In case you avoided news of the best restaurateur meltdown since Amy of Hell’s Kitchen fame, the sordid saga goes like this: In September, a diner named Ruchu Tan — one of Yelp’s “Elite” members, a designation reserved for high-quality reviewers — ate at Ninja City, a newish ramen shop in Cleveland, and gave it only a single star.
“Really hate to give this place such a low rating but I tell it like it is!” Tan began. “Came here with a few friends to try their ramen and was extremely disappointed.”
Tan then went on to blast the ramen (bland), the service (impatient) and the coffee (lukewarm, over-sweet). But if that seemed like harsh criticism, it did not even begin to compare to what chef/restaurant-owner Bac Nguyen sent back to Tan — most of which The Washington Post cannot even print, because it’s so crowded with expletives, ethnic slurs and veiled threats of bodily harm.
“Ruchu, thanks for review on Yelp,” Nguyen began, after tracking Tan down on Facebook. “Great to hear feedback from food experts. Especially when they’re here with girls who are not their girlfriend. Do not come back to either of my restaurants ever again. Little piece of s***.”
Tan, accordingly, then updated his Yelp review to reflect the fact that the owner of the restaurant in question was in the habit of Facebook-stalking customers.
This was all, well, cringe-inducingly awkward. It was awkward for Tan, who could never eat ramen in Cleveland again. It was awkward for Nguyen, who now rightfully looks like a real jerk and had to begin some kind of grand apology campaign. But the unfolding controversy was particularly painful for Yelp, which has long required feats of acrobatics to balance the conflicting interests of businesses and their customers.
Yelp, you’ll recall, has built its entire business around the idea that it is the only place where you can get totally unbiased, first-person reviews. But as many, many critics have discussed in some depth already, Yelp does not just serve up reviews exactly as consumers write them: roughly a quarter of all reviews are hidden by an algorithm that screens for unreliable users; others are deleted outright by content moderators for violations of a lengthy user policy; and all are ordered by default according to an opaque formula. Even the star-rating Yelp displays in bold at the top of the page — the star-rating that can, per actual statistics, make or break a business — isn’t an average of all the posted reviews. It’s an average of Yelp’s algorithmically cherry-picked, “recommended” reviews.
Perhaps that doesn’t represent intentional or malicious manipulation, as several aggrieved business owners and lawsuits have claimed — but it is manipulation, nonetheless.
“There is a world of context behind reviews that may not fit into any algorithmic assumptions of how it should be interpreted,” Tom Slee wrote in a fascinating essay for the New Inquiry late last week. “…Yelp can exploit this ambiguity, aggregating numeric ratings to make its listings seem objective, while using its own subjective judgment expressed in algorithms and through human content moderators to rule out certain reviews and alter those results.”
That’s what makes the Ninja City case so incredibly striking. After Tan had posted his initial review, and the later update to the site, Yelp — the unbiased, neutral platform! — e-mailed Tan and suggested an in-person meeting between him and restaurant-owner Nguyen, with a rep from the site mediating. (“You are projecting a negative image of everyone involved, including Yelp,” the e-mail read.)
Then the site removed Tan’s update to his review — the part that mentioned Nguyen harassed him — and banned him from posting to the Ninja City page again. (That was a moderator error, Yelp said, and has been rectified.)
But even later, when Yelp had reinstated the full review, Tan’s (highly-upvoted, widely cited post) mysteriously cratered to the bottom of the page within the span of an afternoon. Whether intentionally or by algorithmic accident, Yelp buried the young restaurant’s defining scandal toward the bottom of the page.
“Now tell me again how this is consistent with Yelp’s campaign to rebuild its image as a defender and champion of consumer free speech?” asked one administrator in a popular Facebook group dedicated to the case.
That group has since shut down; their beef with Nguyen, they say, is over. On Thursday, the restaurateur posted a public apology to his Web site, even offering free ramen to members of the Ninja City boycott group. “I’ve learned from this situation and will work to handle criticism better and to control my temper,” he wrote. “Thank you for your time.”
But even if the ramen brouhaha has ended, the questions that it raised about Yelp remain. It’s difficult to reconcile the activist Yelp that was e-mailing a reviewer for a sitdown meeting with the wholly unbiased, content-neutral platform its overseers claim. And it still seems somewhat odd that Tan’s review — the one that put Ninja City on the national radar — falls so very far down the page. Perhaps there can be no such thing as a wholly content-neutral platform, given the pressures to control quality. Or perhaps this is all part of Yelp’s unenviable balancing act: finding some kind of middle ground between consumers and business-owners.
“I did have a negative experience with Yelp,” Tan told The Post. But he hasn’t given up on them quite yet. Asked if he’d keep reviewing on Yelp, Tan said only “yeah, I think so.”
Given all the drama he’s faced, there’s no better endorsement than that.