Yelp, a not-so-secret community
There is a natural human urge to create communities and connect with each other; the Internet provides a new outlet to satisfy this desire. Online platforms “enable ubiquitous meeting spaces that satisfy the basic human need for communication” (Stanoevska-Slabeva 71). While many platforms such as Facebook or Myspace were intentionally created to foster the growth of a community, Yelp was founded with a more pedestrian purpose—“a service that connects people to local businesses” (Overdorff). Despite its origins, Yelp has met Koh and Kim’s three dimensions for creating a sense of virtual community: “(1) membership—people experience feelings of belonging to their virtual community, (2) influence—people influence other members of their community, and (3) immersion—people feel the state of flow during virtual community navigation” (77).
Officially, Yelp is a web site devoted to reviews of local businesses. However, beyond reviews it includes personal profiles and accounts, friending, ‘Talk’ discussion threads, lists, messaging, and information about local events. A user creates an account and links with friends, turning the platform into a social network.
While Yelp facilitates the superficial use of its site by non-members, in order to support deeper connections among users, Yelp “fully embrace[d] social media, encouraging its reviewers to establish personalities and become featured contributors” (Muscarella). Yelpers have also developed their own vocabulary, such as ‘PM=Private Message’, ‘UYE=Unofficial Yelp Event’, and ‘UFC=useful, funny, cool’, the use of which demonstrates their belonging to the community (Yelp). Once someone becomes an active Yelper, writing reviews and interacting with others on the site, he or she can apply to be a ‘Elite Yelp Squad’ member for a year, which leads to “nifty new friends, uber-local gatherings, invites to fun (and free) parties at least once a month, and a shiny profile badge” (Yelp). The different levels of membership draw users into the community and create feelings of belonging.
Yelp users share an interest in providing information to others about local businesses and basing their own purchase decisions on others’ experiences. Each member is influencing others and being influenced at the same time as Yelp “allow[s] members to continuously express and access others’ opinions, with the overall preferences and beliefs often tabulated” and then “provide[s] a highly accessible and efficient source for evaluating and adjusting one’s own thoughts and actions in light of input from socially relevant peers within a community” (Miller, Fabian, and Lin 305).
The immersion of users in the community and feeling of a “state of flow” (Koh and Kim 77), are dependent on many factors, including whether the community fulfills the needs of its members, provides an enjoyable experience, and connects with users on an emotional level. Yelp meets its users need for information, providing personal reviews with thoughtful reflections on the experiences another person had with a business. By allowing Yelpers to connect directly and indirectly on the web site, it becomes a social network and provides emotional connections too. A new Yelper originated a “Hello Yelp Community” thread on the site and other users immediately posted to welcome him, ask questions about his life, provide information and advice, and make plans for real world connections (Yelp). Based on enthusiastic descriptions of Yelp events and the levels of turnout, Elite Yelpers enjoy their private and customized Yelp events (Yelp). Even regular Yelpers, by sharing humor and inside jokes such as “should like beer and booze” and the “requisite Yelp hazing period”, share a sense of fun through the site (Yelp). Additionally, the “organic” and “natural” growth of the Yelp community, even in the absence of community managers facilitating the process, shows an appreciation and enjoyment of the tools that Yelp offers (Mink).
While the founders of Yelp did not originally create it with the goal of forming a community, they recognized the strength that a community brought to their mission of providing personal local reviews of businesses to other users. They brought in community managers to facilitate the growth of the online communities through on- and off-line means in many cities. Through the design of the platform, the enthusiasm of Yelpers, and the efforts of the community managers, a thriving Yelp community now exists, incorporating the important community dimensions of membership, influence, and immersion.
Koh, Joon and Young-Gul Kim. “Sense of Virtual Community: A Conceptual Framework and Empirical Validation.” International Journal of Electronic Commerce 8.2 (2003-2004): 75-93. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Miller, Ken, Frances Fabian, and Shu-Jou Lin. “Strategies for Online Communities.” Strategic Management Journal 30 (2009): 305-322. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Mink, Kristin. Personal Interview. 20 Dec. 2012.
Muscarella, Len. “Yelp’s Success Not Without Pain, Strife.” iMedia inc. Interactive Media Associates. March 2009. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Overdorff, Justin. Personal Interview. 19 Dec. 2012.
Stanoevska-Slabeva, Katarina. “Toward a Community-Oriented Design of Internet Platforms.” International Journal of Electronic Commerce 6.3 (2002): 71-95. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Yelp. Yelp, Inc, 2004-2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.