Yelp, Clay Shirky and Me

15 Mar

It seems as though I am the Yelp advocate of the APOC crew.

Sure, I’ve been Yelp Elite since 2006. I currently have about 300 reviews (ok, 298, but I will get to 300 soon enough). I mostly review restaurants, though I also review bars, nightlife, services, arts and entertainment locations, etc. I also use Yelp as a guide for finding places to go and things to do. I found my mechanic on Yelp. I am discovering awesome local restaurants in my new neighborhood and keeping track of the best dishes to order. I discuss foodie topics on the talk threads, send compliments to fellow Yelpers on reviews that I think are Useful, Funny and Cool, and meet Yelpers in person at monthly Elite events at locales around LA. (Full disclosure: Yelp provides free food and drinks at these events).

Several of my classmates are skeptical about my involvement in Yelp, and about the Yelp platform in general. Why do I participate if I don’t get paid? Why do I trust Yelp? Yelp has been discussed in the news recently as an “extortion scheme,” as several local LA businesses have come forward in a class action lawsuit that claims Yelp asked for payment in exchange to remove negative reviews. My classmates Ruby and Christopher provide great insights on their blogs about the Yelp lawsuit. As an active Yelper, I wanted to add my own two cents to the discussion.

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky addresses the concept of “nonfinancial motivations” as powerful means to building trustworthy online communities. In Chapter 5, “Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production,” Shirky discusses the evolution of Wikipedia as a widespread, successful and informative tool. Anyone can launch a wiki page and anyone can edit, change and update that same wiki page, thus creating a mass “coordinating resource” (117) that is a dynamic “process” as opposed to a static “product” (119). Shirky claims that much of Wikipedia’s success comes from the fact that, “since no one is being paid, the energetic and occasional contributors happily coexist in the same ecosystem” (121). He devotes an entire section of this chapter to asking “Why Would Anyone Bother?” contributing or updating Wikipedia and offers three primary motivations:

1) “chance to exercise some unused mental capacities” (i.e., sharing knowledge);

2) vanity; and,

3) the desire to do a good thing.

This third motivation directly relates to my involvement with Yelp. Just as Shirky believes that “the ability to make nonfinancial motivations add up to something of global significance” (133), I believe that the individual desire to share knowledge is a good thing in and of itself. The idea of getting paid to write Yelp reviews undermines Yelp’s M.O. (and business slogan) of “Real People, Real Reviews”. It is the individualized nature of Yelp that promotes authenticity. I Yelp about what I want, when I want, as much as I want. Being paid would potentially drive me to tailor the quality of my reviews more positively towards paying businesses (or negatively towards their competitors). This would render the site basically useless, as the reviews would be sanctioned public relations stunts as opposed to genuine reactions from consumers. Thus, I believe the current lawsuits stemmed from misunderstandings about Yelp’s process, as opposed to Yelp subterfuge. I trust Yelp because it provides an open forum to discuss my ideas; I discuss my ideas because I want to share my knowledge; and given the positive reactions to my reviews by friends and fellow Yelpers, my knowledge seems to be valuable for the community. In my opinion, Yelp is the “shadow of the future” in action — without any real risk, I offer my genuine, authentic knowledge with the belief that others will reciprocate, which snowballs into an authentic community of local discussion and reactions. Such discussion is incredibly useful for businesses from a customer engagement and service standpoint, as they can evaluate, change and improve goods and services based on free consumer feedback.

To answer Shirky’s question: I bother because Yelp allows an open forum for me to be authentic, without being concerned about answering to “the man”. And this is why I will continue to be a Yelp advocate.

Now for shameless promotion (ie, reason #2: vanity):

Check out my Yelp page: juliee.yelp.com. Add me as a friend, follow me as a fan. I would love to hear your comments (and compliments!) on my reviews.

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