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What it’s like being an outsider invited inside the Yelp Elite circle

yelp eventWhat if I were to tell you that in your city – in cities everywhere – there exists a special group of people who get into exclusive events at no cost? And that at these events, there are free drinks, and free food, and a copious amount of other free things? Well, dear reader, allow me to assure you all this is not a figment of my imagination, for I have seen and experienced one of the perks that comes with being an Elite Yelper: An exclusive Yelp event.

The Elite Yelp program has been around since 2005, and while the idea of rewarding someone – someone, mind you, who is more committed consumer than expert of anything – for writing reviews on local businesses surfaces plenty of ethical arguments, let me tell you … it is awesome.

I am lucky enough to be friends with a couple of Elite Yelpers who had themselves a few of invites to extend to us regular Yelp users (or as is my case, non-users).

And that’s how I came to find myself sipping free champagne while getting a free massage; among other (free) perks.

Let me tell you, it’s all a little surreal. There’s a line where you check in, ID in hand, and are given a name tag to wear. After making it past this very relaxed gate-keeping, there’s nothing left to do but party. Allow me to set the scene:

The event is in a hip ballroom in the cool kids’ part of town. In the middle of the room, there are about five tables featuring local restaurants who are handing out free plates of their food. There are tamales, gourmet ice cream, deli sandwiches, flan, bread pudding, a sausage-deviled egg item, and a few other appetizer-type plates.

And then – and then! – there’s the bar. There are four or five specialty cocktails for the event, and since I live in Portland, Oregon, there are six or so beers on tap. A sparkling wine from a local winery is also featured. I try many of these; the lines never get too long, the bartenders always cheerful, the booze continuously flowing. Trust us – Yelp Elite know how to drink.

You are, of course, encouraged to tip your bartenders and servers. My measly five ones don’t go very far and an ATM trip is a necessity. Although, I definitely cost the event more than the odd $10 dollars I ended up tipping.

Now, we journey upstairs. There’s a row of tables doling out samples: Yet more wine, as well as vodka. Yes, “sampling” vodka is only mildly less college than doing a shot. Yes, they’re basically the same thing. At the end of the row, a line is forming in another room for free 10 minute massages. Another station is a local barber shop offering straight-razor neck shaves and hand massages. There’s a photo area where there’s a backdrop, professional lighting, and props for official Yelp event photos. Tables everywhere are covered with free swag for you to take: Yelp bottle openers, Yelp fingerless gloves, Yelp fans.

There’s a theme: It’s “Thrift Shop” … which sort of just dissolved into “I bought these clothes at Goodwill” for everyone there.

I hear Elite Yelpers talking to each other like Internet fanboys and fangirls: “Hi, Sarah M.! I’ve read so many of your reviews – it’s so great to meet you in person!” Very strange. Very meta.

There’s definitely something slightly “insider” about the whole idea – but it’s nothing like the cultish picture that’s been painted of the “Yelp Mafia.” No one asked me if I wrote Yelp reviews or talked about the Elite program in general. Stories of such events dissolving into position jockeying seem entirely like singular incidents. Yes, there were lines for food … perhaps made more obnoxious by the heat and people who don’t understand the concept of a line. At one point I actually physically ushered people into a straight line versus the wrap-around nonsense they were trying to pull – I didn’t even want in the line! I just couldn’t stand their inadequacy. But otherwise, normal party behavior all around. Way to go, humans!

Of course, I couldn’t avoid feeling like I took advantage of the system. I’ve never contributed to a local business with a review (at least not one I can remember) or made a point to shout my vendor loyalty all over the Internet – yet there I was, indulging without a care in the world and without much prompting to tip. If you’re an outsider at an event like this, you’ll probably end up looking like a rabid, starved orphaned child who was left in the woods and hasn’t seen civilization in years. You’re Nell … you’re basically Nell. Experienced Yelpers will casually wander from table to table and bar to bar, and you will hurriedly scramble to make sure you took inventory of all that’s available. It doesn’t make you feel very good about yourself, but you’ll do it. It’s like picking that single dollar bill out of puddle even though people can see you: You’re not proud, but what are you supposed to do? Not pick up the money!? Please.

And there is something refreshing about the idea of being rewarded for contributing to this mass project called the Internet. Usually our posts and updates and comments are fed into the machine, and we have nothing to show for it. So at least I got a free meal off of the collective efforts of the Yelp Elite, right? The game is the game. 

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