New book argues that sites like Yelp create a surveillance state

According to new research, online reviews constitute workplace surveillance and turn customers into unpaid managers.

Review sites don't empower consumers, but can harm employees

Are restaurant review sites like Yelp facilitating employee surveillance? (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Is the customer always right? The biting nature of some online reviews can make you question that notion.

Joshua Sperber believes that amateur restaurant reviewers don't always have enough insight into why there are issues with the service.

Sperber is an Assistant Professor of Political Science & History at Averett University and the author of a new book, Consumer Management in the Internet Age: How Customers Became Managers in the Modern Workplace.
Joshua Sperber

"Maybe something that you chalk up to so-called bad service is really situational. Maybe the server had a horrible morning because their child is sick. So there's a distinct unfairness to these types of reviews," he told Spark host Nora Young.

Sperber researched the impact of online review sites on restaurants. For his book, he conducted interviews with wait staff, restaurant managers, and Yelp reviewers.

"We know that servers have been fired for reviews. We know that servers have been suspended for bad reviews. It adds stress, this knowledge that any customer is a potential Yelp reviewer," said Sperber.

He argues that while online reviews may seem on the surface to be a great way to empower patrons, those reviewers may unwittingly be putting restaurant workers under a kind of surveillance.

Sperber said that Yelp gives restaurant employees "a reason to assume they're likely being watched by someone who is not just going to grumble and complain about a supposed bad experience but is actually going to write it up on a website read by millions of people including their manager."

While he found Yelp reviewers to have a strong "consumerist mentality," he said many were unaware of the direct impact negative reviews can have on restaurant employees.

"It gives [owners] a justification to increase worker productivity and to punish one worker, but more importantly sort of scares the rest of the workers into working harder because they know they could be punished based on a negative Yelp review," said Sperber.

Despite the impact of Yelp reviews, Sperber does not see them as a real example of consumer power.

"Structurally speaking, it's the equivalent of playing whack-a-mole. Yelp doesn't equip consumers acting on an individual level, or even collectively, to fundamentally transform business realities. Yelp is not going to do it for us, even if it can punish an individual business."



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.