There are no illusions as to what YouTube users are looking for when they click on titles that hold the promise of catastrophe. It’s why a video called “Pencil Stuck in My Eye Prank” has nearly 13 million views, why some of the platform’s most popular vloggers have taken baths in liquids like hot sauce, and why a video of a woman stomping grapes and then falling and injuring herself was an early viral hit on the video-sharing platform.
In recent weeks, a legion of YouTubers big and small have been subjecting themselves to discomfort in a novel way: by visiting their local “worst” businesses as determined by online reviews, particularly the behemoth app of the sector, Yelp. Each “worst reviewed” video follows essentially the same format. The willing customer scrolls through Yelp reviews until they find the lowest rated of one particular kind of business. They then read some sample negative reviews to prime their viewers, and themselves, for what to expect, a ritual that nearly always involves the YouTuber exclaiming, “I’m so nervous!” or “I’m so freaked out right now!” Next comes the actual visit to the business, which the video creator attempts to film, either covertly or outright. The end of each video then comes with a breakdown of the highs and lows of the visit as well as the ultimate judgment: Is this business really as bad as Yelp reviews say it is?
The worst reviewed genre is just the latest iteration of the frivolous consumerism that’s long been a staple of the platform’s trends. Frequent YouTube viewers will recall summer 2016, when it seemed like any vlogger looking for guaranteed views was putting 100 layers of a beauty product, and sometimes variants like glue, on their bare and willing bodies. The appeal lay in observing the mysteriously pleasurable (and wasteful) wonder of seeing someone crumble as they struggle to slather one more layer of mascara on their quivering, encrusted eyelashes. Meanwhile, “haul videos” have flourished for more than a decade on the platform. The genre has since germinated easily brandable, dollar-specific offshoots like “$100 challenge” where creators “challenge” themselves to spend $100 at a specific store or $1,000 at a vape shop or at Urban Outfitters for the ugliest clothes or to simply click on every ad on YouTube. “Worst Reviewed” videos combine a Fear Factor–esque approach to late capitalism with the heightened melodrama of Yelp reviews. But unlike the latter, which are meant to deter customers from spending their money on bad customer experiences, in worst reviewed videos there’s a schadenfreudist pleasure in seeing those experiences go wrong.
“I love doing this video even though I wasted $27 and had a really bad experience,” says vlogger Tiffany Ma in her video “Going To The Worst Reviewed Nail Salon In My City! (it's WORSE than I thought),” which as of this writing has nearly 2 million views. In another popular worst reviewed video, YouTuber daisy kaur visits a 2-star-rated beauty salon in Manhattan. When recounting her trip at the end of the video, she cringes while remembering how her makeup artist (whose face she shows unblurred) used unclean applicators and old products on her face. “This was a really fun experiment to film,” she concludes. “’Cause I wasn’t really expecting it to go this bad, but it did and it’s actually quite funny.” In the final shots and in the description she reveals that the experience gave her an allergic reaction, a testament to the video’s veracity and the latent dangers of being a consumer.
Searching through these videos, it’s not hard to find the horror stories, as when YouTuber Brennen Taylor appears to find a mouse at the worst reviewed hotel in Los Angeles and then pornography under the mattress at one in San Francisco. (Their almost suspiciously eventful stays have garnered over 3.5 million and 500,000 views respectively.) But among these are also videos that call the entire enterprise of crowdsourced reviews into question. Despite the intended universality of the 5-star rating system, each individual’s ideas of what makes a business worth supporting are inherently shaped by their cultural and economic background. Quite visibly on Yelp, judgments between the best and worst restaurant or spa can devolve into remarks about “sketchy” neighborhoods or complaints of workers speaking with accents. Any open forum takes on the perspective of its users. Yelp — with its expendable-income-having, optic-conscious, smartphone-reliant, and opinionated ideal user — has one shaped by urban upper classes. And in deprioritizing face-to-face dialogue, emphasizing narratives of discovery, and championing everything “Hot & New,” it has meshed well with the language and spirit of gentrification.
At their worst, these videos revel in the weaponized power of online reviews. But at their best, worst reviewed videos inadvertently shine light on the cracks in Yelp’s veneer of crowdsourced infallibility. Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons, former PayPal engineers, launched the site in October 2004, focusing on the tech and culinary haven of San Francisco. Not long after, business owners began raising concerns as customers’ comments on the site started to have real-life financial repercussions. By 2009, a number of businesses complained that Yelp refused to investigate or remove factually erroneous, and possibly fake, reviews from their pages. A 2010 class-action lawsuit claimed that the site offered to obscure bad reviews for businesses willing to pay a $300 monthly fee. In response, Yelp denied the claims, but added a link to allow users to see the reviews the site’s quality control algorithm had filtered out. Meanwhile, last year, the Hill reported that anonymous hackers were increasingly extorting businesses for money under threat of ruining their Yelp reputations.
Despite concerns about misuse, however, the site grew rapidly, going public in 2012, thanks in part to the appeal of its gamified, social media–mimicking design. On Yelp, readers can endorse reviews, voting them as “useful,” “funny,” or “cool,” thus encouraging Yelpers to make their reviews not only informative, but entertaining enough to be included in, say, a delightful internet video. Each reviewer gets a profile that includes their “stats,” like how many “friends” they have on the platform or how many reviews they have contributed. The site’s most avid and “reliable” reviewers are encouraged to join the site’s “Elite Squad.” Only those with “a detailed personal profile, an active voting and complimenting record, and a history of playing well with others,” according to Yelp’s support website, gain admittance to the exclusive group. By the end of 2018, users had contributed 177 million reviews for the site, a 20% increase from the year before. And despite the attention negative reviews get, half of all business ratings on the site are five stars.
Not everyone, however, gets a loud voice or a fair shake on the internet’s favorite reviews site. As sociolinguist Camilla Vasquez notes in her 2014 book The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews, the majority of Yelp users are “internet-savvy young adults in the 18–25 range, and affluent, suburban baby boomers, with interests in culture and travel.” According to the site’s own demographics, the majority of users are college graduates and people who make $100,000 a year or more. This slant of user base has resulted in visible reviewing biases regardless of user location. Food writers have long pointed to how restaurants serving cuisine that originates from non–Western European countries (unendingly referred to as “ethnic food”) judge such businesses against flawed notions of authenticity or perceive them as more likely to be dangerous. Meanwhile, a 2015 study by sociologist Sharon Zukin found that Yelp reviews of businesses in the gentrifying, majority-black Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn were more likely to negatively characterize the surrounding neighborhood compared to reviews of businesses in nearby, majority-white Greenpoint. “While Yelp itself might seem to be an egalitarian space, its putative frictionlessness conceals very real class antagonisms,” wrote historian Dylan Gottlieb in a 2015 report for Gastronomica. “Due to their limited economic and social capital, immigrants remain harder to hear on Yelp.” Watching the slew of “worst reviewed” videos on YouTube, it’s clear a significant number of them focus on businesses that appear to be immigrant-owned or in low-income neighborhoods, places where a certain well-to-do (and more likely than not, white) customer might find themselves feeling uncomfortable or insufficiently catered to.
In November 2018, before the trend hit its peak, Vice Media launched a web series dedicated to the premise called One Star Reviews. In the first episode, host Taji Ameen visits New Jersey tattoo parlor Fat Kat Tattoo, which at the time of filming averaged a 1-star rating on Yelp. As the shop’s owner, Nate, etches a rough tattoo of a surfer onto Ameen’s upper arm, Ameen takes the opportunity to ask the artist, whom several unsatisfied reviewers complained about by name, about his shop’s bad reputation. After a tentative laugh, Nate explains that a hard couple years in his personal life impacted his business. “I might have not done 100% quality work like I used to, but no one cares to ask what happened or what’s going on or whatever,” he says sadly. “They just jump on the bandwagon and go about their merry way.” At the end of the episode, Ameen gives the business a 5-star Yelp review, citing Nate’s “new outlook on life” and raising Fat Kat’s average rating to 3 stars. In a later episode, Ameen asks a “worst rated” plastic surgeon about his business’s own bad reviews, to which the doctor presents copies of lawsuits he has filed against offending reviewers. “Writing a review is like a Donald Trump tweet,” he says. “Anyone can say anything at 3 o'clock in the morning.”
Ameen told me in an interview that getting to experience some grittier, low-regarded establishments is what attracted him to the opportunity. And indeed, many businesses featured in worst reviewed videos are of the sort that seem to be disappearing from gentrified, spit-shined urban landscapes. “In a way we’re almost trying to celebrate these imperfections that we almost find to be beautiful,” said Ameen. “[If] I go to one and the person is truly awful and matches all of the reviews, then I’m gonna obviously be honest and give them a bad review. It’s not like we’re looking to promote people. But the people we’re drawn to, the businesses we’re drawn to, [are] almost underdogs. And [we just want] to go and find out for ourselves what’s going on with them. Maybe they got better, maybe they’re still bad.”
In the most-watched worst reviewed video posted on March 23, which has almost 9.5 million views as of this writing, beauty vlogger Jeffree Star travels to the supposedly worst tattoo shop in all of Houston, only to decide the business is too “sketch,” as his assistant puts it, to actually patronize. With camera and entourage in tow, he tours the business’s cramped interior. And though, as the video shows, the business’s Yelp reviews were horrific, its lobby has waiting customers. Star takes a selfie with a fan and books an appointment to get a tattoo that night.
Back in the car, the conversation between Star and his assistant takes an abruptly somber turn. “I personally don’t feel comfortable with you doing this at all,” she tells Star as they sit facing each other in the back of their chauffered car. Star agrees to abandon his appointment, admitting, “It looked a little prison-y in there.” With someone of Star’s visibility, safety at any public appearance is a legitimate concern. However, with so much focus on the details that make up the shop’s “sketchiness” — the barbed wire on the fence outside, the perceived rudeness of the shop employee, the black person in the parking lot wearing a bathrobe (their face unblurred), which Star jokingly compares to a Versace one he owns — class assumptions visibly play a part in Star’s decision to leave and not come back. In the end, with the challenge unfulfilled, the video amounts to little more than a suspenseful exercise in class tourism.
Not every worst reviewed vlogger is plagued by the same blind spots. In Ma’s nail salon video, she says that at salons staffed and owned by Vietnamese people she, being a quarter Vietnamese, often gets treated better than other customers at the same salons because she can understand the language. In another video featuring a worst reviewed hair salon, Ma notes that a salon owner, who has a heavy Vietnamese accent, reminds her of her grandmother. Nevertheless, her critiques of both businesses focus explicitly on their quality of service, both of which she found to be deserving of 1-star ratings.
The most open-minded of all the Yelp-exploring vloggers is Los Angeles–based YouTuber Mar, who jumped on the trend two months ago. In her first worst reviewed reviewed video, she visits a low-rated nail salon. “I love that nail salon,” she said in a phone interview. “I was so inspired. I was like, I need to find other places with really bad reviews that are secretly amazing.” Over the course of her now 16 worst reviewed videos, she has found multiple places good enough to return to, including that nail salon and a low-rated massage parlor that Yelp reviewers described as having rude service. Not all of her videos end in positive assessments, but she said more often than not she has been surprised by how good the worst-rated businesses she vlogs are. But it was a bad experience with a highly rated dog daycare last fall that showed her how unreliable Yelp reviews can be. “My dog was really mistreated and I tried to leave a bad Yelp review on that page and it kept getting deleted,” she says. “I think for businesses it really just depends on how much attention you just give to Yelp.” In Mar’s view, businesses that don’t carefully and intentionally tend to their Yelp reputations are at a disadvantage on the site. “Obviously, the internet had been around for a long time, but some people still don't realize everybody, before you go to a restaurant, you're looking at the pictures on Yelp,” she says. “Where I took my dog, clearly they gave Yelp a lot of attention because all their reviews were still good. But that doesn't mean it's true.”
After a two-month-long height, the worst reviewed trend is likely now nearing the end of its run. But unlike most YouTube trends, it provides a snapshot of both the gamified nature of our current consumerism and the contentiousness of one of the internet’s most trusted consumer review sites. Businesses rated 3 stars and below on Yelp are not merely places to think twice about giving your money. They also hold the thrill of an amusement park ride or, at their most classist, a horror film.
While many of these videos approach the customer experience as impersonal and treacherous, and small businesses as infinite and replaceable, there are those few that remind us that it can be more than a post on a webpage. At their simplest, however, what makes a worst reviewed video “good” is exactly what makes a Yelp review “good.” It’s not strictly about the service or business at hand. It’s all about the drama. ●
Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a freelance culture writer based in Missoula, Montana.