Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Anti-Hounds

I haven't sweated Chowhound's dilution over the years. I never expected the site to last anywhere near this long (we're coming up on twenty years!), so its mere survival strikes me as pretty freakin' dayenu.

But when I see clots of site regulars indignantly and mindlessly railing about how there's nothing good to eat in some locale, when they haven't invested the least effort into sniffing out off-radar treasure - or even considered doing so! - it drives me crazy. How did it become comfortable (much less fashionable) to be diametrically anti-Chowhound on

I just interrupted some site "veterans" moaning about White Plains, NY (one of the best - and broadest - little food towns anywhere) by offering a litany of superabundant treasure they've missed. It won't go well, of course. They'll try one or two places, order cluelessly, eat naively (the Sichuan food's too oily/spicy!"), and happily resume their prejudices and false assumptions. Or perhaps not even that (consider how this played out). The only outcome beyond imagining would be for these guys to go out and jubilantly bask in all these great places. If that was their shtick, they would never have gotten to this point in the first place!

I've been making this point forever: the stuff that's pushed at you is the product of devoted pushers, not devoted creators. The best course is to resist the misdirection and proactively hunt for your own treasure; suss out the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who do earnest, loving, inspiring work. They're hidden, and uncovering them is your task, not anyone else's. If the only options on your plate are the shiny, obvious, talked-about and passively-received options, you will miss the greatness - and, just as sadly, you'll miss the chance to support the greatness, which is often plied from a precarious foothold. Cream does not often rise!

But, alas, once you've fallen in love with your prejudices and false assumptions, truth feels like poison. People would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.


sku said...

Interesting post. I hadn't seen the Kansas City thread before.

Do you think this is, in part, about how the way people use the internet has changed?

When CH started, the internet was new and the novelty was communication. Suddenly, people with similar interests who never would have met before could communicate at the touch of a button. As it's developed though, people have become used to having all of the world's information at their fingertips and I think it's made people lazy and demanding. Instead of encouraging experimentation, it's made people want to know what's "best" with one search.

As a whiskey blogger, I see this same phenomenon in spirits. Ten or fifteen years ago, the whiskey sites were all about this great bottle I just found. Now, it's people posting pictures and asking if this bottle is any good. "Taste it for God's sake!" I shout at the screen, but before I finish the sentence, there is another post of another bottle asking if it's good.

It's understandable given how we use the net for other things. If I want to find a plumber, I try to quickly find the best rated place in my area, but it seems that many people now treat matters of taste the same way we would look for a plumber, as if there should be an easy answer through Google, and only one right answer at that.

Jim Leff said...

No. People have always been that way. And there've also always been conscientious objectors - people avid about drilling down to good stuff, shaking off misdirection, and refusing to walk the well-trodden path in a semi-hypnotized state. It's true for food, for whiskey, for plumbers....for anything.

Problem is that such people are hard to gather. It's like herding cats.

It's true that the early Internet filtered things a bit, given that this type of person tends to be an early adapter. But I also did lots of things (subtle and obvious) to attract, filter, and captivate them. I've discussed this elsewhere on this Slog, particularly in the long series of posts re: Chowhound's sale:

But, no, people haven't changed. Just a greater proportion of zombies (hypnotized, rigid, unimaginative, unresourceful consumers) have come online as the Internet became mainstream, and flooded into Chowhound as its corporate overlords first neglected it and now choose a course of intentional dilution.

Everybody eats, so everybody's got an opinion on food. Zagat and Yelp made windfalls by leveraging that truth. Chowhound's aim was much more selective. I didn't expect its usership to remain distilled, but I never imagined it'd become a place where utterly antithetical types would feel so damned comfortable there. That's what shocks me....their comfort. The guys on this thread (and on the KC thread) are just so, so comfortable.

One reason is that they're unchallenged. I'm barging in, tilting at windmills in an effort to push them off their dull complacency, but the average user just clucks her/his tongue and goes away. Communities are nearly always a race to the bottom, given the natural propensity to cede to idiots.

Further reading on that last point:

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