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Opinions are like ...

If ill-researched opinion is a Web hallmark, how does Yelp do it?

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Published 7/15/2009

Everyone's a critic. Everybody's got a gavel. We've become a nation of self-promoting narcissists in love with the sound of our own fingers rattling the keyboard. Netflix, Amazon, eBay, YouTube and iTunes encourage us to review movies, books, videos and music — to break 'em down and give them a star rating ... as we see fit. And we can do it with no accountability! With Facebook's " I like" feature and Twitter's condensed, off-the-cuff blurbs, any half-wit with an e-mail address can toss two cents at whatever they want, whenever they want. And they do — cloaked in anonymity — no matter how often some site "suggests" that you use your real name and pic. And, of course, responsibility never gets in the way of such efforts, much less the facts. If it's blogged, tweeted, forumed often enough, it's the truth. Just ask actor Jeff Goldblum who (two weeks ago) had to make a public announcement to prove he wasn't dead after the Internet decided otherwise.

Someone probably watched his new role on Law & Order and made their Facebook update something like "Jeff Goldblum is dead to me," then a friend of theirs clicked "I like this" and the snowball began there. Go ahead, give it your star rating. We're a nation of blowhards, a fad-frenzied society whose latest obsession is public judgment. Joy.

So, where do pro critics — those proven bylines paid and judged for reporting truth — fit into this equation? Maybe they're sent to the dire celebrity murk along with bloggers to pen half-hearted sound bites for models with good teeth who enunciate well. But maybe people don't care about that — they're just wondering where they can give this article a star rating. Keep looking.


When the agonizingly
American website hotornot.com went live back in 1999, enabling users to upload pictures for mass judgment on a 10-point scale, it redefined personal personas and self-satisfaction. People spent (and still spend) hours in dorm rooms and cubicles, rating photos of strangers between refreshing the page with their photo, to see how they stacked up. It probably started before, but, as far as fads go, Hotornot marked a new low in Internet fuckery. Once the site swept the country, nothing was off-limits for online ruling. Soon, ratemyface.com sprang up, followed by more provocative online destinations, ones that use the "rate my" prefix and substitute "face" for commonly concealed body parts. Somebody should've pulled the plug.

We dial a number to vote for American Idols (we suspect the fix is in, right?), we text-message which Top Chef contestant we'd most like to share an amuse-bouche with, and CNN encourages viewers to take part in online polls and "weigh in" on stories of all topics via e-mail, phone and now Facebook. During the presidential election last fall, you could tune in or log on to find out that "58 percent of viewers declared Obama won last night's debate." What James Carville had to say? You had to dig a little deeper for that.

You know the old chestnut about opinions? Right. Anyway, there are so many of them now available 24/7, ad nauseam, that none are valid — from "rate by butt" to "rate my brunch." It's the law of diminishing returns. Or what the Metro Times managing editor calls his Law of Strawberry Jam: the further you spread it, the thinner it gets. Remember that line from the editor on All the President's Men? "I don't care what you think, tell me what you know."


One of the most popular
dot-coms whose foundation is cemented in user-generated critique is Yelp, a site with such a Web presence that it has redefined the verb. The bartender was so bad I finished yelping about the place before she finally asked me what I wanted to drink. Two stars on service alone.

The popularity of the site astounds: There are currently about six million reviews and last month Yelp logged more than 20 million visitors. Yelp also continues to be one of the iPhone's most popular applications (according to BusinessWeek magazine, it's the third most vital app). But Yelp's slogan, Real People. Real Reviews. prompts the question: As opposed to what, fake critics, fake reviews?

Backed by a strong network of users — some of whom are deemed "Elite" — Yelp has become the Web place for discovering what people think about, well, pretty much anything with a listed address. Restaurants and bars are most popular, but everything from music fests to book stores, barber shops, bowling alleys, religious organizations, publications and museums are up for evaluation, executed by voting on the five-star scale and writing a review.

Detroit is one of Yelp's newest geographic targets, and Mariah Cherem (of garage-pop Ann Arborites the Avatars) is its newly appointed girl on the ground, a local rep who's not trying to sell anything — thus, our need to investigate.

First question: Why does a dot-com have a community manager, and what the hell does that mean for an online social networking and business review site? Also, what's with Yelp's lack of anonymous screen-names and quip whores?

Cherem first learned about Yelp while visiting friends in New York and Chicago. See, in some cities, before you go out at night, someone needs to "yelp" a place, or at the very least they might mention they've already read a good review about a particular spot. It's routine.

"I thought that if Yelp could work in other cities, it should work in Detroit," Cherem says. "We have great local businesses and there are always people looking for the best bike repair, record shop or place to grab nachos."

As community manager, Cherem presents to small business owners, promotes Yelp at festivals and meets with local nonprofits about fundraising opportunities — but what sets Yelp apart from others is that a large part of what Cherem does involves setting up social events for Yelpers, who Cherem says are "people united by being curious and passionate. They might be passionate about writing, about sharing their voice, or just about a particular neighborhood or type of cuisine, but they are passionate."

She says getting to know someone's personality helps her gauge whether or not she'll dig their bar recommendations and that it creates a higher level of accountability, which isn't journalism by any stretch, but, hell, society at large could use a dose of accountability.

"I think people are becoming more comfortable with having positive online dialogue instead of anonymous-comment-flame-wars," Cherem says. "That's my hope."

Which brings us back to "Elite Yelpers." For a website that claims communality, how exactly do they get away with creating a caste system?

Cherem contends people understand that it's a tongue-in-cheek name, though some sensitive souls we found on the site are pretty miffed. "I like to think of the Yelp Elite Squad as our good citizens and our tastemakers," Cherem says.

Turns out other community members often nominate someone for the Elite Squad. And those nominations are looked over by the National Elite Squad — seriously. Going out and grabbing dinner and a flick or drinks with other Yelpers who choose to post their real names and picture on their profiles — a trend we can dig — might signal that Webophiles are beginning to shake off their penchant for secret identities — perhaps they're growing balls? — but it's also a sign that we've embraced some culture of critique, a new world in which the role, and want, of the expert is thinning. How many laypersons' reviews equal that of a qualified pro, one whose byline carries weight? My girlfriend, a new member of Skull & Bones ... er ... Yelp Elite, thinks that if seven yelpers give a place four stars, it's the equivalent of one professional making the same claim.

"I think the voices of 'experts' still have an important place in the overall conversation," Cherem says. "But if you know your tastes tend to veer off from the local music or restaurant critic, why wouldn't you seek out someone that resonates a bit closer to your personal tastes? If you add together multiple opinions you're bound to get some interesting dialogue going." And there's that word again: opinions.


It's unclear where
this shift toward chronic critiquing is headed, but if the kind of transparency and offline community building we see from Yelp is of any indication, at least there's hope for constructive interaction, some social intercourse. As for pros who get paid to purport their estimations? Well they'll be able to, at least, call out Yelpers on grammar, spelling, bad writing and, um, ill-researched opinion. Oh, the future.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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