appreciate the ability to get unvarnished information about someone, but they’re not as excited by the notion of themselves being reviewable or ratable,” he notes. “Even when something is true, people don’t necessarily want it out there publicly.”

On a more granular level, says Kazanjy, Honestly didn’t take off because it required a lot of effort on the part of users. “Writing is hard for people,” he explains. “If you look at the user-generated sites that are most successful – like Twitter or Instagram, they lower the bar to creating content. Post 140 characters, or take a picture and put a filter on it.” Meanwhile, creating content, especially on a topic that may seem morally touchy to the author, can feel draining.

Another giant problem: liquidity. Unlike a Yelp that lets the many customers of a business or person rate that company or professional, the numbers are far smaller in a reputational marketplace whose focus is on anyone and everyone.

At Honestly, which targeted professional users, there were only so many people who could reasonably be expected to rate someone, says Kazanjy. (Think recruiters, investors, former colleagues.) At the same time, there were only a couple dozen other people who might have been interested in that information.

Peeple co-founder Julia Cordray has ideas about how to tackle these various challenges.

She tells me, for example, that Peeple will limit how much users can write about other people to make the process less onerous. (She isn’t specifying how long these reviews will be but says they’ll be longer than a Tweet and shorter than a Facebook post.)

Peeple will also allow users to review people who they’ve known personally, professionally and romantically, presumably widening the potential pool of reviews and reviewers.

And unlike Honestly, Peeple won’t allow anonymous reviews.

Still, Peeple bears a surprising resemblance to Honestly.

For starters, Honestly users were ranked depending on how useful, or not, their reviews were. According to Cordray, Peeple users will similarly gain status by reviewing people positively, and they can lose status by writing too many unfavorable reviews. (In fact, they can get booted if their “positivity score” falls below a certain threshold, she says.)

Further, unless someone violated Honestly’s terms of service, a user couldn’t remove an unflattering review from their profile. While Peeple talks a lot about the ways it plans to promote only positive comments, the same is true of its service — despite confusing messages from the company about it.

Which leads us to a challenge that is specific to Peeple: its founders. Aside from Cordray and her cofounder, Nicole McCullough, Peeple’s team is largely employees at Y Media Labs, a Redwood City, Ca.-based mobile app development company.

While there’s nothing wrong with outsourcing the creation of an app, it’s arguably better if a startup has at least one technical founder who can understand how the product works. Instead, Cordray has been touting her nontechnical background, as well as that of McCullough, as a differentiator. (Cordray has long worked in recruiting; McCullough studied health care administration management and doesn’t list a paying job on her LinkedIn profile.)

More, the duo seem sufficiently removed from the competitive landscape that some have suggested the entire app is a hoax. Consider: McCullough’s LinkedIn bio explains that she was inspired to cofound Peeple after “realizing there were no obvious ways to obtain a vetted list of people, professional or personal, to address the community’s needs. Whether it was a contractor, babysitter or just neighbors wanting to be neighborly, there were no means to easily connect people to each other.”

Setting aside the fact that there are dozens of services and social networks that provide reviews, ratings, and commentary about people, including babysitters, contractors, neighbors, restaurant owners, attorneys, doctors, tech entrepreneurs and others, Cordray also didn’t know until we talked this past weekend that TechCrunch isn’t a print magazine. (In truth, she joins many of my friends and family members. But they aren’t trying to build a world-changing app.)

For what it’s worth, I’m rooting for Cordray and McCullough to succeed with whatever they build. Cordray seems likable, and I wouldn’t underestimate someone who has generated the attention she has, or who has now raised $500,000 from investors, as she tells me is the case.

In fact, Cordray says that Peeple has a “multitude of meetings booked already” with top investors. “To put it nicely,” she says, “we’re being courted by large firms that have funded and or launched very big tech concepts.”

Am I terrified, though? Only by the media’s feverish reaction to this app. It’s all a little strange for a long list of reasons, including the fact that we’ve seen this movie before.