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Authenticity and Authority on Yelp

The Guadalajara Grill's authentic decor (image zachary_o on yelp)

The Guadalajara Grill’s authentic decor (image zachary_o on yelp)

No compliment on the online review site Yelp is as highly esteemed as being dubbed “authentic,” and that authenticity is routinely linked to restaurants’ material spaces.   An Oakland reviewer believed herself transported to another place, concluding that “i looked around the restaurant and noticed how well the place is decorated…felt like i was back in thailand (ive never been, but i felt like i was there maybe?).”  Yelp reviewers fancy they are unlocking a hidden consumer geography:  In the class and ethnic niches of neighborhoods outside bourgeois comfort, yelpers discover dishes, spaces, and new experiences.   However, the search for an authentic burrito or an urban “dive” may tell us more about yelpers than it reveals about foodways.

Yelpers stake their claims to authority by capturing dimensions of authenticity that often include material descriptions of space.  A Mexican grill review waxed rhapsodic that “The meticulously painted walls and ceiling, accompanied by fountains and trellis, will make even the least-cultured of individuals feel as if they’ve just stepped into an authentic Yucatecan [sic] bodega.”  Many Yelpers echo that an appropriately appointed ethnic restaurant sweeps the guest to that distant place:  in one Moroccan restaurant in Indianapolis, for instance, “When one steps into the restaurant, he would almost feel as if he had been magically transported to the streets of Casa Blanca [sic].”  A review for a Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis pinned its authenticity on its materialization of the Mexican immigration experience, indicating that “The decor is authentic: homesick people putting things on the walls that remind them of home.”  A review of a German bakery in Indianapolis pointed to the store’s décor, indicating that “The lunch fare is a 3 star since its fairly simple.  However, what makes it a 4 star is its authenticity as well as the numerous knick knacks and [sic] hoarder would love to have.”

Yelp is simply one of many web sites that allow users to assess consumer goods and services in the internet public square.  Meredith Kuehn’s 2011 dissertation argues that sites like Yelp “capitalize on the productivity of users who create discourses through and about local consumption by voluntarily rating and reviewing local businesses and services.”   Kuehn argues that Yelpers aspire to be citizen-consumers seizing power over consumer symbolism and returning it to the users themselves.  However, Kuehn is wary of the limits of such empowerment:  she is critical of the literal “architectures of participation” that Yelp pages provide; she is circumspect about how Yelp and similar sites focus on “the local” in ways that elide global consumer structures; and she warns that Yelps’ focus on “lifestyle politics” risks reducing citizenship to shopping. Read the rest of this entry