Yelpers are a famously expressive bunch, but never more so than during one 48-hour period last April. “I had the single most horrific experience of my life!” one review began on the Yelp page of Walkerton, Indiana’s Memories Pizza. “I wanted some pizza after my klan rally so of course it was memories pizza.” Thousands of similar reviews flooded the page, materializing faster than the review site’s moderators could delete them.
Memories Pizza co-owner Crystal O’Connor had just spoken up in support of the state’s controversial “religious freedom” law, announcing that the restaurant would refuse to cater a same-sex wedding as “a Christian establishment.” Within hours, reviews from Yelpers all across the world took over the page, ranging from satirical send-ups like the Ku Klux Klan pizza meet-up to straightforward accusations of discrimination. Still others leapt to the pizzeria's defense: “Having an unpopular opinion is not a crime,” one Yelper wrote. “Go find some other perceived injustice to get all cranked up about.”
All told, Yelp moderators removed more than 7,600 of these reviews, a record for the 11-year-old site. Yelp spokeswoman Shannon Eis describes the fervor: “All of that happening in real time, at massively high speeds of posting, for approximately 48 hours nonstop around the globe.” News sites broadly reported on the phenomenon as a trolling job well done. But as protest movements continue to leverage the power of social media channels, Yelp seems to be emerging as a forum beyond the typical complaints about subpar service or under-salted dishes. Why is that happening, and how will Yelp approach its growing role as a platform for political expression?
Yelp is hardly the first site to spring to mind when discussing protest in the social media age. Facebook and especially Twitter have had much more distinct roles — and greater power for organizing, tracking developments, and promoting solidarity — in recent movements in Ukraine, Hong Kong, and Ferguson. But according to social psychologist Regina Tuma, every social media platform becomes a potential space for protest when a news event becomes a major topic of discussion.
In September 2012, Yelp found that out in a big way. A different pizzeria, Big Apple Pizza in Fort Pierce, Florida, landed in the headlines after owner Scott Van Duzer lifted a visiting President Barack Obama off his feet in a bear hug seen ‘round the world. Obama critics called for a boycott of the pizzeria and, en masse, left one-star reviews on its Yelp page. Obama supporters retaliated by ordering pizzas for local charities and leaving five-star reviews on Yelp. Pretty soon, the page was dominated by more than 4,600 reviews, none of which had anything to do with pizza.
“The bear hug for Obama was definitely a moment we never saw coming,” Eis says, noting that the Big Apple Pizza incident was the first time Yelp protests had happened on such a large scale. Even now, the page is still littered with political gripes.
But really, it was inevitable. “[Yelp] almost was a natural space to go after this issue,” says Tuma, the sociologist, noting that when a restaurant is the key player in a controversial incident, “it has to be Yelp.” Tuma points out that these incidents prove how well Yelp has defined itself in the marketplace as the go-to spot for dining opinions. When someone perceives a restaurant as committing an injustice or being politically wrongheaded, Yelp is the natural flashlight. “Social media [platforms] are very good at that,” Tuma says, “making that which is invisible visible.”
Sometimes, though, it’s more floodlight than flashlight. While most of Yelp’s page takeovers happen on a smaller scale, Memories Pizza drew commenters from all over the country and even internationally. Because restaurants are both private businesses and public spaces, everyone feels a sense of ownership, even if they live halfway across the world from the small-town pizzeria at the center of debate. And as gay rights continue to dominate the national conversation, it feels imperative to weigh in on how these rights will play out in public spaces. “It’s now not about an Indiana pizzeria, it’s about LGBT and civil rights issues,” Tuma says. Now, it goes viral.
But are these Yelp outbursts really protests or just some high-volume trolling — or even bullying? The answer is in the eye of the beholder. “Rather than allowing this family to simply have their opinion... outraged people grabbed the torches and began a campaign to destroy this small business in small town Indiana,” conservative commentator Lawrence Jones wrote on his own social media site of choice, a Go Fund Me page for Memories Pizza. (The campaign’s stated mission was “to relieve the financial loss endured by the proprietors’ stand for faith.” It raised $843,317.) Conversely, Yelper Arti D. took on the conservatives who had opposed Big Apple Pizza, writing on the site, “For all the haters and extreme ideologues out there who are giving this place a negative review because the owner is a friendly, good-natured-affable man... get a life. You are what is wrong with today’s politics.”
In these online protests, each side argues that the other is disingenuous: The opposing side is often considered an out-of-control mob of bullies. But historically, these counter-accusations are characteristic of a protest, whether on social media or IRL, Tuma says. “In the US, any time there’s a social movement, the first thing people say is that the protesters are uncivil.” Usually those claims are pretty easy to believe when someone is comparing Obamacare to slavery or associating a restaurant owner with the Ku Klux Klan. But Tuma argues that what we might think of as bullying is actually a necessary component of protest. “A lot of the time to get attention, you have to make your position in the extreme,” she says. “The first note of a symphony has to be a good one.”
This has all been very weird for Yelp. When CEO Jeremy Stoppelman founded the platform in 2004, he figured it would be known for matter-of-fact ratings of local businesses. But to his surprise, the reviews were what really took off. “He recognized that is where people were going,” Eis says. “People want to write reviews. They want their opinions out there. They want the power to influence a positive or negative impact.”
Yelp adapted, allowing users to rate others’ reviews; it also created a Talk forum to encourage further discussion. But with the 2012 Big Apple Pizza incident, Yelp realized the ground was shifting. As a social media platform based on free speech, the company had to decide whether to allow political expression on its pages or protect businesses — and its own business model.
Yelp chose the latter. Following the Big Apple Pizza experience — which Eis considers one moment when Yelpers realized they could influence the success (or failure) of a restaurant — Yelp strengthened its Terms of Service and improved its moderating abilities. The upgrade promised the site would be much more vigilant in responding to algorithmic red flags and complaints from business owners. Today, the company’s communications team keeps tabs on the news for any viral stories that might engulf one of their pages. And, when moderators remove a post that doesn’t meet content guidelines, they send users a message encouraging them to voice their opinions in Yelp’s Talk section instead.
Eis argues that Yelp wasn’t designed to be a New York Times-style opinion page. “[Yelpers] want their voice heard and we understand that,” Eis says, but ultimately “people who use Yelp want to know they’re getting a review based on experiences.” And business owners, including restaurateurs, want to know they have some protections when their livelihood is at stake.
Historically, there's been deep tension between Yelp and restaurants, which stand to benefit from a good review but often feel extorted by the site or its users. (A mass of class-action lawsuits dismissed last fall accused Yelp of review extortion, not to mention the many complaints about Elite Yelpers requesting freebies in exchange for a good review.) But most every restaurant has had to deal with the errant angry Yelp review from someone who couldn’t get a reservation. For business owners, Yelp’s promised protection against a review not based on first-hand consumer experience makes sense.
But should Yelp be the arbiter of whether a protest is a legitimate boycott or a piling-on? When the Memories Pizza protest exploded last month, that question became more relevant — and awkward — than ever. Yelp had itself publicly denounced the Indiana religious freedom law that Memories Pizza supported, and yet here it was flagging and removing user reviews making the same point (albeit in somewhat more colorful language).
“Personally you’re like, ‘The people have spoken,’ but at the end of the day, we have to go back to what Yelp was intended to do,” Eis says. Users rely on Yelp for advice from real-life restaurant patrons; everything else must go. (Eis reiterates that Yelp reviews must be based on the service a business provides: If a reviewer experiences firsthand discrimination at a restaurant, a protest post would be fair game.)
Contradictory as it may seem, Yelp’s balancing act between an inherent reliance on free speech and a desired adherence to corporate mandates is normal. “What Yelp is going through now is what we're increasingly seeing in social media,” Tuma says. Social media platforms tend to have trouble when people occupy their spaces, she says, much like when physical protests take over public squares. “The corporate spaces have not figured out what to do when [they] get occupied.”
But Tuma argues that Yelp's response to remove social media protests might not be the answer. “How would we react if the government were to take down [an Occupy protest site]?” she asks. Even more, Tuma wonders what it even means to take a post down in a social media age where reporters can take screenshots of the offending review and users persist in protesting even years after the initial event. “There are no clear answers here,” she says.
In the meantime, Eis says that Yelp is investing both on the human and tech sides to better build a dialogue that uses social expression and customer experiences. First, the goal is to study where and how people want to express their opinions and then build “a framework around how much social commentary is acceptable in that environment.” As Yelp page takeovers get bigger, she says, “those are the ways we have to get smarter.”
And as long as Yelp continues to wield influence on a restaurant’s bottom line — to the point where restaurateurs frequently make headlines for biting back against unfair reviews — it’s fair to assume that protest page takeovers will indeed get bigger. We can look forward to even more absurdist satire, bullet-point arguments, passionate essays, and harsh, profane, and even violent discourse. After all, Tuma says, Yelp protests follow the patterns of other social movements, which are themselves reflective of society. Which is to say: anything goes.