Everyone's a critic, or so the saying goes—and with the advent of sites like Yelp and Amazon, the familiar adage seems to have finally come true. Just as Pinterest, Instagram, and Spotify have enabled a culture of lay curation, allowing users to assemble and arrange their own collections of images or songs, comparable platforms for crowdsourcing reviews of restaurants, small businesses, cultural institutions, products, and services have given rise to a cottage industry of lay criticism.
In print, authority is the stronghold of a select few, but online it's apportioned differently and more diffusely. The challenge, then, is to retain the benefits of democratization without sacrificing the benefits of expertise: if everyone is a critic, then no one's a critic in any meaningful sense. A one-star rating of Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece Anna Karenina by someone calling themselves "I'll read anything (almost)"—"tedious, and with few like able [sic] characters"—does not inspire confidence in Amazon's literati.
But not all lay reviewers are alike, and in the busy landscape of popular criticism looms an especially well-defined and well-credentialed cohort: the Yelp Elite. Unlike anonymous Amazon reviewers, the Yelp Elite comprises an officially sanctioned set of lay critics, marked by the brightly colored badges digitally affixed to their profiles. Like their professional analogs, elite Yelpers identify not as pot-shot reviewers but as writers with a sustained interest in the evaluation of certain neighborhoods, the cultivation of certain tastes, and perhaps even the development of a particular aesthetic sensibility. "Being an adopted Brooklynite, I like to showcase what my borough has to offer," elite Yelper Matteo R. told Hopes&Fears. The very name of the Yelp Elite venture pairs a reference to a popular brand identity with a nod to the traditionally elitist critical paradigm, extending a promise of both accessibility and exclusivity. These titans of Yelp present themselves as distinguished from the masses but distinct from the old guard—reliable but relatable.
The Party Fouler
It is perhaps the mystery that surrounds the Yelp Elite application process that endows this happy few with enough credibility to counterbalance their lowbrow provenance. Prospective members of the Elite—who must be nominated in order to apply—are evaluated and ultimately admitted by an enigmatic body called the "National Yelp Elite Squad Council." The Council's assessments are at least apparently holistic: candidates are judged on the basis of the quality and quantity of their reviews, as well as on the strength of their ostensible commitment to the Yelp community. But the evaluative criteria remain obscure, and the entire procedure smacks of the Kafkaesque: "Finally, we look for a certain je ne sais quoi when reviewing Elite candidates. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it," reads the Brooklyn Yelp Elite Squad page. One star for clarity?
Elite Yelper Mitchell Einhorn told us that he and his peers know that the Council reviews the content and volume of candidates' reviews. But when it came to specifics, he was hazy: "What is the actual quota for any of this? I couldn't tell you. I've seen people with hundreds of reviews not get in, and I've seen people with sixty get in. I don't even know who reviews people," he said. Peter DeNat, the Brooklyn branch community manager, who started writing Yelp reviews when he lost his job at Lehman Brothers during the 2008 financial crisis, agreed, clarifying, "There are no specific criteria. It's harder to define than that, but we kind of know it when we see it. Yelp Elite are role-model Yelpers who embody the spirit of our mission, which is connecting people to great local businesses—both online and off."
The National Yelp Elite Squad Council, however it works, has managed to imbue unpaid labor with a kind of glamor, reversing the typical relation of the writer to her product. The reservoirs of aspiring Elite run deep, and coveted spots are comparatively scarce. Successful applicants are so honored to have been admitted to the elect that they don't think to ask for compensation beyond the benefits that attend their status: being invited to mixers, meetups and other events thrown by the company, having their reviews bumped up in the site's search results, and occasionally being asked to sample complimentary food and drinks at new restaurants and bars in advance of the public. In the past, Yelp has also treated its Elites to things like barre3 classes and branded swag. (Only once, in 2013, did the bounds dividing lay and professional criticism threaten to collapse, when a group of California-based Yelp reviewers sued the company, claiming that they were indispensable to its success and thus deserved to be treated as employees. They lost.)
For the most part, members of the Yelp Elite regard their position—and the prolific content creation that their elite status entails—as a privilege. Like all writers, they are fueled by a desire for recognition. DeNat told us that Yelp is "the most useful creative outlet I've got. I've always aspired to be a writer, and Yelp allows me to keep my chops sharp." Matteo R. concurred. "I also certainly enjoy when somebody else reads my review and sends me a compliment: if my review was useful and/or enjoyable to read, that's certainly a stimulus to write more," he said over email. "It gave me a creative outlet that I truly enjoyed."
The Art Snob
The Yelp Elite is also something of a social outlet: Matteo R. met his wife on Yelp, and their wedding ceremony was officiated by DeNat. Another elite Yelper, Hilary P. told us that she has made several "IRL" friends through the site, and many of the others we spoke to explained that they milk their connections when they travel to foreign cities, where they are able to establish contacts quickly.
But if the Yelp Elite is rapidly coming to resemble a social network, it is also increasingly conversant in the conventions of professional criticism. Many of its members have "beats" or specialties: Hilary P., who consumes "14 coffees (some of those homemade) and upwards of 5 desserts a week," comments mostly on... coffee and dessert shops. Matteo R., a self-proclaimed oyster lover, is especially proud of his oyster happy hour list. And like members of the media or the art world or the literary milieu or, for that matter, any other special community, initiates of the Yelp Elite favor those reviewers whose sensibilities they especially identify with. As Einhorn said, "I do have several people's opinions I tend to trust and look at their reviews."
The Caffeine Addict
The professional critical enterprise assumes that certain voices bear particular weight for certain readers or art-goers—for instance, New Yorker literary critic James Wood is famously committed to high realism, and his work resonates with like-minded audiences, who know to turn to him for the realist perspective. The Yelp Elite is an effective innovation in part because it individualizes reviewers, reproducing one of the core advantages of professional over lay criticism. Reading anonymous reviews can offer none of the rich joys of coming to know and rely on a particular outlook. "The trick is to find people who's [sic] tastes and interests line up with yours more often than not, and let them lead you to the good stuff," DeNat wrote us.
Still, many of the elite Yelpers we spoke to also read traditional reviews, which suggests that professional criticisms continues to fulfill a need that Yelp cannot. In a thoughtful piece in The New Inquiry, Brian Droitcour, an editor at Art in America and former member of the Yelp Elite, grapples with the fraught relationship between art writing and what he calls "vernacular criticism." In Droitcour's view, the lay criticism that appears on platforms like Yelp and Amazon is able to address the sorts of questions that professional criticism routinely passes over—for instance, the physical construction, services and amenities of exhibition spaces (one of the Yelpers he cites lamented the absence of tampon dispensers in the MoMA bathroom). Official criticism's problems, Droitcour writes, "stem from its own professionalization." Amateur critique, in contrast, is a welcome "expression of taste that has not been fully calibrated to the tastes cultivated in and by museums." Yet he concludes that Yelp reviews merely substitute one pre-figured discourse, that of marketing and branding, for another, that of the theory-speak that dominates in artistic and literary circles.
The Gentrifying Hipster
Droitcour's discussion is limited to art, but many of his observations are just as applicable to the trendy field of food criticism, which has experienced a recent renaissance. In the past few years, fine dining has been characterized by a greater degree of extravagance and specialization, with the rhetoric around it harkening more and more explicitly to the language of art and book reviews. In a review of the Michelin-rated restaurant French Laundry, Bay Area publication SFGate describes the historic building in which it is located as head chef Thomas Keller's personal "museum" and its renovation as "inspired by the Louvre in Paris." The notion that great cooking requires something akin to Homeric inspiration rather than mere technical expertise originates with Craig Claiborne's 1957 ascension as the editor of the food section of The New York Times, which had previously functioned as a women's magazine (under his leadership, the newspaper established the industry standards that are in place today).
Vernacular criticism, with its emphasis on the pragmatic, is perhaps even better suited to the subject of food, which, unlike art or literature, plays a role in everyone's daily lives. In fact, food criticism has its roots in a series of travel guides. Adventures in Good Eating, for a long time the industry's canonical text, was released in 1935 as the brainchild of traveling salesman Duncan Hines. The Michelin Guide, now the last word in restaurant reviewing, began in 1900 under the auspices of the namesake tire company as a guide for motorists. Its initial reviews ranked not only restaurants but also hotels and other tourist destinations. Eating out is one of the last bastions of class distinction in an era of mass production. Where better than the dining room to enact the bourgeois fantasy of maximal consumption?
Restaurant reviews make up the crux of the Yelp oeuvre, so to speak, and they are the forum in which most of its reviewers aim to practice their particular brand of criticism, emphasizing the practical considerations that career critics often neglect. While professional reviews aspire to be works of literature or philosophy in their own right, generally, by advancing some sort of interpretive thesis, amateur reviews content themselves with providing a much-needed service. Megan Starr, an elite Yelper based in Frankfurt, Germany who maintains a popular travel blog, told us, "I don't like to bore my readers with reviews of places they will probably never go to. I use Yelp for this because I know the people that come across my review are searching for something related to it." Yelp Elites are, for the most part, motivated by this concrete desire to be useful to their community members. "It always feels great to help someone find something they need or love," DeNat said.