BY CLAIRE BROWNELL
Julia Cordray’s lowest point came at 5 a.m. on a weekend in early October, while browsing the comments on a YouTube video posted to promote her mobile-phone app, Peeple.
The commenter had posted her Calgary address, phone number and email address, suggesting this information might be useful to anyone interested in killing her. And, worryingly, a lot of people had been taking to the Internet to voice their desire to do just that.
What kind of crazy person goes online and threatens somebody who hasn’t even done anything?
A few days earlier, on Sept. 30, Cordray became the target of one of the waves of mass outrage that periodically sweep social media. People were angry that her app, described as “Yelp for humans,” appeared to have the potential to enable bullying and harassment.
The irony of the fallout was not lost on Cordray.
“All the people that backlashed against our company were accusing our app of being a bullying app, when they actually bullied us instead,” she said. “I hadn’t even done anything. What kind of crazy person goes online and threatens somebody who hasn’t even done anything?”
Peeple was the target of international opprobrium; the American comedian John Oliver, who dedicated six minutes to making fun of it on his HBO show, said it “sounds absolutely awful.” Cordray, after insisting there had been a terrible misunderstanding about how the app would work, went quiet for a few weeks, shutting down Peeple’s social media accounts and declining interview requests from all over the world. The app hadn’t even been developed and released yet, leading media outlets and bloggers to speculate that the whole thing might have been a big fat hoax.
Now that the worst of the storm appears to have passed, Cordray is speaking up again.
The Calgary entrepreneur said she has a few things she’d like to clear up. For one thing, bullying people through the app was “never, ever possible.” For another, she said she’s listened to people’s feedback and made some important changes, regardless of the misunderstanding. And finally, she swears up and down — “You can quote me on this for the rest of my life” — that Peeple is a real product on track for release in December, not a hoax, a joke or a marketing stunt.
“I wish I could say this was just a really big marketing plan to go viral, get the attention and prove to the world why we need the world’s largest positivity app,” she said. “That’s a genius marketing situation. But that’s not what happened.”
Here’s what did happen, from Cordray’s perspective. Cordray said her best friend and co-founder, Nicole McCullough, came up with the idea for Peeple out of a desire to know more about the people around her: Her neighbours, potential babysitters, her Starbucks barista. Cordray, meanwhile, said she saw how an app that provides information about a person’s character based on recommendations could be useful to clients of the recruiting company she was running.
The two got to work. Cordray said she raised the necessary startup capital from private investors in two-and-a-half weeks. She won’t disclose who they are or how much money Peeple has raised to date, but a September article in the Calgary Herald said Peeple has raised $270,000 in private capital, with other reports pegging the company’s valuation at US$7.6 million. Cordray said the company currently has 29 shareholders and is in negotiations with “big VCs.”
Cordray said the company got off the ground in April of 2014, but kept things quiet until that interview with the Herald. That led to more Canadian media coverage and eventually the attention of the Washington Post.
At the time, Peeple was planning on encouraging users to rate people they know on a five-star scale. The Washington Post article cast it in an Orwellian light: “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.”
Confusion ensued about how the app would work. Cordray said she’s listened to the feedback and has made some changes in response.
For one thing, Cordray clarified that Peeple (when it finally exists) will work on an opt-in basis only: no one can write something about you unless you sign up as a user. And the users control what appears on their profiles; you can delete reviews of yourself that you don’t like and block the reviewer from posting about you ever again. Users will also have the ability to deactivate their profiles if they don’t want to use the service any more.
In a post Cordray made on LinkedIn on October 4 titled “I became a trending topic for all the wrong reasons,” Cordray stressed “Peeple is a POSITIVITY ONLY APP.” However, she clarified that she’s not planning on eliminating constructive criticism altogether.
Cordray said Peeple is scrapping the star-rating system and plans to replace it with a more complicated one: a score calculated based on ranking five elements. Cordray would only disclose one of those elements — a calculation that accounts for the recommendations and criticisms other users have posted about a person. So, while you can block a negative review from displaying on your profile, it can still silently weigh down your score.
Cordray said there are checks and balances to prevent people from gaming the system; for example, a rejected man getting his friends to bombard an ex-girlfriend with negative reviews out of spite. Cordray said Peeple will see to it that such behaviour would actually harm the scores of the people writing the harmful reviews and would put them at risk of being removed from the app.
Cordray said her experience with death threats and abuse on social media demonstrates the necessity of a product like hers. She said she wants to create a service where people are accountable, not hiding behind anonymous handles.
“We do appreciate that the world is waiting and watching us,” Cordray said. “There’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”