The story of former Yale dean June Y. Chu, who left her position after students discovered her disparaging Yelp! reviews hit home. We both received undergraduate degrees from Bryn Mawr College. Some of the words in her offensive posts I heard from my immigrant father. I’m sure I parroted him when I was growing up. Worse, I internalized from his world view a false sense of “otherness” or “superiority,” something I’ve struggled to address over the years. Furthermore I had been an “Elite” Yelper until I caught onto the company’s business practices.
The extensive coverage of Ms. Chu’s misstep hasn’t addressed why she, a highly educated person with a PhD, was Yelping in the first place? Why did she, according to the Yale Daily News, announce in a college-wide e-mail that she had become “Yelp! Elite”?
I can tell you why I once Yelped a lot. I moved to Colorado in 2008 without knowing many people. A date took me to a Yelp! Elite party, with salsa dancing, tequila, food, cigars and swag. Afterwards, we went out for dessert. He encouraged me to write a review of the dessert place, my third for the site. We stopped dating, but I kept reviewing. The Yelp! platform acted as a chronicle of my new life. I enjoyed letting others know if a restaurant or shop was amazing or needed improvement. As a former small business owner myself, I tried to be balanced and fair. At some point, without telling me exactly why, Yelp! granted me Elite status. They put a badge next to my name, like a gold star awarded in elementary school. Now I could invite friends to parties, the theater and cocktail gatherings and meeting other foodies. I enjoyed the perks for a time. Then it dawned on me: If I weren’t willing to spend my own money to see these performances or visit a particular restaurant, why would I accept them as compensation for having written lots of reviews? How could I know if these businesses willingly hosted us, or if they had succumbed to Yelp!’s pressure to feed and entertain dozens of “Elites” or else suffer the consequences of not being on the Yelp! radar? The bigger Yelp! became, the harder it was to ignore.
When Yelp! began asking its members to commit to writing 100 reviews a year, more of my alarm bells went off.
When Yelp! began asking its members to commit to writing 100 reviews a year, more of my alarm bells went off. That’s about two reviews a week, a lot of free content to provide to a publicly traded company now worth roughly $2.4 billion. How many people, unless they travel a great deal, visit two new businesses a week? To meet the 100 quota, Yelpers offer their two cents on gas stations, Starbucks, convenience stores, or, like Ms. Chu, a local cinema, establishments that once were off the review radar. Would she have bothered to critique them at all if Yelp! didn’t offer the carrot of Elite status?
It is hard to know what “Elite” even means, given that Ms. Chu achieved the status while using language in posts that Yale deemed “reprehensible”. She did apologize for the words she used. Still, Yelp! allowed her snarky and mean-spirited content to stand, thereby condoning it and setting the tone for future reviews and the next crop of “Elite” Yelpers, who can continue to rack up perks for writing up service infractions and imperfections. How does that benefit anyone?
Ms. Chu, by virtue of being a dean at one of America’s most prestigious universities, had already achieved a high place in society. That she apparently sabotaged her actual status by celebrating her faux “elite” status in a campus e-mail is mind boggling and heartbreaking. Why did such an accomplished woman feel the need to broadcast a random designation by a for-profit business? Was it the word “elite” itself that was so compelling to her? Did the need to be chosen or special run so deep? My heart goes out to her if that is the case.
Why did such an accomplished woman feel the need to broadcast a random designation by a for-profit business?
I ceased Yelping years ago and later deleted my account. When I feel compelled to share a noteworthy experience or offer a mild critique of a place I’d like to see succeed, I’ll do so on Google or on the Facebook page of the place I visited. In a polarized country, where Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment might have cost her the election, it’s safe to say that name calling doesn’t work. Kind and constructive feedback, especially if delivered in person or privately, often leads to improvement, a win-win. While we need to feel free to voice respectful opinions, using one’s privilege to write one star reviews of employees (and fellow patrons), and potentially jeopardize someone’s livelihood, is a waste if not an abuse of that privilege. Feeding Yelp! with content just legitimizes a business with sketchy practices and normalizes the cheapening of labor, which Yelp! disguises under the cover of “community”.
Why don’t we just stop?