But it turns out that those reviews can tell people more than just what the best dish is at a restaurant. According to a new study from sociologists at the City University of New York, Yelp reviews can show connections between dining establishments, gentrification, and race. Specifically, people on Yelp give way more negative comments to minority-owned businesses.
The study looked at 7,046 Yelp reviews of dining establishments in predominantly white-gentrifying and a predominantly black-gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York—historically Polish neighborhood Greenpoint, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically black neighborhood. Researchers looked at the top 10 most-reviewed restaurants, many of which would be considered new and trendy, and the top 10 ethnic restaurants.
The researchers then narrowed it down to 1,056 reviews that explicitly mentioned the neighborhoods, and found that reviewers felt more positive about Greenpoint and negative towards Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy.
While both neighborhoods were considered “up and coming,” stark differences were revealed in the reviews. Traditional Polish restaurants in Greenpoint were described with words like “authentic,” and “cozy.” Reviews for the Bed-Stuy neighborhood and its restaurants included words like “dangerous,” “gritty,” “sketchy,” “hood,” and “ghetto.” Additionally, reviewers were much more concerned about the preservation of the ethnic restaurants in Greenpoint.
“This language represents ‘discursive redlining’ in the digital public realm, with Yelp reviewers contributing to taste-driven processes of gentrification and racial change,” the study says.
Researchers conclude that bad reviews can go beyond a disgruntled customer airing their grievances, pushing away potential customers. Yelp reviews can actually have an impact on gentrification, and create a cultural or economic value: “Intentionally or not, Yelp restaurant reviewers may encourage, confirm, or even accelerate processes of gentrification by signaling that a locality is good for people who share their tastes.”