The Inner Meaning of Yelp

Word Press FormatI. “Who Are These People?”

I was new to San Francisco. I needed to get my car serviced. I drove into establishment on Valencia Street called “Oil Changers.”  Just a square non-descript building like a car wash with two wide-open bays; I am amazed that I even noticed it. A shy Asian man with a baseball cap allowed that I could get my oil changed in about 20 minutes if I cared to wait. I sat in the spare waiting room in an uncomfortable metal chair while my car was serviced.

I cast about for something to occupy me. I didn’t have anything to read. I decided to do something that seemed very San Francisco to me:  I went to the home page of Yelp.  I knew Yelp was not just San Francisco but it never made much of an impression on me before moving here.

I did not have much goodwill for Yelp. Let me say it more clearly: I hated the name “Yelp”.  I suppose it is supposed to connote getting help, but in my mind, it more clearly associated with “Whelp” or “Mewl”. Not help; whining. And if the name Yelp was bad, even worse were the derivatives: “Yelpers” and “Yelping”. I would rather yodel.

Beyond the name, however, there was something deeply disturbing about Yelp’s premise, at least as I understood it.  Of course, in the United States everyone has an opinion. But with Yelp it is as if every one of those opinions matters. That just cause a person has an opinion, it is meaningful, and it should be recorded and shared and acted on by the broad universe of other people forming opinions. A universe of other people Yelping. And Being Yelped. I hated the thought, but since I was new in San Francisco, center of the Yelp Universe, I figured I should give it a try.

*   *   *

I had had one previous experience with Yelp, though it occurred more or less by accident. I wanted to take my daughter and her friends to get donuts on the way to school one morning.  I was still learning the City so I looked up donut places on Google Maps to see which ones were on my route.  There was one named Bob’s Donuts that was perfectly positioned. I clicked on the name and to my surprise I found myself on a Yelp page devoted to reviews of Bob’s Donuts.  There was a whole screen full of Yelp reviews.  Wow! This was amazing. Who would write a review of a donut place?

My Yelp experience would have ended right there except I was really curious about Bob’s. I wanted to take the kids to a donut place with a little moxie. I wondered if Bob’s was that kind of a donut place. I decided to take a closer look at the reviews.

The first was from Diane N. who wrote,

In this world the best donuts are usually only one of two things:  fluffy OR melt-in-your-mouth.  In this world of San Francisco, the best places are usually closed in the middle of the night.  BUT the donuts here are little fatty Frankensteins of FLUFFY AND MELT-IN-YOUR-MOUTH AND available AFTER the after party!!.

Holey Moly, BOB, you sly devil, you!!  **  CASH ONLAYY…DUN’T FERRGET!  OPEN 24 HOURS.

Diane gave 5 stars to Bob’s Donuts.

Janna S. was a harder grader than Diane; she only gave 4 stars.  However, she stated,

“That fluffy, soft, perfect crumb raised donut…man, you’ve got to get your mouth on some of dat…”

Niguel D. of San Francisco was another 5 star reviewer.  He put it right out there:

“I just enjoyed the best donut of my life at Bob’s…  It tasted so good my burps are even savory!”

I kept reading. Sheila B. made Bob’s seem intriguing.  She said,

“So there is a small line which at 3 a.m. says something for this place.  We get inside and I see the huge donut and I have to get one.  This thing has the circumference of a basketball!  I felt like I was on Man vs. Food or something.”

I looked hard to find a bad review.  I kept scrolling and scrolling.  It wasn’t until I reached the 33rd review that I found a 2 star review.  Ray W. asked a question:

“Pleeease someone tell me why this place is rated so high.  Unless you are drunk, high or in other drug induced mental lapse of judgment, a donut is a donut is a donut.  It tasted no better than some Joe Schmoe donut shop off the corner of every main street in every city in every country.  Plus when you sit at the bar you can watch them drop the donuts into a vat of oil as you eat.  Ugh…gross!!  I like to watch cute Mexican ladies twist my pretzels at the mall, not some overweight Asian dude drop rings of batter like turds into a vat of oil.  Don’t bother unless you are heavily intoxicated.

I read on and on.  Some of the reviews were four or five full paragraphs.  One fellow, Josh M., traveled all the way from Australia for what he had heard were the best donuts in the Bay.  He was wrong.  According to Josh, “These are the best bloody donuts in the world.”

I must have spent 20 minutes reading reviews for Bob’s Donut Shop. There were 1048 reviews in all. They were so entertaining that I didn’t even look at any other donut place. How could a donut joint attract 1,048 reviews?  To get somebody to write a single review, that would be pretty hard work.  To get a 1,000 seemed impossible.  I wondered how long it had taken to earn that many reviews.  I flipped back to the 1,048th review.  It had been authored by Stephanie D. just over two years ago.  That worked out to more than a review a day.  I tried to imagine who wrote the reviews, but I couldn’t really make it sensible. The only explanation I could think of was that the donuts at Bob’s were just so amazingly unique that people were literally compelled to write.  I had to go there.

When I took Emmy and her friends there the next morning, I was as excited as if I was 12 years old.  This place had to be great, though you couldn’t tell it by looking. The shop was about 20 feet wide.  There was a long counter that ran the length of it.  On one side were racks where the donuts were stored once they came out of the kitchen.  On the other side there were old-fashioned soda fountain stools along a long counter.  Emmy and her friends sat on the stools and turned around in circles while we waited for service.

We all had donuts, theirs covered with chocolate, mine with sugar. Though it is hard to imagine that any donut could live up the hype that was contained in Yelp, the donuts were really good.   But best of all, after we had been there 5 minutes, the Asian woman who was running the place asked me in bad English if I was going to be there for another 5 minutes. I said I would. She asked if I would mind if she left to move her car.

I said that I would be honored. She walked out and left me in charge of Bob’s. I stood behind the counter. I preened. I rooted for customers to arrive – where were all these thousands of Bob lovers when I needed them? – but sadly after 10 minutes she was back and I had to turn the nuclear codes over to her without a single transaction. But I was very satisfied with every aspect of Bob’ Donuts. And I gave some credit to Yelp, though it was head-scratching kind of credit because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the number and depth of the reviews.  I suppose it could only happen in a store where they put in you in charge five minutes after you walk in from the street.

*      *      *

As I sat on the hard chair at Oil Changers I opened Yelp on the browser on my iPhone.  As a lark, I typed in “Oil Changers”.  It was pretty clear to me that nobody was going to write about a visit to have their oil changed.  Donuts are one thing; oil changes quite something else.  But amazingly there were 21 reviews for Oil Changers.

The first one was a woman named Karen C. of San Francisco.  She gave Oil Changers three stars pointing out that, “It’s an oil change – not exactly a life changing experience.”  She wrote a paragraph about what she bought, what she didn’t buy and then summed up her OC experience:  “Didn’t suck, didn’t rule.  Three stars.

I tried to imagine the circumstances under which I would write a review about Oil Changers.  Maybe, maybe, maybe if it were extraordinarily great and saved my car from blowing up or maybe, maybe, maybe if I had a particularly nasty experience, but I am quite sure that there were no circumstances where I would write a review about a place that neither sucked nor ruled. Why would I take the time? I just didn’t get it.

I kept reading in the hope that the motivation might become clearer.

Next up was Russ B., also of San Francisco.  Russ awarded Oil Changers one star. I scrolled down through his posting and it took more than the full screen on my iPhone.  I actually counted the words.  There were over 400.  He wrote a 400-word review of his experience getting his oil changed!  It appears that his car was running fine before he dropped it off.  He had his oil changed and they told him he needed to get his transmission fluid changed as well.  They gave him a special price for the transmission change and he couldn’t resist.  But when he drove home, his car jumped out of gear and blew the transmission.  His comment, “WTF?”  But where he might have gone into a rant, instead he opted for a didactic moment.  He wrote,

“LEARNING LESSON FOR STAFF AND FELLOW YELPERS! 

If your car has high mileage 80,000 miles plus and the transmission has been neglected and poorly maintained, I would not recommend replacing the fluid and filter!!!!!!!!

The fluid that has been in the transmission all this time has become dirty and gritty.  This gritty fluid is actually providing needed friction for the worn internal parts of the transmission.  Changing the fluid and replacing the filter would remove this friction that the internal transmission parts have become dependent on.

He wrote on for several hundred more words to make sure that other readers would not make the same mistake that he made. Russ was out there leading the way, giving advice, teaching.

Rudy B. gave Oil Changers 4 stars, reporting,

“Had my oil changed here yesterday and it was as good as an oil change experience is going to get.  Yes they tried to sell me unnecessary services but this is going to happen at EVERY oil change place.  I said no to everything and was in and out of there for about $40 and in about 15 minutes. 

Rudy added another paragraph about the quality of the service and concluded:

 “Would have been 5 stars but I subtracted 1 star because the waiting room was overheated and kind of a dark, dingy place to hang out.” 

As I sat in the dark, dingy place hanging out waiting for my car I concluded that I don’t know anybody that I have ever met in my entire life that would write a review like that. Who were these people?

*      *      *

After the Oil Changer experience I continued to turn to Yelp. One day I was looking for a squash court in San Francisco and decided to see if Yelp could help me. I soon found myself on the page for the House of Air. I knew about the House of Air, a facility in an old airplane hanger at the Presidio. There are no squash courts at the House of Air but it was full of trampolines – there must be thirty of them side by side – and hundreds of ricocheting kids bouncing like mad. I wondered what the reviewers would say about the scene.

Minty O.’s opinion caught my eye:

SERVICE:

I didn’t jump so I can’t comment on the staff.

NUTSHELL:

Everyone is barefoot. You have to jump on the trampolines barefoot or wear special shoes. Feet freak me out…so I was not a happy camper here. I only spent about 10 minutes here…used the restroom and saw people barefoot using the toilet.

The thought of jumping on trampolines where urine-tainted feet have jumped…thinking, what if someone slips and face-plants right on that…EW! I can’t stand it. Sorry…gross…. 

I wondered why Minty O. had been inspired to share that thought with all the world, or at least all the people that Yelp. I wondered what other things had caught her attention. Turns out that you can follow a reviewer’s other Yelpings with relatively little effort.

Minty had recently reviewed the US Post Office in Robertsville where she had this to say:

LOWDOWN:

Need Stamps!

PRODUCT:

Stamps are cool.

SERVICE:

The postal lady was very helpful. She made sure I had enough postage and was quick and courteous about it.

NUTSHELL:

Don’t go postal on people that are just doing their jobs. Going to the post office isn’t the most fun of errands and people usually take that out on the postal workers.

Yay mail!

 I tracked down her profile page. She had authored 178 Reviews and 71 “Quick Tips” over the 4 years she had been Yelping.  The profile page both posed the question “Why You Should Read My Reviews” and provided the answer: “Cause food is the yum”. Her page also revealed that she had earned 7 Badges for her yelping, including “Master” and “True Yelper”. She had not yet, however, achieved the badge of “Yelpus Maximus”.

As I yelped further I found that an establishment did not have to be in a fixed location to be Yelped. A.A. only gave one star to a food truck – the Bombtruck – that sold some type of water ice:

It was only $2.50 or so, but not going try it again unless we have a guest a town and for the novelty aspect.  If you have a handful of flavors, they better all deliver.  It was just watered down and flavorless.  I’ll still go to old skool supermarket popsicles. 

I liked the purity of A.A.’s approach until I noticed the line at the end of his review:

If you ever want to sell your truck, please contact me.

*          *          *

Only after we have visited Bob’s a dozen times did I notice a store called Good Vibrations directly across the street. Once I noticed it I was surprised that I hadn’t paid attention to it before. There is nothing shy about its bright pink facade and its store windows filled with vibrators. I can’t resist checking it out on Yelp.

One Yelper paints the picture:

The hubs and I made sure to check out this place on our last visit to SF and it was a delight! Not a seedy, dark icky place but rather a bright, clean and inviting store! I was immediately at ease walking in.

They have everything you could ever want from a sex shop and then some! Books, movies, novelties for parties, vibrators in every shape size etc. They even have a vibrator “museum” with different ones on display. The lady working there was really nice and helpful but didn’t hover over us at all.

Vi V. gives it 5 stars:

It’s hard not to be distracted by the hot employees… but do try or you’ll miss out on hours of ego-boosting pleasure (try the M ystic Wand for that). Yes to stocking up on toys for personal and shared use! Yes to open communication about what you want! Yes to seeing confident, assertive and empowered women as desirable and not as a threat! Yes! Yes! Oh Yes!

Lauren L. penned my favorite review:

Boy if there’s one thing I like, it’s masturbating. This place has everything I need to masturbate.

I purchased the Rabbit dildo/massager that has a bunny head and ears that vibrate on your clitoris. I know, everyone has this. Forcing the bunny face to vibrate on my clitoris makes me feel like I’m engaging in animal cruelty. I guess I have my own issues.

I think you can also purchase things here that would help you have sex with other people, if you want to do that- I prefer not to complicate things with human contact, but that’s just me. I can’t tell you about these products because I am single and currently not having sex.

*          *          *

One morning my daughter Emmy and I walked out of her school and down the sidewalk on Valencia Street to where I parked the car.  There was a camera crew set up on the corner just off of the school property.  As I walked up an attractive young woman asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed for a “Man in the Street” interview.

“About what?”

“The closing of the medical marijuana facility.”

“Er, I am not really up on that.”

“No problem we just want to get your reaction.”

I shrugged.  It’s not the kind of thing I would do at home but out here I don’t feel so cautious.

A bearded fellow with a baseball cap on backwards held a camera at me while she asked my name and whether I had children at the school.

I identified myself and Emmy.

“So we wondered how you, as a parent, feel about the closing of the medical marijuana dispensary on Valencia?”

“I wasn’t aware there was one.”

“Well how do you feel about knowing there was one and now it is closed?  Do you support that?”

“I didn’t see that it was causing a problem, obviously.  If there is no problem I am not sure I see why it was shut.”

“Thank you.  Your views are informative.”

I am embarrassed to have views so uninformative. So I do a little research on Medical Marijuana facilities – a/k/a Cannabis Clubs – to see if I can find the one the interviewer was talking about. I quickly come across one known as Grass Roots on Post Street, but I get distracted by the 118 reviews I find on Yelp. I get a quick take on its quality from a poster known as “Dankstarjw617”:

Top notch buds…….some alittle pricey but not outrageous. Ive paid the same for less quality. Parking is ok…the trannies from next store kinda trip me out some times but it is sf. But not whats important. The staff is usually cool and laid back willing to assist if asked. All in all 5 stars.

Another poster says:

grass roots has wonderful buds and unbeatable prices. This is one of the few clubs in the bay area that has consistently high quality bud year round… in any price bracket. I remember picking up some green crack here at 35 and eighth, and it was definitely worth 40 to 45. The og kush here is unique and worth picking up. The Granddaddy Kush (aka the GDPxPK I spoke of in my first review) is quite simply the best indica I have ever had. EVER. Its has a rich, smooth, flavorful smoke that only a high quality purple can deliver, with effects to calm both body and mind.

I look through the Yelp reviews and learn that Grass Roots is favored for the quality of its weed and its knowledgeable budtenders but faulted for its failure to allow customers to vaporize on site. On that score some Yelpers prefer the Vapor Room, an old school club in the Haight that allows customers to fire up at several vaporizing tables. The coffee house atmosphere there is soothing and Vapor Room also has a bong station where you can try – and take out as loaners – different styles of bongs.

*          *          *

I continued to experiment; I tried using Yelp to go beyond the mundaneness of restaurants and bars and oil changes. I searched for deeper connections. I typed “God” into the search bar and immediately found a review for the Love Chapel of God written by Eric (“Be Extraordinary or Quit”) F. who penned:

I‘m not actually a member of the Love Chapel congragation but I do live on the same block which give me the right to review it as far as I’m concerned.

I can’t speak about their religious beliefs, weekly sermans or the man in charge (Reverend John Cox) but the music that emenates from their basement every weekend is solid.  Plus anyone with a name like John Cox who has the gall to call his church the Love Chapel and then paint it a fleshy pink color is alright in my book.

I wondered what a fleshy pink color looked like and with a few further clicks on the map on the Yelp screen I was at street level looking at a church made of pink/rose stucco: it was the Love Chapel.

I found my way to the church’s website, truly a humble little website with not much more than a map and links to online locations for reading the bible and finding Christian radio stations in the Bay Area. The graphic design of the site was humble too, but I noticed that copyright had been claimed:

 © 2009 Love Chapel COGIC

I was briefly confused by COGIC, which I thought might be some combination of Conviction and Logic, but I realized it was just short for “Church of God In Christ” which is apparently the Love Chapel’s surname.

I was really starting to like using Yelp…

(continued)