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A Second Look at Yelp, Where Critics Go Uncritiqued

Yelp is still social media. And like all social media, it’s complicated.
Yelp is still social media. And like all social media, it’s complicated. By Courtesy of Eaters Collective
By Leigh M. Wilson, Crimson Staff Writer

Social media is all about bringing that which was previously reserved for professionals to the masses. An online dilettante can enjoy simultaneous avocations on platforms like Instagram, Medium, and TikTok, where blue checkmarks and easily gained large followings can lend authority to otherwise normal people. As the dangers of blindly trusting social media surface in public conversation, Yelp, a place whose content as many as 91 percent of people say they trust as much as a friend, seems immune to it all. That said, Yelp, where anyone can be a food critic, suffers from the same disinformation problem as more traditional social media, despite its stellar reputation. With restaurants’ reputations and restaurateurs’ livelihoods at stake, the question remains: How much should Yelp ratings really matter?

The stereotypes of food critics are distilled into the vampiric Anton Ego from Ratatouille: a nocturnal, wan figure whose sophisticated tastes, formidable standards, and caustic opinions stand to ruin the reputation of any urban chef. There are a few of the same characteristics in Pete Wells, the New York Times’ restaurant critic since 2012. His Twitter profile picture, the Muppet Statler, calls to mind the role of the cantankerous, unpleasable heckler (with a side of self-consciousness about Wells’ own position). The fact that Wells’ picture can be found hanging on the wall of many New York restaurant kitchens is a sign of the real fear he evokes in restaurateurs’ hearts. While Wells is no Ego in that he does not write mostly negative reviews, his most famous pieces include the sharp censure of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, owned by Guy Fieri, and the two-star downgrade of Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se in 2016. Wells’ stature in New York’s culinary world means his negative reviews carry particular weight to readers and restaurateurs alike.

It makes sense that professional food critics like Wells be professionally associated with their respective art form. Irish playwright Bernard Shaw famously wrote that a music critic of any merit “must have a cultivated taste for music; he must be a skilled writer; and he must be a practised critic.” A theater critic should have experience in the industry, writes Najla Said. Similarly, art critic Ana Finel Honigman writes that “for all critics, a pre-requisite for the role of judging the art of others should be a period of struggle in the studio.”

What qualifications are really necessary to be a food critic though? Most people in the world have extensive experience with both cooking and eating, some even practicing both crafts on an individual level three times a day. We are endowed with a built-in food critic in the form of a tongue and a brain that immediately passes judgment on every bite. Though many argue that art and music are indispensable to the human experience, food is indispensable to life. And while images of art and recordings of music are free online, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Food uniquely sits at the intersection of entertainment and necessity, art and utility, luxury and subsistence. And because food’s gamut runs from near-inedible famine food to works of art from the finest dining experiences, and professional critics usually stick to the latter, Yelp is particularly useful for evaluating the vast majority of restaurants, which would otherwise go unnoticed.

Though it might appear to be something nobler, Yelp is still social media. And like all social media, it’s complicated, noisy, and regrettably vulnerable to bad actors. Yelp and others do what the Internet does best: dress the novice as an authority. You no longer have to be Pete Wells to be a published restaurant critic (though when finding places to review, even Wells uses Yelp). Any restaurant experience — good, bad, or routine — can be widely propagated online. The power bestowed on each individual diner is daunting to chefs and restaurant staff, whose livelihoods often depend on the success of their establishment. A Harvard Business School study in 2016 found that a one-star increase of a restaurant's overall rating on Yelp led to a five to nine percent increase in revenue.

That power is unsurprisingly sullied by those wishing to cheat the system. Falsified or misleading review tactics have plagued Yelp and other review platforms like UberEats, Grubhub, and Google from their onset. The buying and selling of fake reviews is prolific. Professional review writers around the world are easily hired online to direct readers to a business, either by writing positive reviews of their clients or negative reviews of their client’s competitors. Many companies, often with in-house reviewers, engage in “astroturfing,” or manipulative marketing campaigns that appear to show organic grassroots feedback from the public, but are really orchestrated by the company themselves.

Individuals often manipulate Yelp reviews for personal gain by leaving negative reviews in hopes that the business will give them special treatment to win back their favor. Restaurant owners who feel obligated to please every unhappy customer, especially with online ratings at stake, will often go to great lengths to appease a negative reviewer. Yelp has also recently fallen victim to politically-motivated spamming, in which groups of anti-vaxxers leave fake negative reviews en masse at establishments that require vaccine cards or passports. One particularly pernicious area of trouble is prejudiced reviewers who have little to say about the food and a lot of ad hominem attacks against the staff. Many chefs bemoan the disproportionate power Yelp bestows on customers, who chefs say often take their entitlement too far by making unreasonable requests, berating staff, and refusing to leave, all the while threatening a poor Yelp review. When Yelp ratings hold power over a business’ success, customers are empowered to blackmail them.

Though Yelp is adamant in their policies about ensuring trustworthy reviews float to the top, it takes little scrolling to find reviews of questionable integrity. Yelp’s algorithms are trained to sort out particularly suspect reviews, which are labeled “unrecommended” and do not affect a restaurant’s overall rating. As media companies are finding out, however, filtering out harmful content is no job for algorithms alone.

Everything is reviewed in 2022. Light Googling will show that the Indian Ocean is a 5-star alternative to the 3.4-star Arctic and Southern Oceans (too cold, most reviews helpfully point out). What is obviously fake to one reader may appear as gospel truth to another. What is needed is critical thinking about the criticism on Yelp. In an opinionated and unfair world, what’s written on Yelp might not be as it seems. When amateurs pose as professionals, when stars matter more than words, and when individuals are empowered to lie and cheat, high quality analysis is lost in the noise. While Yelp can be useful with good actors, the evils of social media have taken root there too. At the end of the day, maybe just try the restaurant yourself.

—Staff writer Leigh M. Wilson can be reached at leigh.wilson@thecrimson.com.

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