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An Open Letter to Humanity

It's time to rethink the way we review small business owners online.



Dear Us,

This is not working out. We thought we could be trusted with unchecked access to the Internet. We thought giving us a voice was a good thing. Unfortunately, our current behavior has caused George Orwell’s corpse to reanimate and pledge allegiance to Big Brother.

This is simply not OK. The above is a real Yelp review sent to me by a real restaurant. They claim the waiter’s crime was not serving alcohol to a minor, and say the review hung there for two days before Yelp rightly took it down. Two days may not sound like a long time. But if you’re the person being called racist epithets on one of the most highly visited websites on the planet, 48 hours is an excruciatingly long stretch. A dehumanizing couple of days.

Psychic filth like this is not funny, entertaining, witty or valuable to the world in any way. Stuff like this isn’t “cool," “daring” or “ballsy.” It’s a half step backward in human evolution. It is proof that you’re just not OK in the head, and that someone should try and help you soon.

I realize the Yelp review above is an extreme example. But every week I hear a story from restaurant owners about abusive/incorrect/aggressive/vile posts. I think it’s time we asked ourselves what value we’re bringing to society with our online analysis—and pause to consider the human being on the other end of the review.

I’m not against Yelp. Like most businesses, it has great attributes. It’s the white pages for the tech era. There are many informed, good-natured people on Yelp helping other people discover good things. Yelp functions as a safeguard against unscrupulous business owners. It democratizes the marketplace of opinion and criticism. It creates a sense of community. It gives everyone a voice.

And like most businesses, it has downfalls. Yelp can be used to bully and blackmail local businesses. We don’t know the credentials of the reviewers (a lifelong Jack In the Boxer might complain about Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant’s $17 burger). Some reviewers clearly don’t know the rules and standard operating practices of restaurants. There’s no morals clause. It gives everyone a voice.

Some voices simply shouldn’t be heard. Like the racist voice. The sexist voice. The classist, dehumanizing, small business owner-bashing, defeatist, jaded, angry, drunk, bitter, violent voice.

We’ve created the most advanced communication tool in the history of mankind, and mostly we use it as a dump for our psychological rubbish. Review websites have all but obliterated the need for psychotherapy. Too many of us go on these sites to rage and purge and get our ugly out. Restaurant X serves as a replacement for our girlfriend, mom, boss, brother, father, DMV or whatever has peed in our bowl of cosmic Cheerios.

And this needs to stop. We’re better.

Because, really, democracy only works if we’re not raging ***holes. Raging ***holes need to be shamed by their peers and checked for weapons. Yelp is a weapon. And this is me shaming an ***hole.

Reviewing small businesses shouldn’t be power sport or schadenfreude. This is a human’s livelihood.

Sure, it would be easy to blame Yelp and review sites. And some of the social responsibility does fall on their shoulders. But let’s assume for now they’re working on bettering their system. Right now, let’s focus on us. If we’re going to continue to review restaurants online, we should agree to some simple ground rules:

1. TAKE EMOTIONAL INVENTORY: Did your girlfriend just dump you for someone average looking who's not even terribly wealthy or have good facial hair? That hurts. Maybe wait a while before posting a review. Your judgment of the chef’s short rib might be clouded. Seven of your 10 cats die from excessive hugging? Turn off the internet machine for a bit.

2. NO RACISM: If you’re the sort of person who might try to get selected to a jury and not be approved because you'd make every inch of skin in the room crawl… you really shouldn’t be posting online. You should keep those thoughts to yourself and the little plastic army men you burn with a lighter. If when angry the first thing you think is, “What color is the object of my anger’s skin?,” even when that object of your anger is a toaster oven, you should not post to the internet. Seek help, not Yelp.

3. DON’T DRINK AND REVIEW: You should not be posting on the internet after you’ve been drinking. You know this. But the thing about drinking is that all the things you know you shouldn’t do become terribly great ideas when you’re drunk. Maybe one day every device connected to the internet can be equipped with a breathalizer. Before being allowed to push “publish” on a review, you must blow into the breathalyzer. If you are legally drunk, it will not publish until you blow sober. It will also disable texts to any person in your contacts you’ve ever slept with.

4. MISOGYNY: Do you use the word “toots” in your outside voice? Do you angle for a table in the very attractive female server’s station—not to politely engage in conversation, but to quietly leer and get her in a server-customer power relationship? If a female server fails to bat her eyes, linger at your table during busy service, or plunge her neckline in your direction, do feel a great injustice befall the world that needs a good raging against? Share that thought out loud to your buddies and see if any of them give the “that’s creepy and I’m worried about you” eyes before transferring the rage to the restaurant.

5. KNOW THE CUSTOMS OF RESTAURANTS: If you attempt to order take-out food, and the restaurant does not have take-out service, don’t penalize them. If you’re at a ma-and-pa Mexican restaurant, do not review the burger. Don’t show up at 7pm on a Friday night without reservations and then get indignant when told there are no seats. Review restaurants based on what they're trying to be, not on what you'd like them to be.

6. THINK PROGRESS: Is your review filled with respectful and constructive criticism that might inspire a restaurant or an employee to enact positive change? Bingo. Congratulations. You’re doing this right.

I’m dealing with this humorously, but there’s nothing funny about writing dehumanizing things on the internet about other people. Please post humanely. If you’re not an other-oriented type of person, then let’s appeal to your selfishness. A racist, sexist or generally ugly review does not tell the world you’re brave or sensational or controversial or daring or funny. It tells the world your idea of minimalism is paring your IQ down to the smallest digit possible.  

It tells the world you’re a one-star human being. We don't have to be five-star people, but let's at least aim for it and settle for three.

Any other suggestions? Leave a comment.

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