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Thursday, August 26, 2010

How to Destroy an Online Community

While we wait for photos and videos of Cupcake Smackdown 2.0 to be processed, let's jump into some deep thoughts about online communities. 

Online communities have been around as long as the internet has been around.  While they used to be a collection of people with a particular interest, online communities have been created for big brands and political issues.  Online communities take time and effort to nurture and grow.  Gone are the days where people would just stumble onto a website, join the form, and taaaaaadaaaa, communities grows.  Modern communities now rely on content, engagement, incentives, and loud voices to grow the member base and loyalty to the community. 

Note: This article is not a reflection of the current or past Yelp Austin Community Manager. 

The Community Rocks!
One controversial website that did a stunning job of growing their local communities is  Through meet-ups, parties, complimentary drinks and food, promoting active members, rewarding engagement on the website, Yelp Austin had a core group of fans.  These fans spent time with each other regularly by forming book clubs, knitting clubs, dinner groups, scavenger hunts, bar crawls, and even birthday parties outside of Yelp's direction.  Acronyms for these get-togethers were called "UYE" (unofficial Yelp event) or "DYL" (destroy your liver).  Active Yelpers were also rewarded with a Elite badge on their profile and monthly private parties.  This badge was usually granted after a user had showed active engagement in the website and had profiles depicting their true names and photos (not anonymous).  The users typically had an decent number of reviews, participation in the talk threads, and showed their face as events. 

Changing the Social Rules of Elite

Though I don't always agree with Yelp's sometimes policies (I abide by them anyways), I was always impressed with their ability to build a community of extremely loyal fans.  Outsiders described them as cult-like.  When someone describes your community as cult-like, you know you've done a good job cultivating those cheerleaders.  Over the last 10 months or so, all that started to change.  Yelp started bringing on more and more Elite members, who oddly weren't very active at all.  Some of them had only written a handful of mediocre reviews.  Some had never participated in a talk thread.  Some of the reviews aren't even written coherently.  At parties, they seemed to have the "I just got this email invite, but I'm not really sure why." vibe.  It seemed like Yelp was just pumping the numbers.  The monthly Elite parties became less and less about community bonding.  The number of those reviews written about the Elite parties fell along with the ratings of such parties.  Yelp's shiny luster was becoming to fade. 

Then came the law suits, and a change in policy.  Business owners were no longer allowed to be Elite members because they would be biased in their reviews.  The website actually reads. "If you are a business owner or affiliated with a local business (spouse, general manager, partner, etc.), we unfortunately can't invite you to join the ranks of the Elite because it presents a conflict of interest."  That cuts out almost all of Austin's population and ALL the members of Blackstar Co-op, an Austin based member-owner brewpub.  This would probably disqualify all REI members as there are two REI stores in Austin.  It also assumes that business owners cannot be unbiased, and that people who aren't closely affiliated with a business are never biased.  These assumptions are pretty illogical and ridiculous. 

This policy only makes sense if I was the owner of a store that constantly reviewed my competitors.  However, business owners are consumers of many other industries.  Surely, the community thought that this silly rule would just be another one of those terms of service things that are never enforced.  After all, Yelp is fairly inconsistent and arbitrary on which rules they feel like enforcing and which ones they don't.

Inconsistencies in Rule Enforcement

~Users' accounts can and have been deleted for posting URLs, though this is not specified in the terms of service.  Yelp wants your free content, but it doesn't want traffic leaving.  

~A very nice woman's account was deleted because someone flagged her thread and message as spam when it was obviously not her intentions.  She was a pet sitter who sent a message to her friends with a warning about a dog toy.  Emails to Yelp Administrator at Head Quarters (HQ) located in San Francisco in protest did not bring her account back from the grave.

~Yelp has yet to delete accounts of users who have caused great disruption in the community.  There are several users (anonymous yet vocal ones) in Austin Yelp with the goal of creating anger and hate in the community.  That user spends hours upon hours upon hours writing posts on the talk threads every single day, yet claims that he/she doesn't care about Yelp.  That particular user has been reported to Yelp HQ many times (also reprimanded by Yelp HQ), yet the account remains.  I guess you don't have to be "cool" to keep your account as specified.  You can be a completely insane jerk.  Many users have stopped spending time on Yelp because of this particular user.  Hey, Yelp! Mind taking care of the village belligerent fool?

~Some unscrupulous business owners do make fake accounts in which they review themselves and their competitors.  One business has been writing themselves fake reviews and giving competitors shill reviews.  They have been caught so many times that they decided to accuse other people of doing it their specials box. see below.  Yelpers weren't naive enough to fall for their dirty tricks, but Yelp HQ hasn't stopped this particular business from repeatedly engaging in that prohibited behavior.  You'd think Yelp HQ would be smart enough to log IP addresses. 

De-Eliting your Best Asset

These issues have severely impacted the quality of the Yelp Austin community.  However, something that happened made me realize that the community was on its way down the tubes.

You might know her as @Foodiethenew40.  You might know her as Michelle Cheng, attorney at law.  You might also know her as Michelle C. Super Yelper Michelle C. is the Queen of Yelp.  She was there from the beginning contributing 584 reviews to date along with 104 fans.  Her views are consistently fair, entertaining, accurate, and extremely well-written.  That's probably because not only is she an awesome writer; she's also an awesome cook with an educated palate.  In my conversations with casual Yelp readers or businesses owners, I consistently hear the same comments about a certain user.  They go something like: "Who is that Michelle C. girl? She's cool."  It is amazing that Michelle C., but not at all surprising, could impact people who don't have a Yelp account.  She is Yelp Austin's star user, hands down. 

Michelle's on the left.  I'm on the right.

Unfortunately, Yelp HQ decided that since Michelle was a partner at her practice, she no longer deserved the little red Elite badge next to her name.  That's right.  They de-Elited her.  Four years of Elite designation gets nothing now because Michelle is also awesome in her professional life.  They also removed the Elite badge from Robin S., Rick G. and Steve B.  Yelp just screwed with their own social rules.  Instead of rewarding active and engaging users, Yelp started handing out Elite badges to less active users thus diluting the meaning of the badge.  They also took Elite badges away from star users simply because were business owners.  These business owners have never, ever abused the Yelp system.  Yelp decided to that they were guilty anyways. 

Some might argue that the Elite badge is meaningless and only gains one access to a free monthly party.  I disagree.  The Elite badge is a social designation and social reward, much more valuable that free food and drinks.  Even if it didn't come with a free party, badges in online communities are meaningful.  I even have four different badges (called garages) in my efficient driving community that gains me nothing tangible.  Yelp was tremendously more successful than their competitors on the community front, and now that just isn't true anymore.  Thanks, Yelp HQ.  Thanks for slapping the wrist of your best cheerleader and turning your back on the community.  Have fun with the law suits and your sparring match with the big Google machine.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Jennie. I was an active Yelper and 2009 Elite, but stopped reviewing around November 2009. So I naturally wasn't a 2010 Yelp Elite - which was fine, because I didn't earn it. But then I received an invite to become an Elite again in June or July.

    I hadn't posted a single review in over six months. Definitely get where you're coming from.

  2. This is so interesting, Jennie. I was never a Yelp Elite (I've only posted 4 reviews :), but I WAS consistently impressed, last year in particular, with the tight-knit community Yelp had built.

    Who in the world made that rule about not being Yelp Elite, if you're affiliated with a local business? Well, who ISN'T affiliated with a local business in this town? It makes me think that was a new condition borne from one of their lawsuits. However, Yelp communities are most active in cities where there are an abundance of local businesses (like San Francisco, where it started), so I'm not sure how sustainable that rule is.

    Couldn't they make a rule that local business affiliates can't review other businesses in their industry? Or else they get flagged?

  3. Nicely written. I would hope that smarter minds will prevail at Yelp HQ someday.

  4. Great post.

    Exact same thing happened to me that happened to Coffee Vancouver. Weirdly the exact same process. My account was killed. I asked about a warning because I was fairly new. I saw a lot of other posters that had link backs to their sites and they still had their accounts. I questioned their enforcement and didn't hear a thing.

    I created a different account to get back in then decide against it. I have not gone back.

  5. Great post Jennie. Such a shame that they are wasting all of the loyalty they once had.

  6. Business owners who did review other businesses in the industry or themselves were flagged by the community and removed. The problem is that Yelp didn't really enforce it too closely, so instead they decided to just de-Elite any business owners. That still doesn't prevent non-Elite users to engage in that behavior.

    It wasn't made public before, but I was also reprimanded for making the link to Keep Austin Dog Friendly available one Yelp just a single time in a talk thread. Many people used to post the link to it often, but I had my wrist slapped for it as well.

  7. I was also the victim of "business harassment" by a competitor who posted a fake negative review. I flagged it and opened a case with Yelp. I explained that if they would just look at the IP address of that user that they would see they were in a different time zone and nowhere near me or my services. The really sad part is that to make their account look legit they also gave a 4-star review to another local provider, damaging her 5-star rating a bit.

    Yelp couldn't "prove" the person wasn't real, so the refused to remove it. Eventually, it fell off the radar and my page. Yelp has almost brought me enough business to warrant the hassle. Almost.

    I so very badly wanted Google to buy them!

  8. Jennie, thank you SO much for this thoughtful and supportive post! Your insight from a social/psychological perspective is invaluable. I know that our community and others have raised awareness about some of these issues, and I am hopeful that Yelp will re-consider their policy on allowing those affiliated with local businesses to be Elite. Thanks again for everything you do! <3

  9. Wow - this post was fascinating. Thank you, Jennie. I've had my own issues with Yelp that has turned me off to contributing reviews. This includes a post asking about Yelpers Twitter addresses (mysteriously deleted) and I've been flagged for linking to other websites that I was in no way affiliated with. Yelp got it right at the beginning but they are now becoming reactive and are punishing people with the best of intentions (like Michelle who is AWESOME) and letting the negative flamers stay. It will be interesting to see how this transpires as more Yelp competitors (like bloggers) share honest reviews without big brother's oversight.

  10. Wow, as a Yelper (although not Elite) this makes me so very, very sad. Sad that Yelp is apparently suffering from the inflated ego of its upper echelon of management that they cannot see the damage they're doing to their own little people, the Yelpers themselves. Michelle is one of Austin's most widely respected Foodie voices---Yelp has shot themself in the foot by taking away her Elite status. I completely trust Michelle's opinions and ethics but now, not Yelp's.

  11. Hi Jennie,
    This is a great post and much appreciated. I agree with the issues you raised here around inconsistency.

    I was a regular Yelper & earned Elite badges in '08 and '09. I can't say that I was a super-poster, but I would like to think that I took the time to actually review places I'd visited with insightful tips, recommendations and critiques. I noticed a change in Yelp in mid-2009 when reviews seemed to be rewarded for snark instead of actual reviews. Additionally, is EVERYTHING in this town really worth 4-stars? I mean...really???

    I don't think that Yelp is useless, but I do believe that you actually have to mine through a lot of craptastic commentary to find out if you can get a good slice of pizza somewhere. That, or become intimately familiar with a few reviewers whose taste you trust. Based on my most recent Elite parties, I can't say that the "group" was one whose opinions much mattered to me.

    I do want to personally thank you for ALWAYS providing excellent insight. We met a few times at different Yelp events and while I no longer participate in Yelp, I hope to see you around!

  12. Hi Anonymous(es),

    Thanks for the feedback. If you'd like, feel free to email me privately. I can't tell who you really are by your comments, but I'd love to connect again.

  13. Thanks, Jennie, for talking about this. I had no idea. If Michelle's not elite, I don't want to be. She was encouraging me just Saturday to nominate myself, so I did. Now I just don't care. Wow. I have considered this to be a real resource, but crappy policies can really bring down a good thing.

  14. Yelp in Austin has become a collection of trolls and unknowns mixed in with the few "faithful" remaining. Even a few of the original "Old Guard" have become little more than trolls in the Yelp threads - instantly pouncing on anyone asking a legitimate question with a bowl of fresh snark waiting. Very sad. When I started with Yelp Austin there were maybe 15 of us total. It was like a mini family. Now it's like a headless mob.

  15. Thanks for this post... I like Michelle C's reviews and she truly does lots for yelp. Their ban on business owners or people who work for companies from the elite ranks sounds like an incredibly bad idea. Why wouldn't they just make their TOS prevent reviewing your own business or your competitors...wait, they already do why de-elite their best members who stay inline with tos... And YES...they should delete the wack job's account...hate his posts.

  16. If a user is spending hours a day fomenting hate, I can't believe I can't think of who they are, as I'm usually pretty active in talk threads. Maybe I'm reading the wrong topics!

  17. I'm on the verge of getting banned for suggesting someone save their money instead of getting tacos. I guess it wouldn't be a big deal unless they were trying to keep a pregnancy on the DL.

  18. Kick back. Yelp is just a foodie website.

    For those that take too much meaning into badges and what they represent are just missing the whole thing. I am an avid yelper in California and do participate daily on these threads.

    Yelp HQ may not be perfect, but they do their best to weed out those not deserving to be Elite. Well it was a great article but let it be known things come and go. Yelp is here to stay and it is just evolving into a medium we all utilize whether we dislike it or not.