Does That Review of a Disappointing Burger Make You a Yelp Employee?

Photograph by John Lamb

The giants of online media excel at cashing in on the free labor of their users. Facebook would be nothing without status updates, Twitter couldn’t survive without tweets, and Yelp would be a limp listing of business addresses and phone numbers if people didn’t post thoughts on their least favorite bagel shop. But does that mean we the users should be compensated for our hard work on their behalf?

A class action filed by several people who post Yelp reviews will attempt to make the case that they’re essentially unpaid labor and deserve some form of compensation from the company. Yes, it’s a real lawsuit.

Of course, providing value to a company doesn’t make you an employee. The logic in this particular complaint, posted in full on the website Techdirt, seems to consist of using employment-ish words such as “hired” and “fired” to describe Yelp’s dealings with its users. The company thinks the whole thing is frivolous, and they might be right: “We believe this suit is probably a result of the enforcement action we were required to take against some of the plaintiffs for improper conduct rather than based on any real merit,” Yelp said in an e-mailed statement.

But Yelp makes no bones about the fact that its entire business model is based on user reviews, and it routinely cites the potential shortage of new reviews as one of the biggest threats to its business. And the company even pays some reviewers to prime the pump when entering new markets. Mostly, however, Yelp has to persuade people to do the work for free. The most interesting thing about the lawsuit may be its description of how this works:

“Yelp has devised a system of cult-like rewards and disciplines to motivate its non-wage-paid writers to labor without wages or expense reimbursement, in violation of equitable principles and the FLSA [Fair Labor Standard Act], by offering such rewards as trinkets, badges, titles, praise, social promotion, free liquor, free food, and free promotional Yelp attire, such as red panties with ‘Make Me Yelp!’ stamped across the bottom.”

So the plaintiffs aren’t quite saying that Yelp isn’t giving them anything in return—the claim is more that volunteer reviewers have been so manipulated by free drinks, baubles, and emotional rewards that they’ve been tricked into serving as de facto employees. If Yelp can direct its users’ labor through these means, the plaintiffs contend, then it should have to pay real wages to its pseudo workforce, not just hand out playful underwear.

Yelp isn’t the only company to woo people who write consumer reviews. A recent report on NPR’s Planet Money looked at Amazon’s Vine program, through which prolific reviewers are actually sent free products so long as they promise to review them. Michael Erb, one of’s top reviewers, says the giant online retailer lets him pick two brand-new items every month. While those products aren’t officially his property—Amazon can ask for them back at any time—Erb has never been asked to return anything.

The concern that Planet Money raises about Vine is essentially the opposite of the argument made in the lawsuit against Yelp. If someone is being compensated in any way, are they really leaving a simple customer review? Amazon dismissed the idea that people are swayed by the swag, saying that average reviews from Vine contributors award fewer stars than people who aren’t in the program. It marks its Vine reviews, although the site doesn’t make it entirely clear what’s going on behind the program. Yelp likewise discloses when a review has been written by one of its paid “scouts.”

For its part, Yelp says the incentives it gives out aren’t tied to specific reviews and insists no one gets a free restaurant meal in exchange for a write-up. If users are willing to churn out reviews for some digital badges like Yelp’s “elite” status and an occasional cocktail party for prolific contributors, it seems well within the company’s rights to oblige them. We’ll know Yelp is in trouble when foodies start demanding compensation before they start penning that exhaustive critique of the service at the local Thai joint.

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