A group of hard-working Yelp reviewers think they deserve minimum wage (at least!) for all the free labor they have put into judging local establishments, and have filed a class action lawsuit against the review site. Reading through their reviews, however, suggests their prose isn't worth much.
The theory goes: Free Yelp write-ups provide value to the company, ergo dedicated reviewers act as free labor, and that's illegal. The lawsuit compares the situation 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," an extreme analogy for what boils down to volunteer work.
Not much about the logic behind the lawsuit makes sense, and Yelp has dismissed it as "frivolous," per the company statement provided to Fast Company:
This is a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit, it is unfortunate the court has to waste its time adjudicating it and we will seek to have it dismissed. The argument that voluntarily using a free service equates to an employment relationship is completely without merit, unsupported by law and contradicted by the dozens of websites like Yelp that consumers use to help one another
It's hard to disagree with Yelp. The site's members are volunteers. At one point the lawsuit argues that Yelp coerced these "employees" to write more because the site offers incentives for those who write more. The situation, as TechDirt's Mike Masnick points out, doesn't sound that much different than the lawsuit filed by the unpaid Huffington Post bloggers, who ultimately lost.
But let's set all of that very good reasoning aside and for a moment ask the question at the core of this: Are Yelp reviews worth anything? Certainly, in aggregate, they sustain the company's business. But, as single entities, it's unclear if they warrant minimum wage, if that.
Of the four people listed in the filing, two of them got "fired" from Yelp--to use the language of the suit--and their reviews no longer appear on the site. Yelp removed their accounts because they had violated their user policies. However, one of the plaintiffs Darren W. (aka Darren Walchesky), has written more than 1,200 reviews for the site. Here's one for the drugstore chain Walgreens:
Holy crud! Kay and I came here last night after dining at the new Atria's restaurant nearby in the Bill Green Shopping Center, and I couldn't believe the selection of toys, Halloween gear, housewares, and snacks. It was like a miniature Wal-Mart!
Unfortunately, like Wal-Mart, they've been hit with lawsuits involving racial discrimination, proprietary drugs, distributing oxycodone, selling tobacco, profiting from customer's private information, and overcharging Medicaid.
But they're open 24 hours.
And it's clean, well-stocked, and organized.
That's neither poetry nor intrepid reporting. This five-star one for a shop called Rubber Duck, however, attempts the poetry angle:
Rubber Ducky is the one.
The beacon of good tidings and then some.
Seemingly intangible and born of the sun.
On October 20th, its 3 week stand was done.
Its hype as enormous as its dimensions, I kept picturing a grizzled, discontented local loner in a trucker cap hiding on a hillside with a pellet gun, aiming for the giant mallard's head to end "all dat rubberneckin' 'n traffic 'n 'at."
Belgian vandals stabbed the floating sculpture, yet even those without an inner child couldn't destroy it. Like energy, Rubber Ducky is unkillable and merely reconstitutes itself elsewhere.
Florentijn Hofman, the Dutch sculptor who created the massive piece of art, did Andy Warhol proud.
As if it were a cryptid, Kay and I caught a brief glimpse of it prior to a Stage AE concert without having time to photograph it. Ominous yet gentle, geese surrounded it as if it were their savior and loving, devoted god.
Its mission is over in Pittsburgh. May the rest of the world know its joy.
Rubber Ducky is The One.
It made the mighty Allegheny so much fun.
By certain definitions, that qualifies as poetry. Parts of it have a rhyme scheme. But, it's a far cry from a New York Times restaurant review.
The quality of the review has little to do with the merits of the lawsuit. (The crux is that since these people don't have contracts with Yelp, they don't have to write anything, ever.) But, it shows that one single reviewer provides little value to either Yelp or the user. It's the aggregate of information that makes the service useful by creating a star ranking system. Sure, without all the reviewers, Yelp could not function. But lots of people review things for reasons other than getting paid. Until that changes, the site can do without the few volunteers that demand more, especially since they're far from professional critics.
[Image: Flickr user Jenny Downing]