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Yelp Critiques Heard and Heeded in D.C.

Phil Shannon, left, strings a court tennis racket for Yelp Elite members Dian Chen, Phi Chi Wong, Karman Lee, Deanna Jue and Evan McCormick. The group tried their hand at the ancient sport of court tennis in McLean.
Phil Shannon, left, strings a court tennis racket for Yelp Elite members Dian Chen, Phi Chi Wong, Karman Lee, Deanna Jue and Evan McCormick. The group tried their hand at the ancient sport of court tennis in McLean. (Photo: Kim Hart/The Washington Post)
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"There have been some I felt were completely out of line, but others brought up issues I had no idea about," he said. He said he tries to reply to some of the reviewers, either to thank them for a positive review or to apologize for their poor experience.

There is no exact formula for earning the Yelp Elite title, and Yelp itself does not disclose how many qualify in the Washington area. Miriam Warren, who was hired by Yelp in April to organize outings for local Yelpers, said invitations are based on the quality of the reviews they write and their enthusiasm for trying new things. Warren, who has posted about 1,500 reviews on the site herself, said one requirement of being a member of the Yelp Elite is using a real name and photo when writing reviews, in order to give a greater sense of accountability to the community.

Like many other online forums, Yelp relies on other Yelpers to police and read one another's work carefully. So much so that it becomes a way of tracking their movement and social lives, McNeill said. "You know when two Yelpers start dating because they start yelping about the same places."

A hallmark of a good Yelp review often involves finding the unsung gem.

"I want to be the first to post a review, to kind of be a pacesetter," said Eleanor Lee, 30, who has posted 40 reviews, usually about restaurants and boutique clothing stores. She prides herself on commenting on every aspect of an experience -- the service, the prices, the decor, the location. "If a place has already gotten a lot of reviews, I tend to only review it if it really left an impression with me."

Obscurity is considered a virtue. One recent Sunday, for example, Jim Bathurst and Justin Siemaszko and about 20 other Yelpers took a stab at an ancient game called court tennis -- an art so rarified the Regency Sport & Health Club in McLean is home to one of only 10 such courts in the country.

With handmade balls, small rackets and a medieval looking court, the little-known game is something the Yelp Elite can highlight on the site.

But some newcomers find the Yelp community itself is already becoming established and tough to break into.

Following a Yelp happy hour gathering in Arlington last month, one poster identifying himself only as "Jeff W. of Oakton" wrote he was "expecting people to be wanting to meet each other and running around talking to strangers, but I didn't really see that." The online community, he said, "mostly seemed like . . . a few little cliques with very few people branching out from them."

Yelp hopes to reach more would-be fans by increasing staff and resources in East Coast cities, including Brooklyn and Miami.

Yelp co-founder and chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman, who grew up in Arlington and Great Falls, said Yelp didn't have an urgent need for money. He said the grim economic forecast played a role in his decision to raise more funding.

"It's a shaky world out there," he said, "so it would make sense to just do it rather than wait for a better environment."


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