Friday, August 10, 2012

Yelp and You: Deconstructing the Website You Love to Hate and Why You Love to Hate It

Earlier this week I posted this photo poking fun at the self-annointed experts who populate Yelp. As I often post things I think are funny that poke fun at other things, I posted this too with the same intent -- a giggle, perhaps a chortle, maybe even a guffaw, but nothing more.

As the most popular post ever in the history of the EID Facebook page, it received over 400 "likes," reached over 8,000 people, was shared over 150 times, and catapulted my weekly reach to more than 69,000, with more than 2,800 people "talking about" it. Did I anticipate this sort of rabid reaction to something I thought otherwise fairly innocuous? Of course not. Which forces me to wonder: how does a website focused on user-generated content that as of January 2012 has over 71 million unique visitors monthly also generate so much hostility, so much vitriol, with an almost gleeful proclamation of solidarity in antipathy via social media shares?

By doing some quick remedial algebra, dividing Yelp's 71 million unique users per month by the just under 315 million people (including infants and children and the olds and all of the many people without computers or easy access to the Internet who are either living at or below poverty level or in extremely remote areas or both) in the country, that still means nearly 23% of the TOTAL population of Americans use Yelp. The 71 million figure is specific to, the American site, and does not account for the separate Yelp sites in Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Austria or the Netherlands (none of which are .com). While Detroit can claim a bit of overlap with Windsor with restaurants immediately across the border making their way to the American site, since we're talking numbers in the millions the overall impact of Canadian cross-over users is negligible. (Plus, they gave us poutine, so let's cut them a little slack here.) Factoring out those whose numbers don't contribute to the count of viable Internet users in the country and that percentage of total Yelp users probably soars well above 50%. Which is to say that, of all the polemic Internet high-fiving over an apparent shared and declared dislike of Yelp, probably at least 1 in 2 of those people use it.

So why all the vitriol? The lady doth protest too much, methinks... meaning that those who so abjectly oppose Yelp (often citing such artfully articulated arguments like "all it is is a bunch of idiots who don't know what they're talking about" as their reason why) are perhaps more deeply dependent on it than they care to admit. In other words, the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference -- and this reaction seems anything but indifferent. Besides, user-generated content in any sort of online outlet tends to be filled with the garbled brain-droppings of mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers (read any comments section in anything anywhere) ... if anything Yelp loyalists tend to be intelligible, and are often even articulate (though sometimes people seem to want to "push" their prosaic prose prowess with twee descriptors and self-ascribed axioms like "bacony goodness").

Is it our own internalized self-disgust going back to our Puritanical roots that dictates almost every behavior we engage in is cause for shame and self-loathing? Eh, that's probably a question too big for a blog, but that's definitely something we Americans are quite good at. (We're also very good at loving something right up until we hate it. See: the Obama presidency.) And maybe Yelp is full of idiots who don't know what they're talking about, but by that token (and given the number of users in this country) the chorus of idiots should be nothing but white noise drowned out by the sheer glut of content available, much of it generated by non-idiots. Unless you *sincerely* think everyone is an idiot. In which case you're probably a sociopath.

At the end of the day, we all just love to hear ourselves talk. (Hi: I have a blog.) The problem is, we all hate that we all love that. We accuse other people of that as a form of personal indictment, but really the issue we have is that we can't hear ourselves talking over all their talking and it makes us huff and puff and stamp our feet. Yelp is the ultimate distillation of that behavior in its purest form, and that's why everyone is so damn ambivalent towards it.

I'm not sure this totally applies to this post but it generally applies to everything.
Yelp is at its very worst ethically problematic. Their so-called "bullying" tactics to get restaurants to pay them money to have negative reviews removed are well-documented. Eater National takes particular umbrage with the site, wasting nary an opportunity to make it abundantly clear just how repugnant they find Yelp's whole business model and fan base to be. (Which is extra funny in the ironic sort of way for so many reasons, but that's another post for another day.) But let's just have a little real talk time here: 71 million unique monthly users. That means a whole LOT of IT infrastructure and maintenance, if absolutely nothing else. That needs to get paid for somehow; websites don't build and maintain themselves. Now, if Yelp is going to fall under scrutiny for essentially allowing restaurants to "buy" positive reviews ... THAT IS THE FUNNIEST FUCKING THING I HAVE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE.

Welcome to modern day media in which all content is bought and sold. So why should Yelp, a user-generated website that never purports to be anything other than an entertainment tool, be excluded from the very same practices that so-called "legitimate" publications have quite literally made their bread-and-butter in recent years? Who's really the asshole here? Make no mistake, media is nothing more than a blood-thirsty pariah gorging itself on the wasted carcass of society. As a part of it, I study it exhaustively to better know the beast whose bed I lay in and after years of climbing the ranks and getting better acquainted with the inner workings of the system, I can tell you that you don't want to see the man behind the curtain.

With something as democratizing as the Internet, one might think free speech would flow -- now everyone has a voice, the first amendment wins, etc. Instead, the Internet has turned into the most pervasively employed tool of public relations since television and even user-generated sites like Yelp aren't immune. It's fairly easy for a soulless PR lackey to create a fake profile and rave about the places they represent ... Yelp tries to be judicious in monitoring for these but they still sneak through. (It's also fairly easy for a jilted former employee/lover/friend/what-have-you with an axe to grind to write something scathing and drag down a business's overall ranking.) The system is certainly flawed. But targeting Yelp for practices that are pandemic across major media is a little forest-from-the-trees.

I love Yelp. I think it's a fantastic tool, an "illustrated phone book" as one person called it. For all of Yelp's ethical issues and the banality of some of its content, it is an exceptionally useful reference tool for researching businesses. Despite all of the backlash the "Yelp Elite" types receive from the rest of the eating public, they do an exceptional job of keeping listings current. The algorithms used by the website itself to generate suggestions related to the listing a user is viewing is still the single best way to discover new a new business, more than any other website with similar (though less efficient) functionalities. Because of the insatiable obsession of the site's most avid users, their dutiful reviewing of places most arcane allows a spotlight to shine on businesses that would otherwise go wholly unnoticed due to lack of a website, social media presence, advertising and in some cases even storefront signage. Yelp's denizens of dining, in their never-ending quest to ferret out the most obscure hidey-holes and be FIRST to discover the dive bar burger that's better than Miller's or the barbecue handed off through bullet proof glass that's better than Slows' fill in the gaps otherwise missed by traditional media. (And I get that compulsion. I do.)

Obviously in my line of work I talk to a lot of business owners, managers and chefs. Some have a healthy attitude towards Yelp, recognizing it for what it is without taking it too seriously. The rest HATE it. But they miss something critical, and maybe because this has less to do with what's visible online and more to do with consumer psychology: it used to be that the customer is always right. If the customer whined and bitched and pissed and moaned enough, he or she would inevitably get his way. But thanks to Yelp, the whining bitching pissing and moaning has become so constant and incessant that it is nothing more than white noise falling on deaf ears. As soon as restaurants stopped taking it seriously, asshole customers stopped being rewarded and incentivized for asshole behavior. What's more is that the consuming public actually doesn't put much stake in Yelp's reviews beyond just using them to grab a quick phone number.

While democratizing food reviews (something I had mixed feelings about, being that your average diner doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about, until I realized that your average reviewer doesn't either) and seemingly empowering customers a bit too absolutely, it has ultimately enabled restaurants with the power to ignore them. Restaurants no longer fear a bad review - not from Yelpers and now not even from professionals (who more and more face the constraints of catering to advertisers and editors who'd rather not rock the boat). As business owners, they merely have to worry about running their business, as it should be. If they do it poorly, people will stop coming - with or without reviewers needing to tell them to.

Love Yelp, hate Yelp - it matters naught. But to blame Yelp for the woes of the world is utterly missing the point.

Enough of this; time for me to find something else funny to post on Facebook.