Yelp, Part Two: Not So Feel-Good After All

March 3, 2008

The day after I posted this essay on Yelp’s four-star leanings, I was reminded that Yelp, like all online communities, has its darker side.

While researching that previous essay, I came upon the listing of one of my all-time favorite stores. Filled with home decor, jewelry, and clothing, it’s the kind of gift shop where the gifts often end up being to myself. I’ve been there many times, and the owner has become a friendly acquaintance. I would have expected five stars — or four stars at least ;-) — but it had 3.5. Something was off: some reviews were simply untrue, even if one accounts for subjectivity. So I wrote my own review.

Soon after, I was wandering Boston’s North End, and inevitably made my way to this store. When I entered, the owner walked over to thank me for the nice review. I asked her about the bad ones, and a cloud descended. You know when you’ve been singled out for negativity and you don’t know why? You know that feeling of being misunderstood but not wanting to sound defensive or petty? That cloud.

For said reasons, the owner didn’t go into details. Basically, someone created multiple Yelp profiles and used them to bring down the store’s ratings. This reviewer also sent harassing messages to other reviewers and the owner herself. The owner said she contacted Yelp repeatedly, but the negative reviews remain. Knowing that it’s one person, and that this person has targeted other businesses as well, is little comfort to this store’s owner. Not only is it devastating to encounter unwarranted hostility, she worries about her store’s online reputation and, she said, her own personal safety.

We all know the Web is full of bad apples. Nothing new. But early on, we wrote this off as the downside of online anonymity. Now, Web pundits talk about how we are leaving anonymity behind, that our online and offline personas are merging into one, “authentic” identity (think Facebook).

But online identity is rarely verified. There are still fakers, and there are freaks. Young people are particularly vulnerable, as we know. But so are seasoned pros, like this blogger and these law students. Add some Google grease and the effects can be rough. Reputation management is a buzzphrase because real reputations are affected by online activities.

No one has figured out how to completely shield against the bad apples and the gamers, not even eBay. So while Yelp is not alone in hosting a community of good and bad, it could set itself apart by innovating ways to care for it. It’s not an impossible problem. It is irresponsible to invite people into a forum and then not moderate it well. And Yelp knows its power. The Business FAQ has some interesting moments, such as a warning not to “lash out” at negative reviewers or risk “vigilante justice” and a link to a First Amendment protection site for business owners considering a libel suit.

The conclusion from the previous post still holds: Online ratings systems can be useful and fun, but take them with a grain of salt. And, as in real life, trust the people you know more than those you don’t.


2 Responses to “Yelp, Part Two: Not So Feel-Good After All”

  1. Emily Says:

    The online world is such a fascinating place to study social perception and communication effects — I mean, intellectually you can be aware that you know NOTHING about the reputation of anyone who writes anything online whom you do not know IRL, but the impact of their words is nonetheless enormous. Even if you have the intention to be skeptical, just try to entirely discount a negative review – it’s pretty challenging, particularly if the review is written with decent spelling/grammar. The species is just naturally sensitive to negative information.

    I think this effect is heightened by the fact that negativity in person is generally frowned on in our culture. You are expected to be extremely judicious with criticism in everyday life (though obviously not in academics, which would be an entirely silent universe if not for the criticism) lest you get the reputation of being a negative person – and I think this real-life condition makes us take criticism more seriously, even in though there is no similar constraint in the online environment.

  2. rekha6 Says:

    I just saw Michael Arrington’s post about abusive behavior towards him and his employees (and family!).

    Criticism may be unjustly frowned upon, but this kind of negativity deserves to be silenced.

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