If it Yelps, Let it Go


Crowd-sourcing is a novel way of organizing our society these days. Whether we’re trying to fund projects through Kickstarter or GoFundMe or editing the next big Wikipedia article, crowd-sourcing is a big part of what makes the internet great and a potential source of freedom for everyone.

But just because something is largely peer-to-peer orientated doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge multinational corporation behind it.

Take Yelp, for example. Yelp is a corporation operating in many different countries around the world and just this year started to finally turn a profit. It mainly offers reviews for food service, but also for all sorts of things from subways and museums to almost anything you can imagine. The idea being that people come together and tell you all about the places to go and not to go to. It’s crowd-sourcing reviews for your community bike shop as well as your upscale hotel.

Unfortunately Yelp, not the reviewers, is in charge.

This was made clear when federal appeals court recently ruled that Yelp can legally manipulate business reviews for advertising revenue. For instance, giving a five-star review to a business for their advertising money  – or moving around negative reviews or even making them mysteriously disappear altogether.

Such claims about Yelp are nothing new and there have been reports of strange calls to reviewed business from employees at Yelp saying that negative reviews can be shifted around, for a price. To make matters worse some business owners claim that when they didn’t pay up, some of their positive reviews vanished. One of the business owners compared Yelp, in these cases, to be something like the mafia.

To make things even more unreliable on Yelp’s side is the fact that fake reviews are a real problem. Yelp may have one of the more aggressive filters on the internet, but it’s still going to miss some fakes and get false-positives.

Market anarchists look at situations like this and realize that even if none of the stories about Yelp are true (there’s no hard evidence that Yelp manipulates reviews) and that its ethics are top-notch, there’s still no reason to put all of our trust in them.

While Yelp is largely powered by user-created content, the users themselves don’t own or help run Yelp. Instead a board of directors and a CEO do. Sure, the terms and conditions  say that the user-generated content belongs to the user, but Yelp can remove it at any time for any (or no) reason. Yelp can use the information however it wants, and by posting there you agree to that use. Moreover, Yelp is the platform. You don’t own the space, you’re merely accessing it to spread information … but Yelp has the ultimate control.

With all of that power, money and discretion at their fingertips over a massive project, abuse is more than likely to follow.

When you see Yelp as an economic reviewing mafia, it becomes obvious that this isn’t a process of competition in a freed market. Rather, it’s another outgrowth of the privilege and benefits corporations receive at the hands of governments.

The market solution, then, isn’t to rely on multinational corporations who are sanctioned through governments to be manipulative or who quickly become centralizers, rather than freers, of knowledge and discussion. Instead, we should be building user-created and owned organizations that are decentralized and cater to the needs of the users.

To do this we need to harness the potential of neighborhood power and create our own versions of Yelp that mutually empower users and business owners so they don’t have to fear monopolistic economic power.

So that when we crowd-source, we’re really sourcing from each other in both content and form.


C4ss.org contributing author Nick Ford is an anarchist without adjectives currently living in Massachusetts but always finds himself on the move.

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