Yelp! I Need Somebody (to Smugly Describe Food at Places They’ve Been Like Once)

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A few years ago, ST drew my attention to the Yelp page for his dad’s business. There was only one review posted: An aggressive, incendiary 1-star review that effectively called ST’s dad a lecherous fraud whose office doubled as a terrifying sex dungeon. It sounds ridiculous, but this is barely an exaggeration (of the uh, review, not of his dad or the business).

Since I’m all about making a meaningful impact on the world as long as I don’t have to leave my computer, I decided I’d make my own Yelp profile to counter-balance that obviously fake review…with a 5-star fake review of my own. (Look, if life were a morality contest, would you REALLY want to win?)

My exposure to the site and the people who use it have taught me one thing above all else: Yelp is full of the most pretentious people you’ve ever met saying the most inane things imaginable about food, bar none — and the fact it’s a standard source of information on restaurants absolutely terrifies me.

 

In case you haven’t heard of Yelp (Hi, Grandma, how was today’s Jumble?), it’s just a socially-aggregated review website, where users rate businesses on a 1-5 star scale and offer their thoughts on what they did and didn’t like about the place. It’s so popular that Yelp is the 143rd most visited website in the world as of this posting — so, like anything else that gets popular, the user base has gradually shifted from real people writing real things to insufferable douchebags trying their hardest to sound like they know what they’re talking about.

Take this unassailably awesome review of the top-rated restaurant in Portland, a notoriously pretentious food town. It’s for a Southern-themed breakfast place named Screen Door:

 

“I have never been to the Southern United States… but I can confidently say that this is the best fried chicken here in the states.  I don’t know what it is about Portland, but they have awesome comfort food. Before arriving, make sure you make reservation… otherwise; you’ll be like me and wait around an hour during dinner time for a seat.  It’s extremely busy and I can see why.i ordered a mint julep from the bar to kill time, and this was the only thing that was lacking from the restaurant.  It wasn’t as strong as I imagined.”

 

Remember, this is the top-rated place in Portland, with 1,600+ reviews giving it an average 4.5 stars. This is thanks to people like this guy, who gave it a perfect five despite admitting his opinion on two Southern specialties was formed without him being to the region that’s known for them. Imagine willfully and proudly trumpeting your inexperience like that in any other situation. See how much sense it makes:

 

  • “I’ve never been to Mexico, but I can confidently say that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.”
  • “I’ve never been to Europe, but I can confidently say that MLS is the best soccer league in the world. Also, I hate sports.”
  • “I’ve never heard a single note of music because I was born deaf and my parents were devout Tibetan monks with no access to a record player and also they were deaf, but I can confidently say that Moving Pictures was the most important album of the 1980s.”
  • “I’ve never been a dog, but I can confidently say that being a dog would be pretty sweet and way better than being a tarsier (which I’ve also never been).”
  • “I’ve never hosted a show on Food Network, but I can confidently say that it would be so easy that you could do it by following a flowchart.” [Ed. note: What kind of douchebag would even do that? …Oh, right.]

(I know I’m belaboring this point, but it’s important — the hyper-opinionated hyperbole of Yelpers will get thematic soon.)

The challenge with Yelp isn’t necessarily this kind of ignorance, though: countless forums on the Internet open themselves up to aggregated and anonymous criticism. It just comes with the territory. No, the real issue is with the people who take it most seriously — Yelp Elites. The self-righteousness is right there in the name — this is a group that’s just, man….you know what, let’s just see how Yelp itself describes the program:

 

“You’ve heard legends about their reviews, their shiny profile badges, and—of course—their epic parties.
But the Yelp Elite Squad is even more than that. Members of this exclusive, in-the-know crew reveal hot spots for fellow locals, act as city ambassadors, and are the true heart of the Yelp community, both on and offline.”

 

“Exclusive.” “In-the-know.” “City ambassadors.” Look at how a group of otherwise totally ordinary people, strictly by virtue of putting their narcissism and biases at the forefront and powering through a handful of reviews, gets defined by Yelp itself! Literally all it takes to become an Elite Yelper is to keep writing and demonstrate an adequate level of writing ability. There’s no need to know what you’re talking about, no need for a culinary background and no need to forego your strong opinions in the name of fairness. Who cares that you’ve only been to a place one time, or that your opinions are literally just as valid as anyone else in the world who has time to write reviews? You’re Elite, baby — fuck the plebs who don’t have your shiny profile badge!

Since this is so much fun using Yelp’s own words to make my case, let’s throw in a few more key quotes while we’re at it:

 

“From social networking and gatherings to exclusive opportunities and parties aplenty, Elites lead dynamic lives.”

“As one of the area’s best and brightest urban adventurers, you’ll act as a local authority and role model for the Yelp community. Elites yelp like nobody’s watching, but really, millions are.”

“Most importantly, you’ll join the ranks of some of the most influential tastemakers on the site and in your city.”

“The Elite Council spends many a sleepless night with pizza, beer, and 5-Hour Energy shots to pore over individual profiles and figure out who deserves another coveted term in office.”

“Finally, we look for a certain je ne sais quoi when reviewing Elite candidates. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it.”

 

If pretentiousness were a real, tangible element, like some sort of odorless gas, I’d have drowned in it, been suffocated by it, been crushed by it and slowly lost control of my nervous system because of it by now. San Francisco would be all-but-uninhabitable.

So I know what you’re thinking: “But JSG, how do you know Elite Yelpers aren’t any better than their counterparts? Isn’t there still value in their opinions on aggregate?” To which I say: Aha, you’ve fallen into my clever ruse which I just so cleverly set up! Because the inescapable reality is that the most favorably-rated places will constantly show up at the top of search results and become the most popular destinations for new reviewers. This causes a situation where restaurants can coast largely on their reputations, because they’ve been so well-regarded for so long and people will keep going and reviewing them positively as the cycle continues. The kind term for this is a positive feedback loop. The JSG term is a circlejerk.

You may now be asking “But hey, Elites are different, right? They’re more discerning and experienced than their anonymous counterparts!” That’s what I WANTED you to think, as my clever rhetorical ruse takes a new twist. Do you want to know how I know there’s nothing different about “Elite” users? Because it’s surprisingly easy to trick people when it comes to food:

 

I know it’s 10 minutes long, but the whole exercise Penn and Teller put on is as awesome as it is frightening as it is revealing: it is crazy, crazy easy to convince people that things are better, tastier, finer or more exotic than they really are. Yes, this is an anecdotal exercise, and yes, you could argue that the whole setup was one long leading question for the unsuspecting victims (especially in a social environment, where politeness frequently trumps honesty). These are perfectly valid points about this particular scenario. But it’s pretty damn illustrative of just how easy it is to perceive quality when the right situation is presented to you, even if it’s all a total lie.

Besides: is this really that different from what’s already happening on Yelp? Screen Door, the breakfast place I mentioned earlier, has 1,632 reviews. The breakdown by number of stars as of press time:

  • 5-Star: 956 (58.6%)
  • 4-Star: 500 (30.6%)
  • 3-Star: 119 (7.3%)
  • 2-Star: 43 (2.6%)
  • 1-Star: 14 (0.9%)

Now, it’s possible Screen Door is a mind-blowingly delicious culinary pilgrimage that explodes your brain into a delicious rainbow mist after you’ve taken your first bite. And it better be, because a mere 10.8% of people gave it 1-3 stars — the remaining 89.2% all found this experience totally superlative in almost every regard. But that’s OK, right? Surely these places are evaluated by discerning culinary minds. Let’s pick a place like Jean-Georges, triple Michelin Star award winner in 2012 with a world-renowned chef at the helm:

  • 5-Star: 956 (58.6%)
  • 4-Star: 500 (30.6%)
  • 3-Star: 119 (7.3%)
  • 2-Star: 43 (2.6%)
  • 1-Star: 14 (0.9%)

This is just beautifully perfect. With ~700 fewer reviews, Jean-Georges has seven more 1-star reviews than a Southern-themed breakfast place in Portland. This is a total cherry pick, of course, but one that took me like fourteen seconds to find — I’d wager the problem is pretty common. Hooray for Yelp’s totally meaningless rating system! The whole thing is layers upon layers of pretentiousness, all masking a standard-less sliding scale of ridiculous expectations for eating out.

The main takeaway here is really not supposed to be anti-Yelp. Yelp is really just a digital, organized version of what people have been doing since the beginning of time, after all, so the core concept isn’t overly objectionable. What does matter, though, is that there’s no room for discretion anymore: Yelp lets literally anyone and everyone write reviews that say whatever they want about whatever they want, even about places they’ve never even been before. This leads to things like vote brigading against unpopular places like Amy’s Baking Company, and an endless stream of allegations that businesses are paying to have positive reviews written and negative reviews swept under the rug — something that some Yelp users feel entitled to anyway (I know right? As if their inflated egos weren’t stroked enough by the Elite program). Totally great developments!

But hey, at least you get to go to sweet parties and hang out with other holier-than-thou reviewers and congratulate yourselves for all having a lot of terrible opinions on places you probably didn’t give a fair or honest shake. Circlejerks forever!

-jsg

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Yelp! I Need Somebody (to Smugly Describe Food at Places They’ve Been Like Once)

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