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Welcome to the Toilet Wall of Cyberspace

10/11/2015 08:51 GMT | Updated 09/11/2016 10:12 GMT

I've an idea. I think it might make me some money. What I want to do is build a large, public wall somewhere, and then invite people to write graffiti on it. Only this graffiti will consist of one thing: comments about people they know. Who could resist it? Think of the advertising space...

The above is, of course, an absurd hypothesis, but it's only an offline version of what the internet's been trying to achieve for years - to create a "peer-to-peer" rating platform for human beings.

Makes perfect sense, right? After all, we love the five-star thing: books, movies, hotels... Why not rate other people the same way?

You might ask Julia Cordray, co-founder of the "most hated app on the internet", Peeple, whose controversial launch sparked so much online disgust and outrage that it seems likely not to happen at all. Perhaps it's not so easy to create a "five star" platform for human beings after all.

Peeple may be visible proof of the lunacy of quantifying everything, but it follows in a grand tradition. Since "Ratemyteachers" infamously launched in the mid-2000s we've had Exrated, Lulu, Juicy Campus, CollegeACB, Blipdar, Glassdoor, Honestly, and many more, rating everything from bosses to boyfriends to exes. Attacks on publically shamed figures, like the abuse on Walter Palmer's Yelp page, are really a kind of five star rating by stealth - Palmer was a "one-star" human being.

So, rating other human beings: what could possibly go wrong?

Well, why not ask the parents who found their daughter viciously slandered on college gossip site Blipdar in 2011 - a search-optimized site with high Google rankings - and found there was no way to scrub it off. Having written about Yelp for Slate and considered the views of expert Joseph Reagle, it strikes me that sites like Peeple are part of what might be called "reputation racketeering". Someone makes a page for you, and suddenly a toilet wall hangs there in cyberspace with your name on it, ready to be defaced. You can't get rid of it. Google won't delist it. So what can you do? According to retired FBI agent Jeff Lanza, the best way to fight the kind of anonymous slander that might arise on a rating site is to "hire a reputation defender or beat them at their own game. Creating social media profiles, blogs and websites with good content associated with your name..."

Welcome to the reputation mafia. Improve your rating, get good at gaming Google: non-participation is not an option.

It's a kind of bullying, but one clothed (of course) in the language of empowerment. "It was really born of a need for uplifting others," Cordray trills in an interview for Entrepreneur, quoting her co-founder as saying "I want to give some sort of kudos to the Starbucks barista down the street who does a great job and who might get a better job because of me saying something nice about her." How thoughtful.

Selling reputation racketeering as community altruism is so Silicon Valley - but it's not a new thing at all. When Ratemyteachers.com unexpectedly took off in Ireland, teachers' unions soon found themselves publicly condemning it. Incensed that anybody might disagree with their right to expose a tough profession to the considered opinions of disgruntled twelve year olds, Ratemyteachers.com created a "Wall of Shame" with a link to another page explaining how to disable the blocking software. Some argued that it was absurd to block a site when the vacuity of the comments (they were kids after all) made the whole thing a joke.

But inane or not, the comments did something else: they legitimated the bitchiness, snark and gossip that teachers face on a daily basis and put it on public display. Do comments like "She needs to wear shoes she can walk in" really deserve a place in the delicate mediation between teachers and students?

In his recent book the writer Andrew Keen points out that the idea of "crystal man" - a citizen on permanent exhibition to everyone around them - isn't actually a Silicon Valley idea at all but rather one born of the Stasi. Makes sense: having your reputation trolled and discussed by unseen voices is a form of social control after all. For all the talk of "empowering" students - and it's true that for some Ratemyteachers.com was a valuable channel when they had little other recourse to having their voices heard - the site was ultimately based on the public shaming of professionals in an extremely difficult job (fancy teaching for low pay in a tough inner city school when you know your haircut's going to be dissed on a forum?)

Walls, bridges, toilet surfaces - they were all the ancestors of online rating sites. But there was one major difference between the walls of a public restroom and the forum of an online site. For all their communitarian puff, peer-to-peer ratings of human beings are fuelled by the oldest motivation of all: money. The UK site of Ratemyteachers hosted ads from Tesco and credit card company Capital One. As far as I know nobody ever attempted to monetize a toilet wall.