Understanding the Yelp factor and social reviews

The rise in the popularity of user reviews on social media sites has a lot of people talking. Here is a mode of social interaction online that doesn’t require joining MySpace and putting one’s Self on the line. At least, not in the manner that many of the community-oriented social software sites would have us do it. In contrast to their more fully-functioned brethren, review sites present a relatively simple value proposition: associate yourself with something, preferable something you like (product, place, experience, travel, it makes little difference for now), and describe it for us in your words. In other words, disclose some of your interests, your style, personality, habits, and preferences, by reviewing something that we can all relate to.

To support this user disposition, the codes of interaction on social media sites tend to be informal, and the proceedings are largely unstructured. There are a few categorization and publishing requirements, of course, but just a few. The system handles the reviews, attaching them to things reviewed, making them search-able, find-able, and organizing reviews collected according to modes of distinction (relevance) by-and-large inherited from search engines and common social software practices.

To the reviewer (user), then, the frame of interaction and value proposition seem fairly straightforward. Where it gets interesting is in what happens next, for review sites involve much more than just reviews. Reviews can be written for all kinds of reasons, some of them having little to do with the Things reviewed. They might also be written to any number of users, for reasons that vary from the highly personal to clichéd. And interactions among reviewers and their readers, too, run from personal and enthusiastic agreement to cold-shouldered neglect. These variations exceed the value proposition of user-generated reviews and give us a compelling case study in social media.

So as social media designers, we need to address two different user experiences, the reader’s and the writer’s. Our need to motivate and engage the reviewer’s participation requires that we design a system to support the writer’s subjective experience of writing review. We need to supply an audience, topics, stylistic differences, a participatory genre, if you will. Reviewing Things has to be interesting and compelling and must have purpose, if the writer is it hand over his or her attention to it. But for similar reasons, we to provide the reader with value also. In theory, at least, reviews should display as much objectivity as possible—enough to warrant their utility as reviews (and not just as opinion pieces). Do these two user experience propositions stand in a fundamental conflict?

Finally, we need to examine whether the design of social media can structure the axes of use on either side (reviewer/reader) such that the value produced is the value consumed. This is the nature of the challenge that often faces social media designers: creating an efficient marketplace, without use of real money or real incentives, by enabling the production and consumption of knowledge such that benefits are captured on both the production and consumption side of the equation.

Take the popular review site Yelp.com, for example. Now this site is fascinating, truly excellent in many ways, for it has succeeded in surviving without merchant participation.

The fact that Yelp.com comprises user reviews written without any merchant presence preserves the site’s integrity. Reviewers are under no obligation to do anyone a favor; nor do their reviews benefit them in any fungible way. So the system provides a forum in which reviewers may write from whichever position motivates them. And because nobody’s going to spend time writing about stuff unless they believe somebody might read it (this, at least, is my hope), Yelp’s members tend write for each other.

Out pops the Social, and reviews become a means by which members get attention; describe and reveal themselves through things they know something about; show wit, style, pictures and collections of compliments (which span a range of review-oriented to the unquestionably-no-use-for-this-icon-but-to-flirt); make friends; find popular things and review them because they’ve been reviewed so many times; become domain experts; wander widely off topic; and so on. And please don’t get me wrong—it’s hellafun. Indeed Yelp has become an interesting case study in the importance of anticipating the social forces that emerge when a system is launched into the world, and interactions begin to pile up one on the other. For users don’t read manuals, or the fine print in the terms of agreement, to learn how the system works or how to use it. Users, and I should simply say “we,” look at what others are doing. This tells us what’s going on, and with that, how to proceed. If it’s empty, well then no point in trying to become popular. If it’s full of people, then whatsup and whatsgoingon?!

Social media sites are built on the contributions of users who themselves orient their contributions to the site’s organization, theme, and audience. On Yelp.com, for example, some write many; some write deeply; some write to write to others; some write their secret discoveries; others can’t believe it when a member holds out that local nugget for all to see (I committed this neighborly faux pas when I revealed that a local grocer squeezes its own orange juice). ;-) . Some, having written a few, find those who have written about the same; while others find members they like, and comment on their writings for the association. Some — and don’t get me wrong, I do this, and there are no write and wrongs here! — write to the author, some to their scene, some write about themselves with utter sincerity, and some write to cover, dodge, and cloak with seductive mystery all around.

Indeed, the social practices emerging around social media become particularly pregnant in the case of review sites. It is now a bonified genre, though some sites participate thinly, others richly. Contributions are codified across categories, horizontally and vertically. This serves the needs of site and content navigation. In each vertical we have “best of’s, lists, recent, trends, price and other qualifications. Vertical organization is simple, as it’s vertically organized: books, music, blogs, dvds, consumer electronics, nannies, and (yes, we’re that far along) review sites themselves. And of course reviewers, too, are presented by similar qualifying criteria.

Now it would seem that the disinterested review is the most useful. But we’re in social media-land now, and a) there’s virtually no such thing as taking a disinterested relation to a Thing that is liked; and b) because a writer’s reviews are hung out for others to read and know them by, even if it were possible in our write up a disinterested review of the Thing At Hand, social interest (getting noticed, being accepted, liked, and other warm fuzzies) rather blows that all away. Let’s be honest here: nobody’s going to spend time writing about stuff unless they believe somebody might read it.

We just split the practice along two axes and user experiences: reader and writer. So now let’s integrate the social back into the two axes then. No user review on any user-generated content site is published without containing within it some negotiation of the possibility that a post/review/comment may be taken up in communication. Reviews are now a form of talk. Users are interested in each other (even when this takes shape only within their minds only), and this interest can overrun the objectivity that would most benefit the stated purpose of review sites, to wit, qualifying the Thing At Hand with unmotivated user evaluation. Interest in people; interest in content. Does the split pose a problem to the genre?

Social participation is essential if anybody’s going to be bothered to write. But social participation may also transform expertise and utility into a popularity contest for compliments and friends and sheer volume of reviews. My personal preference is movies, because I’ve seen a boat load of them. For many it’s food, dining out, bars and restaurants and all that fun stuff that people do when they’re not cracking their craniums on the inner workings of social software. Everyday Things belong to familiar turf and territory: good for self-disclosure and personal opinionating. But how will the marketers and markets integrate it all? Because ultimately, business wants a piece of this, and the word is out: there’s gold in them thar hills.

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