A California class action lawsuit has been filed by a group of Yelp reviewers claiming that they are actually unpaid employees, and that it's their hard work that makes the company a viable business. The lawsuit claims, “Yelp earns its income by selling advertising on its site, the content of which is created free-of-wages by hordes of solicited posters, in violation of the Federal Labor Standard Act.” It then goes on to compare Yelp to slave owners. No, really.
From the lawsuit: “Business journal commentators have compared said business practices to a 21st-century galley slave ship with pirates banging the drum to keep up the fast pace and to fill the pockets of their stockholders with treasure. . . and with 'overhead that would shame an antebellum plantation.'” Because slaves totally got on those ships over a sense that their voice needed to be heard when it comes to rude waiters.
Without even getting into the part about how slavery is by definition involuntary (did I really just have to type that??), and how if all these people wanted to stop “working” for Yelp they could just … stop … or not start in the first place, or whatever — in other words, without going into how ridiculous this entire premise appears to be — there are some interesting things that might come out of the lawsuit.
Such as, for instance, the suit's claim that you can be kicked off of the site for negatively reviewing an advertiser.
From the lawsuit: “One plaintiff stated: 'My situation is a little different. I left a negative review on Yelp regarding one of their advertisers. Not only was my review removed, but I also received an email cancelling my Yelp account and stating that I could no longer write reviews or get access to any that I had written. I was fired by Yelp for supposedly breaking one of their rules, which I didn't.'”
There have long been rumors that Yelp engages in practices like this. I've had more than one chef tell me that Yelp will remove great reviews if you don't advertise, or remove bad ones if you do, or sell you some kind of “service” along with your advertising package that combs through reviews and helps in some way. Which is no small deal, seeing as a higher rating on Yelp has been shown to significantly increase sales. Folks I've spoken to from Yelp deny this, but if this lawsuit were to see its day in court, we might get a better understanding of how the website operates.
Strangely, one of the Yelp strategies condemned in the lawsuit is the “controlling” words of Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. One example? He apparently asks that the site's volunteers not review places with which they have a personal connection. The horror!
But beyond its particulars, the bigger problem with the suit is that the reviewers have settled on the wrong solution. The fix ought to be writers refusing to give content away in the first place — not filing suit after they've willingly done so.
Instead, more than one plaintiff seems to be wounded not by his or her toiling without labor, but because their Elite status was taken from them. The lawsuit uses the phrase “cult-like” numerous times, referring to “rewards” and statuses the website gives reviewers to keep them engaged. This seems to me the real issue — not an employee/employer relationship but a website as cult. If you get kicked out of the cult, what is your recourse?
A lawsuit doesn't seem entirely reasonable, but hey, at least maybe it will shed some light on how Yelp actually operates. And for any other spurned Yelpers out there, there's always this option: You could start a blog.
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