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We Cheer! We lead! We Know There is a Need!

Why playful virtual protests of real-world indignities can be more effective than playing the outrage card

We Cheer! We lead! We Know There is a Need!
[Illustration by Stanley Chow]

This past May, a gay couple dined at a Pittsburg, Texas, establishment called Big Earl’s Bait House and Galley Café. On their way out, a waitress, the owner’s daughter, told them they weren’t welcome back because “we don’t serve fags.” The story made the local news, and once it hit the web, local became global in minutes.

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Sadly, there’s a story like this almost every day, in which someone says or does something stupid and the hive mind of the Internet rushes to Twitter and the like to do what we do best: be incensed. A PR person makes a xenophobic and racist joke on Twitter about flying to Africa, and the outcry leads to her firing before her plane lands. John Oliver slams proposed changes to net neutrality; we crash the FCC site.

Big Earl’s turn in the digital shame chamber was much more interesting: “The Internet” tried to turn the roadside diner into the No. 1 gay hangout in Texas.

Hundreds of people transformed Big Earl’s Yelp page into a platform for satirical political expression, celebrating how gay-friendly the place is. “I’m giving Big Earl’s 1 star because it’s not a great place for gay women,” deadpanned one review. “But I think gay men would love this place because there are so many hot gay guys there.”

Activism, creativity, and humor have long been partners in crime, from palace court jesters to the sly media stunts of the Yes Men. The Big Earl’s case is significant in signaling a new direction in how to protest a target, merging the digital with the physical and doing so in such a clever fashion that it did far more to achieve the goal of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the perpetrator than fury ever could.

Anyone can type “You suck, you bigot” into a form, but it takes creativity to redesign the venue’s signage to read “Big Gay Earl’s.” Earl Cheney, the owner, has this sign posted on the front door of his establishment: WELCOME TO BIG EARL’S WHERE MEN ACT LIKE MEN, WOMEN ACT LIKE LADIES. NO SAGGY PANTS. WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE. This isn’t a guy likely to change his mind because of the wit expressed on a website he’s never heard of. This wasn’t about Big Earl, though as the fake reviews piled up suggesting that the restaurant was effectively the Grindr of East Texas, he did have to consider that even more members of the LGBT community might start showing up for breakfast.

The primary value of the Yelp bombing lay in supporting the men who were insulted that day. They saw people creatively rallying to their defense, a show of force by the multitudes who find policies like those at Big Earl’s to be laughably outdated.

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My one regret about this whole incident (besides not being the person to initiate it) was that Yelp decided to delete the posts. The company said that “reviews should be focused on everyday customer experiences” and encouraged people to express their opinions in a general discussion forum rather than the venue page.

Yelp’s definition of what counts as a review is, of course, up to Yelp, but this felt like a digital instance of protesters being cordoned off into a free-speech zone.

What a sad, shortsighted move. Big Earl’s men-must-act-like-men-and-also-no-saggy-pants policy–in other words, if you’re gay or black, keep driving–is more relevant to a person’s experience there than knowing about the friskiness of its Red Wigglers or the fluffiness of its short stack. Access to that fuller picture could affect my planning. And isn’t that what Yelp is really for?