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Users are doling out justice on a Chinese food delivery app

Is it just a fun game while you wait for your lunch to arrive—or a grassroots experiment in democracy?

December 4, 2023
a jury of emojis decides on a delivery service person in a Meituan outfit
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Envato

There are no jury trials in Chinese courts—but if you think the noodles you just got delivered were too hot, a jury of your peers will quickly determine guilt in the app where you ordered it. 

Jury trials, in fact, are plentiful on Chinese apps—especially Meituan, the country’s most popular food delivery service, where millions of users have volunteered to arbitrate complaints between customers and restaurants. Offering it as a way for restaurants to appeal bad reviews they believe are unreasonable, Meituan crowdsources help from users by showing them the review, details of the order, and supplementary notes from the restaurant. Then users can vote on whether to take down the review from the restaurant’s public page.

The vast majority of cases are trivial: the steamed rice was too firm, there were not enough utensils, the portion was too small. And then there’s the perennial complaint: the food is always too spicy or not spicy enough. 

For example, a customer left a one-star review for one restaurant, saying that the “medium-spicy river snail rice noodle” ended up being not spicy at all. Yet the order detail showed that the user actually asked for the noodles to be “not spicy.” Bang: 91% of the jury voted that the customer was the guilty party. The review would be removed.

Lately, judging who’s in the wrong in these situations has become a favorite pastime for young Chinese users, who are increasingly sharing particularly ridiculous cases on social media. It’s not all that different from laughing at a ridiculous “Am I the Asshole” post on Reddit and contributing your two cents, except it has been institutionalized by a major tech company as a content moderation mechanism.

While a few other Chinese apps have similar features, Meituan’s is arguably the most popular at the moment. Meituan first introduced this feature in 2020 and called it “Kangaroo Juries,” since the app’s mascot is a yellow kangaroo. But perhaps because that sounded too close to the pejorative term “kangaroo court,” the feature has since been renamed “Little Mei’s Juries.” 

Today, more than 6 million users have participated in “jury duty,” a Meituan spokesperson tells MIT Technology Review, the majority of them college students. (That may sound like a lot of people, but the app’s annual active user base is 677 million people.) Some minor rules have changed since the feature launched, but the essence remains the same: the juries help the platform sift through thousands of petty fights every day and uphold meal-related justice.

The fun of passing judgment

Even though it has existed for a few years, many people have only recently become aware of Meituan’s public jury feature. It’s now frequently a viral topic on social media—and a source of joy for those nosy enough to weigh in on other people’s business.

Yu Mingyao, a college student living in Dalian, first started judging these cases last winter and would occasionally jump into a jury when she was using the app to order food. But she says she didn’t think the feature was really that popular until mid-November, when she screenshotted a few ridiculous cases she had judged, including the spicy rice noodle saga. In another case she posted about, the user gave a restaurant three stars out of five because of a breakup experienced after eating there. The restaurant complained that it wasn’t to blame. 

She posted these on Xiaohongshu, a Chinese social media app, and asked her dozens of followers: “Does anyone have anything funnier to share?”

To her surprise, the post attracted much more attention than she’s ever received. She soon got more than 2,000 comments, many of which were other screenshots of particularly bewildering complaints. People have kept replying to her, and she’s now at the point where she’s getting tired of reading Meituan reviews.

“At least 90% of the [jurors] are doing it for the fun,” Yu says. “If the complaints by the restaurants and the customers were boring, I don’t think there would be many participants.” 

Meituan has clearly designed the feature to require only a light commitment from individual jurors. There are few qualifications needed other than having a verified, active account and passing a “test” that includes judging five simulated complaints. After that, each juror gets a maximum of three cases every 12 hours—meaning it’s more a casual game to keep them in the app than any serious form of crowdsourced platform management. They also don’t get any compensation for their participation, just the mental satisfaction. 

But this doesn’t mean some jurors don’t take their duty very seriously. In one case that was posted on social media, a bubble tea vendor argued that contrary to the complaint, it did place a straw in the delivery package. But some jurors realized that the time stamp in the security camera footage uploaded by the merchant didn’t match the time of the delivery. The restaurant had seemingly fabricated evidence, and in the end, 51% of the jurors sided with the customer.

Meituan encourages the activity of these more serious jurors. In an October announcement, the app said it would reward 20 “quality jury comments” with a gift bag of Meituan merchandise every month. To explain who qualifies, the app offered an example of a juror not just casting a vote, but going above and beyond by consulting catering professionals on pricing standards. 

Weeding out fake or unfair feedback

The public jury function can improve efficiency in resolving disputes and bring more transparency to the platform’s decision-making process, says Angela Zhang, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, who has done extensive research on what she calls “crowd-judging” features. “Since these decisions are crowdsourced, they align more closely with community norms, helping platforms better understand and integrate these standards,” Zhang says.

Most of the cases up for trial are initiated by the merchants, according to reposted screenshots and Yu’s personal experience. Though the Meituan spokesperson says a user can open a case in some specific situations, for example if they have an issue after they’ve purchased one of the app’s coupons. “I think the main target of this feature is to reduce the number of malicious [customer] reviews,” Yu says. 

The juries may even help uncover reviews that are fraudulent. Food delivery vendors, like any online service, rely heavily on reviews to attract potential customers, which has inspired a black market in both fake five-star reviews for themselves and one-star complaints for competitors.

Chen, a fast-food restaurant owner in Fujian province who has operated a store for more than a year, says that it’s important to retain 4.7 stars out of 5.0. “If it’s lower than [that], you don’t get any traffic, and you can’t make any money,” Chen says. (She asked to be identified by only her last name in order to speak more freely.)

But in practice, it’s not that easy for the merchants to utilize the public jury feature. Chen has had a lot of frustrating experiences with bad reviews, and she says Meituan requires multiple rounds of appeals and attempts to dial up a customer representative to actually open a jury trial. 

In August, Chen received a review that claimed the delivery was missing one portion of rice, and she responded that the rice was merely buried under other food. After failing several times to get the platform to remove this review, she finally got the case to a jury. Twenty-two jurors voted for her, and nine voted for the customer.

“I just have one humble request: whenever a vendor provides enough supporting evidence, a trial by Little Mei’s Juries can be opened,” she says.

A wave of democratic experiments 

Meituan is not the only Chinese consumer tech company that has invited users to weigh in on conflicts. Idle Fish, a secondhand marketplace operated by Alibaba, has a similar “court” system where any dispute between buyers and sellers can be decided by a panel made up of 17 volunteer jurors. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, also allows users to become jurors and help the platform screen out content that violates its rules. 

Like Reddit’s downvote system or X’s community notes, these features let the users participate in enforcing platform policies. But at the same time, some users complain that these features are designed to offload the responsibilities of the platform. 

There have been similar user-governance experiments in the past, but they didn’t last long. WeChat once had a system in which volunteers could decide whether articles had been plagiarized, and Weibo also recruited volunteer content moderators who could suspend other users. 

“Operating a crowd-judging platform isn’t free,” Zhang says. In particular, it takes human resources to maintain the platform. And if it doesn’t attract enough user participation, the system won’t be efficient. Still, Zhang believes that having such a system in place is good for the users and the platform: “Essentially, platforms are delegating some of their authority to their users, creating a more collaborative and democratic governance structure.”

In some cases, the activity of these juries can have pretty serious consequences. The example with the largest scale and highest stakes was probably Xianghubao, a discontinued online mutual-aid product from Alibaba that tried to challenge commercial health insurance in China. 

The idea was that millions of users would each pitch in a few bucks so that when one of them got sick, the pool of money would be used to pay their medical bills. But first, to decide whether a medical bill qualified for payment, Xianghubao asked everyone to study the case details and cast a vote. In 2019, the first-ever case was judged by over 250,000 users. The patient was a man in his 40s who fell down a hole, broke his legs, and lost consciousness. The majority eventually decided, on the basis of his previous health history, to deny paying him 100,000 RMB (about $14,000). The service shut down in 2022.

Meituan has chosen a more entertaining approach with its public jury feature. It certainly doesn’t deal with life-or-death situations like Xianghubao, and by centering the arguments between customers and merchants, it carefully avoids the more controversial problems of the food delivery business—namely, the rights of delivery workers. (“A delivery worker can become a juror as a Meituan user. They can also initiate a trial by Little Mei’s Juries as a consumer,” says the Meituan spokesperson.) 

Meituan’s public jury is ultimately more of a light-hearted activity for users who have placed an order and are waiting for it to arrive. Many users who talk about their experiences on social media compare it to a fun and addictive game. In five seconds, they can laugh at some ridiculous user complaints or examples of a delivery that went wrong. Plus, who doesn’t like to feel that you’re doing the right thing and acting in the name of justice?

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