Transplanting myself to San Francisco for an internship this spring and then to New York this summer seemed natural. If I had been more thoughtful, I might have realized that thinking I could just move to two different cities for ten weeks each was kind of crazy, but luckily I am not one to think out entire situations. Moving to San Francisco came first and was harder because the city was more foreign to East Coast me. I knew few people. I made lots of friends, but the first friend I made was yelp.com. Yelp started in San Francisco and is just as much a character in the city these days as Michael Tolliver from Armistead Maupin's series.
San Francisco is obsessed with web 2.0 and social media and I became fully immersed into this world. I would check nextmuni.com before leaving my apartment on Fell Street and head to the bus with scientific timing. I read dailycandy.com for my dose of fashion finds and events, but mostly I lived, breathed, and yelped. Before going to a restaurant, I would check the reviews on Yelp. I scrutinized Yelp reviews when deciding which yoga studios to try. I searched for salons in my neighborhood and was ecstatic when I found one nearby that had great reviews. I became yelp-obsessed. I would stop into stores and coffee shops when I saw the red iconic "people love us on Yelp" sticker and had so much faith in the Yelp community.
Yelp is a pinnacle of web 2.0. Members write reviews of every type of businesses. You can write great reviews for a fabulous meal, or write something wretched if you saw a mouse ran across the floor of the restaurant. With so many reviews, it sometimes felt like you could get the gist of the experience without ever leaving your home. For example, I really wanted to go bowling in the Presidio, but after reading reviews about over-priced beer, old-fashioned bowling, not enough lanes, and endless fried food, I sort of felt like I knew the experience through and through and did not need to go see it for myself. I don't think that is the goal of Yelp though. Yelp is supposed to be a helpful online community. There are even special Yelp events. Maybe someday I would be cool enough to go to Yelp events and have a special edition Yelp t-shirt.
San Francisco was the first Yelp city, but now it is spreading all over the country. I was not part of this community, just an outsider looking in. I did not have an account. None of my friends belong to any online communities besides Facebook. Facebook was still just for elite colleges when I first joined and I will forever have a skewed view of it, even when it becomes the mainstay of the Internet. Some people see Yelp, MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other online communities as one in the same, but I still only have friends on Facebook.
After falling in love with San Francisco - for the people, the crazy weather, the techie vibe, and the food, I was dreading my next move to New York City. I wanted to stay in San Francisco because Yelp had helped me learn the city so fast, but I had to move and so I looked to my dear friend Yelp to give me information on New York City. It quickly became apparent that Yelp in New York is not like Yelp in San Francisco. The Yelpers in New York are more concerned with ambiance and crowd while Yelpers in San Francisco just wanted some fresh food without frills. Yelp Talks in New York were about people who want to be thinner and go to all the right night spots while talks in the San Francisco section were about sustainability and yoga classes.
Once in New York, I got brave enough to create a profile and started to review restaurants. I noticed a lack of yoga reviews so took it upon myself to go to as many yoga studios as possible and then create a list called "NYC = New YOGA City." Soon, other yelpers started to give me compliments and tell me that my reviews were funny, interesting, or useful. I got messages on Yelp and even had a friend request! I started raving about Yelp to all my friends the way that Yelpers rave about authentic Mexican food and good beer selections. I looked down at all my friends who still used nymag.com for reviews or heaven forbid, still bought Zagat's guides to tell them about good restaurants. Yelp was amazing because it was for the people, by the people, just like the Constitution of the United States of America. The reviews were real and I could trust my fellow Yelpers.
One day the pedestal I had placed Yelp on collapsed. A friend told me that some people from Yelp went to his buddy's spa in San Francisco. The Yelp people offered to take down the negative reviews if the spa owners paid them enough money. When I heard this story, I was aghast. I understand that Yelp scouts are paid to write reviews in new cities to make Yelp more popular as it expands, but offering to remove bad reviews for a price? Who knew there was a Yelp Mafia? I thought social media was the end of corporations ruling our country, but maybe Web 2.0 is just the new way to control the masses. I started a conversation about this on Yelp.com, but no one responded. Did the website bury my talk before I could corrupt others? Is this whole "by the people, for the people" thing just a front? I have not confirmed these rumors to be true, and don't want to become the girl who cried Yelp, but I have become a lot more skeptical about this Web 2.0 craze. Maybe we should think this out fully before we all pick up and move to Yelp.
Follow Julia Plevin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juliaplevin