How Yelp destroyed the thrill of exploring

Zero of five stars! The Internet is loaded with crowdsourced opinions, making authentic, new experiences impossible

Topics: Dream City, Editor's Picks,

How Yelp destroyed the thrill of exploring

What’s the best thing in your city?

Which mani-pedi place represents the pinnacle of nail care according to the aggregated opinions of hundreds of people ranking all the mani-pedi places on a scale of one to five?

Thanks to online tools like Yelp, you can now know the answer to questions like that. These crowdsourcing tools have transformed the way we experience cities, often for the better — they help us streamline our lives and avoid wasting time with subpar businesses. It’s now easier than ever to avoid bad meals and dingy hotel rooms. Jeff Howe, author of “Crowdsourcing,” sums it up nicely: “I’m a guy with three jobs and the parent of nettlesome little children,” he says. “I don’t really have time for a lot of bad experiences.”

But for all Yelp’s virtues, pre-screening every experience can inhibit us, too. These days, many of us wouldn’t think of trying a new hairstylist or hotel without first checking others’ impressions online. “There’s something about Yelp that creates hesitancy,” says Howe. “Before going to a trivia night at an East Village bar I check out the bar’s Yelp page to see what others have said about it, what it looks like, what types of people go there — what I’m essentially looking for is, does this look like me? Do people like me go here?”

I know exactly what he means. I pre-screen everything these days. Usually I’m trying to avoid feeling awkward — I’ve ended up at too many bars where I’m the only patron who remembers life before cable. Last year I decided not to attend the annual Time’s Up! “Fountain Ride” after a YouTube video of one of the past rides convinced me I’d feel insufficiently artsy.

But am I dodging uncomfortable situations, or missing out on great ones? “The efficiency that the Web has brought has downsides,” says Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and culture. “On balance, it works against happy accidents.” Tenner calls this counter-serendipity: when preconceived notions prevent lucky flukes. For instance, a poorly rated restaurant on Yelp might have a few die-hard fans — outliers who, for whatever reason, love the place. Their reviews might even be posted. But many of us go with the general consensus, writing off anywhere with a three-star ranking or less. “Is it possible that a place you really would have liked doesn’t have many positive comments, but you would have been one of the few positive ones?” asks Tenner.

Even if the ranking doesn’t deter us, by the time we do go to the club or the restaurant, we’ve sometimes seen so much of the place online that we’ve basically pre-experienced it. Having online access to so many venues might make us more adventurous in one sense, prompting us to try things we never would have tried or even have known about. But in another sense, it becomes a less-adventurous adventure, certified for us by hundreds of others who’ve already checked it out, assured us we’ll like it, testified to its quality, cleanliness and safety.

This isn’t the same, by the way, as choosing a restaurant based on a review in the paper. Now everything is reviewed — every bar, every corner store — everywhere, all the time. And if Yelp’s popularity is any indication (the site posted its 20 millionth review last July) our need to check these reviews before doing anything is becoming a borderline addiction. When you can no longer have a drink at a bar that wasn’t first vetted by 83 strangers, spontaneity — which, in some ways, is one of the best things about life in the city — is lost.

An example: A trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. is preceded by a scan of its 1,400 Yelp reviews, from which you’ll learn some useful information: be prepared for a wait, there are vegetarian options. But you’ll also learn that if you sit at the counter you can chat with the cooks if it’s slow, that the TVs play footage of Barack Obama’s visit, and that the crowd swells with concertgoers whenever a show at the nearby 9:30 Club ends. Supplementing these descriptions are 431 photos of the space, the food, the cooks, the servers. No unanticipated curve balls await you. The scene has been thoroughly canvassed in advance.

Ben’s is an institution that survived the riots of the ’60s to become a D.C. landmark. On Yelp, it’s just another a three-and-a-half-star chili-dog joint. And in some ways, this is one of Yelp’s greatest services: providing a reality check for legendary places hawking average products at insane prices. (Canter’s Deli and the Russian Tea Room also get this treatment.) In fact, in a lot of ways, Yelp is a godsend for good businesses — it’s a meritocratic rating system that rewards quality service with a relative lack of bias.

But quantifying every service and product with a one-through-five ranking can also discourage innovation. One study showed that an extra star on Yelp can boost a business’s revenues by 9 percent. When your cumulative score is worth that much, doing something unorthodox that some people won’t like isn’t necessarily in your best interest. Economists call this the high-level equilibrium trap. Innovating can sometimes mean a brief period of declining quality as you struggle to smooth out the kinks — not such a big deal when you’re only being written about by a professional critic every few years, but a very big risk when you’re being reviewed by your customers on an almost daily basis and those reviews will drastically affect your bottom line.

Even just getting a good score isn’t enough — you need lots of them. “I’m looking for volume,” says Howe, describing how he uses Yelp to find things in the city. “I need at least 35 or 40 reviews. If there are 40 reviews and 4.85 stars, I know that’s going to be good” — a tactic that ends any promise of finding an undiscovered gem.

“And to actually choose … and then to stop looking is to limit your experience of the Internet,” writes cultural critic Lee Siegel in his Internet-skeptical book, “Against the Machine.” Siegel’s talking about the experience of buying watches online in that excerpt. But you could replace the word “Internet” with the word “city,” and the theory would hold up. Today, even a word-of-mouth recommendation can feel insufficient. We want to cross-check it with others’ opinions online, and search for additional options that we might like better. Life in the city is (somewhat embarrassingly) often about consumer choices. Crowdsourcing is supposed to make those choices more manageable, but somehow it also makes them feel relentless.

Too many choices. That’s the first-world urban problem we face. Yelp was created to deal with this problem. And like so much technology, there’s nothing wrong with it. Until we become reliant on it. Then, like Google Maps, we feel lost without it. And suddenly, making the trip to the far-flung neighborhood to check out that Turkish bath or Congolese cafe, having only a vague sense of what it will look and feel like, knowing only what we heard from a friend or read in a blurb in the local alt-weekly — this type of experience becomes a little too unnerving, something we’d better first check out online, just to see.

Will Doig

Will Doig writes the Dream City column for Salon

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>