Yelp is Missing the Point

Last week, Talia Jane took the internet by storm when she published an open letter to YELP CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, taking the company to task for the low wages they pay their entry level employees. Let me start by saying that her letter was unprofessional, sarcastic, and juvenile. It was also stupidly brave, incisive, and heartbreaking. Talia was fired mere hours after posting her story and response across the web has been swift and scathing on both sides. While many have voiced support for Talia and other low wage earners- others have branded her “stupid,” “a whiner,” and even a “liar.” These shortsighted and absurd attacks are to be expected. In the internet age, there is no end to the abuse heaped on those who dare to speak their minds. What was unexpected to me was the absurd and tone deaf response from Yelp and its CEO Mr. Stoppelman. It was a response that seemed to miss the whole point.

Talia’s story was one that is tragically familiar to many people across the United States. As an entry level employee, Yelp paid her around $12 an hour, far lower than a living wage in San Francisco (or indeed many other major cities.) After taxes, rent, and necessities such as transportation-she had not even enough left at the end of the week to buy groceries. A very small part of Talia’s story focused on San Francisco- and the truly absurd cost of living there. The real thrust of her narrative was about a multi-billion dollar company that pays so little that their employees can barely afford to eat- let alone enjoy any sort of “real life.” Yelp, however, chose to focus only on one aspect of her story in its response- the high cost of living in San Francisco.

While there may be serious issues to address in terms of San Francisco’s high cost of living- to frame the story in this way seems to me to be a massive cop-out by Yelp. Certainly the company has taken this line in direct response to its CEO- who commented on Twitter the day after this story broke and immediately attempted to shift the focus of Talia’s narrative to one about the high cost of urban living. Mr. Stoppelman knows this problem is not limited to San Francisco. He also knows the city was not the villain in Talia’s letter.

It is an easy way out for Mr. Stoppelman to say it’s the fault of the city. But the absurdity of this message should not be lost on anyone. Mr. Stoppelman is essentially saying that one group of capitalists should be held in check (real estate developers/landlords) while his company and others should be able to do and pay whatever they want. The reason it costs so much to live in San Francisco, and most other major cities, is that the people setting the prices of rent are EXACTLY like Mr. Stoppelman and his company YELP. They are not content to simply make a shitload of money — they want to make a REAL FUCKING SHITLOAD of money. Even if this means people like Talia and so many others live on the brink of homelessness. I mean, it’s her own fault for being so stupid that she has to take an entry level job, right? Let’s not kid ourselves. This is the message of nearly every cruel internet comment on Talia’s story- including Mr. Stoppelman’s response. If you want to make more money, just work harder. Just get a better education. Just get a small loan of one million dollars from your father, like Donald Trump, and start your own business. Sure, and while you’re at it, learn to fly. Anything’s possible.

To a certain extent, it is unfair to villainize Mr. Stoppelman. The problem with entry level wages is by no means limited to Yelp. Surely they are not even close to the worst offenders. But the fact that he is not alone in his blind greed and lack of humanity is does not excuse him for his cold and insensitive response to Talia’s situation. It is hard to imagine that a good human being in Mr. Stoppelman’s position- one with empathy, humanity, and love- could read Talia’s letter and not feel a wave of shame, guilt, and regret at their own largess while those that work to provide it for them suffer. Maybe Mr. Stoppelman did feel these things, but nothing he has done publicly since Talia’s letter has led me to believe that. In his Twitter response, he says that he has been active trying to make San Francisco a more livable city for low wage earners. He follows that almost immediately by saying that he is moving operations to Arizona where the cost of living is lower, and the low wages he pays his employees will go further. You sure do know how to make a city a better place Mr. Stoppelman. Yeah, you’re one of the good guys. Maybe I’m crazy, but it seems to me the best thing you could do for the people of San Francisco is easy. Just pay them more.

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