Do Asian Americans Yelp Like Crazy?

March 31, 2011

Hyphen writers Victoria Yue and Mic Nguyen take a look at the disproportionate number of Asian Americans on Yelp as compared to the general population. Based in Chicago, Victoria is addicted to random personal anecdotes and Red Mango’s discontinued Tangonium yogurt. Michael lives and writes in Brooklyn, and is championing a new food pyramid in which every step is pizza.

It was curiously fun, and now they’re both hungry.

Having spent most of my life in the US, I’d like to think that I’m pretty well-versed in American foods and culture. I can order up a mean burger, bake a passable lasagna and whip up a silky peanut butter pie. But reminders of my Asian upbringing crop up in the most surprising places.

For example, I was getting brunch with my boyfriend, who is basically Jack from that “Jack and Diane” song by John Mellencamp. Small-town boy from the Heartland, that sort of thing.  We went to this brunch place and both had bacon with our food. This conversation ensued:

Me [thinking]: This is pretty tasty bacon. Yum.

Boyfriend [aloud]: This bacon is awful.

Me: What?

Boyfriend: They didn’t cook it right. Bacon is supposed to be crisp, but this bacon is all chewy. You know what I mean?

Me: Huh.

Up until that bright, enlightening moment, I had no idea that “good” bacon was crispy and not like a hot piece of fried jerky, which is basically what I’d been eating my entire life. Who knew?

I couldn’t help but think: goodness. I probably would’ve recommended this place to others, blissfully unaware that my bacon standards were way below par. Hard, chewy bacon seemed a pretty good alternative to the limp, greasy fronds served in my college cafeteria. After all, my Taiwanese parents rarely made bacon for breakfast. How was I to know the difference between good and bad bacon?

I had that experienced reversed on me when I went to a dim sum place at the recommendation of a well-traveled white friend. “Best dim sum place in town,” she promised. She and her family had been going there for years. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. After all, she’d been to all sorts of places around the world, and I imagined that her excursions in Asia included a tour of the tasty foods. Most of the reviewers on Yelp had given it a 4. Good sign, right?

Imagine my disappointment to discover that this dim sum place was…less than what I had expected. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good. It was definitely not anywhere close to the level of delicious authenticity that I had been salivating for.

But then, why was it rated so highly on Yelp? A closer look at the reviews revealed that a number of the high-raters described themselves as “not dim sum experts.” One reviewer even noted he should’ve known it wasn’t going to be that good because he didn’t see many Chinese faces in the crowd.

Fed up with similar experiences, Mic took a look at some of the stats behind Yelp and found that 34 percent of Yelp activity is directed to restaurant reviews, the most of any single review category on the site. Things get really interesting once you start to parse the demographic data. Yelping is a young person’s game, with a whopping 73 percent of users between the ages of 23 and 39. And these are well-educated folks, too -- 65 percent have college degrees and an astounding 32 percent went to grad school.

But that’s not all. Quantcast, a metrics company that provides demographic data on internet audiences, claims that 15 percent of Yelpers are Asian American. That may not seem like much, but considering that Asian Americans make up less than 5 percent of the total US population, it’s significant. The percentage of Asian Americans on Yelp also represents three times the internet average of viewers, which means that there are three times as many of us on Yelp that can be expected from a typical internet audience in the US. That’s a lot of Asian Americans.

But why such a strong presence of Asian Americans? Do we get a thrill from judging other peoples’ work? What is it about the chance to review the newest Mission Street food cart or that downtown Italian-Haitian-Inuit fusion restaurant that brings out our inner Anthony Bourdain?

Certainly we can’t ignore the fact that the Yelp crowd is relatively affluent and well-educated, or that Yelp is a tech company centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a very high Asian American population, many of whom presumably love their iPhones as much as their dumplings. Is it access to technology and education that causes this proliferation of Asian Americans to Yelp? Or is the chance to express our opinion on a dish to an anonymous audience of millions irresistible to us for another reason?

At the very least, we need a better way of making sense of the comments -- a rating for the ratings, so to speak. Many sites, such as Amazon, have a product recommendation section, mostly to get users to spend more money. But that section is also useful to see if you’re on the right track. Not sure about that book you’re buying for a horse-obsessed niece? Well, let’s see what other books are liked by the people who’ve bought that book. If the other books also feature horses, then you’re on the right track; if they feature, say, extraterrestrial treatises, then probably not so much.

What if there were something similar with restaurants?

After a dozen too many misleading reviews, we propose a new system wherein each user is given a certain number of points to divvy up amongst various categories he or she has “expertise” in. Call it the Cultural Relevance Point (CRP) System.

This is how it would work: let’s say every user is allowed five points to distribute in the food category. I would put maybe two points on Chinese food, two points on Frozen Yogurt and one point on Hamburgers. Meanwhile, Mic would dominate in the Pizza category, with a point or two on Hamburgers as well. So then, when I comment on a Chinese food restaurant, my review would have more weight than Mic’s; conversely, if it were a pizza place, Mic’s review would have more weight than mine. And when it came to burgers, Mic and I could have a verbal fight to the death (or get shut down by Burger experts).

With the CRP system, I would have zero points in the Bacon category, thus alerting other Yelpers that I might not have much credence when it comes to bacon. In fact, I just might steer them awry. But when it comes to frozen yogurt, hey, I got your back.

Are you reading this, Yelp? With such a system in place, users would not only be able to check how other diners liked a restaurant, but how it ranks in terms of authenticity, with the locals, with ‘experts,’ et cetera. We could never eat disappointing food again!

Consider the dumpling gauntlet thrown.




Too true Victoria, great article. I recently connected with a well-respected local food writer, and provided him with a lead that turned into a very fair review of a Chinese restaurant. I hope to continue doing that so the niche places are found, and appeal to a larger community.
As a Yelper and journalism major I was dissappointed by this story. You guys could have gone much deeper to explain this trend of asians on Yelp rather than simply stating the statisticvs. Maybe talk to a sociologist or someone who is an expert in asian culture to see if there is something deeper that this says about contemporary Asian Americans. At my alama mater, Hunter College they even have a cultural studies class called Asians in the US and I'm sure the professor might have something interesting to say to make your article much deeper.

Thanks for the feedback. You hit me right on the head: I AM super lazy. Just kidding. We wanted this piece to introduce the topic and explore some of the surrounding issues of ethnicity, food, authenticity, etc. We should do a more thorough piece. Want to help?

Well, the thing about the bacon being crispy or chewy depends on where you're from; Brits really like the chewy kind where as Americans like the crispy kind. Which is kind of the way yelp is. Maybe instead of the points system, people could just give some details about their food-ing experience.
Excellent article! I've been following this trend for years with much interest. My favourite review articles on Yelp go into extreme detail about the valet parking, bathroom and decor then mention that the food was "kinda yummy." Thank you, "Cindy K. from SoCal suburb. It's interesting to so many folks on Yelp enjoy generating all this free content for Yelp. I'm Californian-Korean journalist who loves food but it drives me crazy when a few of my friends must take photos of every meal we eat. Another interesting read: Food -- or rather, taking pictures and writing about food -- is more popular than The Beatles for some Asian Americans.
I agree with Andy. With the title of your article, I expected an explanation as to why there are so many asians on Yelp. Instead you offer a different review system, which doesn't address the issue. Although innovative, I don't see the CRP working. A simple solution is for people to be more thorough with their reviews, but in the end it is up to reviewer and the public on whether to trust the reviewer or not.
Eastern Cultures are often perceived as high context cultures where collectivism is important. In high context cultures people use a lot of indirect and nonverbal communication and are mostly collectivistic. People from Western cultures on the other hand are more individualistic and use low context communication, meaning they use concrete language and direct communication to get their point across. To Americans, Asians seem socially awkward.
Nicely written piece. I just said this to my wife the other day when looking over yelp reviews. I agree that there needs to be a new rating system And how about a new one besides USEFUL, COOL, FUNNY I propose STUPID, TOO NEGATIVE. All the ones Yelp now has contributes to the enabling culture we now live in where everything comment is worthy of a positive response. And people please relax on the servers. They are not 1%ers and work hard. Also too many Yelpers are using Groupons and not tipping on the real bill which they should be doing. Excellent piece. Happy Holidays and crisp up that bacon! ...I'm not a server by the way.
I love bacon but hate crispy bacon!!! I don't think I am alone on that, at least I know of others in the Greater Seattle area that share my affinity for less than crispy bacon!! It definitely does not have to be crispy to be "good"!