Monday, February 11, 2013

Ash, Dust, Darwin, Rome, St. Louis Ribs

Chowhound went wrong by becoming too big. It wasn't CNET/CBS' fault, it was mine. When an operation grows beyond the capacity for a personal touch to be felt across its entire range, and when kindred spirits are too thin on the ground to set tone and help acculturate newcomers, things quickly revert into less useful things. Founding principles are forgotten to the point where they sound like crazy talk.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" describes not just human lives, but also human pursuits. If you build something different and radical, odds are it will, over time, be subsumed back into status quo. The gravitational pull may be mild, but it's very patient, ceaselessly working to reabsorb change and progress (Darwin in schools, anyone?) and to denature whatever is new and different.

Have a look at this discussion on Chowhound's "Great Plains" message board. The participants have no idea who I am - which is fine, as the site's never been about me. But see how alien Chowhound's founding principles strike them.

It's not their fault. They're using the forum as their instincts tell them to, because no other example has been set. And, of course, aggressive, parochial know-it-alls are inevitable in online forums. But if the site's credo had been more evenly dispersed, chowhoundish assertions, though not shared by all, at least wouldn't seem so bafflingly new. And pushy folks, who repel newcomers and reject the unconventional, wouldn't be allowed to dominate. Even without me around, there'd still be cultural critical mass (as there still is on some of Chowhound's message boards).

It's the result of scaling. In the first installment of "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", the tale of Chowhound's sale to CNET, I linked to a goodbye page which we'd prepared to throw up to announce the site's demise. It reads, in part:

The solution would be for a plethora of small communities to flourish, with kindred spirits sharing notes via email, Yahoo Groups, etc.. Small groups can ferret out much treasure, and participants will learn to trust one another. And small groups minimize expenses, headaches and nuts, and offer less incentive for opportunists to subvert. Small private groups would be better still. Resist the urge to consolidate. Eschew ambition. Keep things small and managable and in the spirit you value.
In the second century, Rome conquered the furthest eastward region ever to be absorbed under its control. After the victory, the emperor stood for a moment, thinking. Realizing it was just too damned far from Rome to effectively administer, he granted them their independence and marched home. History judges the empire's decline to have begun at that moment. To some historians, he's the shmuck who let glory slip away. To me, he freaking nailed it.


Melindamele said...

I'm a CH'er from way way back. Way back long enough to know that that ain't no way to talk to Jim Leff. I am of course referring to the CH discussion on the Great Plains message board. You're a fine gentlemen and you handled that discussion with restraint. Me? I'm ready to go punch a certain BBQ know-it-all in St. Louis. And, yes, the new CH has a lot of offputting snark and rudeness.

Jim Leff said...

Ack! No!!!! :)

The problem wasn't that they were talking fresh to an expert.

The problem is that they were dismissing an intriguing lead, without even trying the food. They were defending their assumptions rather than embracing the possibility of discovery.

It's clear from their attitude that (god, the mindset is so alien to me I can hardly type this) they feel annoyed and challenged by the notion that places outside their attention might be any good. And they swat away at such assertion, not because the tip's bad, but just because anything off their radar must inherently be worthless.

Now, if they tried the place, and it was lame (I don't suspect it is, but I'm not always right), then, by all means, talk fresh to Jim Leff!!! Blast away!!


Melindamele said...

I know that's what you were expressing and I know you weren't looking for sympathy, etc. It just got my ire up.

And, it's all the tips for out-of-way, little-known gems that got me hooked on CH in the first place. I guess not everyone is open to that. They're missing out.

Jim Leff said...

Exactly! If that's not what you're looking for, what are you doing on Chowhound?

That's the way non-hounds speak about food. It's death battle matches between usual suspects. Mario Batali or Jean Georges? You stake out your "side" and go into battle.

One hallmark of this sort of diner is the tendency to insist they can't find a given dish or cuisine in some area, or that "there's no good food" in some nabe, or insist that a place serves the best X.......all without putting in any actual legwork to examine unsung options. Their option pool is extremely slim, coming to them via conventional wisdom (which is bought by publicists), food writers (often lazy and deeply bought into publicist-driven conventional wisdom), and Zagat (which is rigged). But they feel staunchly certain that if anything else good was out there, they'd somehow magically "know about it".

That blithe certainty turns tautological when they're offered tips for places off their radar and deflect them because they've "never heard of them."

Well, yeah, you can assure your all-knowingness if you dismiss 98% of edibility from consideration. But why would you want to? I put my stomach ahead of my ego!

PSU John said...

It seems to me that any online community has a natural size limit. Under that limit it can act as a community - people get to know each other and together build a consensus in how they behave in that community and what they value. Beyond that size limit you get bullies or celebrities and everyone else feels ignored.

With a real community based site you know people and they know you and so you watch what you say because it will affect your reputation. When a site is too large for that people act in impolite ways because they're anonymous.

I had toyed with an idea of having user content sites automatically segregate their population into subgroups that would be under the magic size limit in such a way that people in one group of the population wouldn't regularly interact with people in another group. Mandate a series of small groups in other words. I was never able to come up with a scheme that I thought highly enough of to try to implement it.

Jim Leff said...

PSU John,

I agree with all the dynamics you pointed out. I just disagree that they increase with scale, and scale alone. Every negative dynamic you cite was present in Chowhound when it had 100 users, 1000 users, and 10K users, and 100K, and 1M. This is just how online communities work. Or any other communities. Or any other grouping of humans. These are the problems human beings have with each other, and there've been endless efforts through history to mitigate them. None have worked. There's no magic formula.

The real problem with scale isn't a disproportionate increase in these problems. It's with a disproportionate increase in frustration with those problems. It's my Green M&M theory: if you absolutely hate green M&Ms, you'll be increasingly horrified by larger and larger bowls of M&Ms, simply because there will be more green ones....even though the proportion remains the the same.

This is why rural people think city people are heartless and rude. When they visit, say, Manhattan, in the course of a day they'll pass 10,000 people. Two randomly yell crazily at them from the street, one will fail to hold a door, three will cut them off while driving, one will shove them to get by, and, right there, that's more assholery than they'd see in an entire year back home. Of course, they fail to register the hordes of quietly good people (back to Mr. Rogers...."Look for the helpers!"). The green M&M's stick out disproportionately.

So, really, I think you're barking up the wrong tree. There is no magic group size that results in good human behavior. Assholery is fractal. Someone in your baseball stadium is one. Someone in your office building is one. Someone in your family is one. And someone in your marriage is very likely one! :)

The advantage of keeping things (including online forums) small is that it allows whoever's making things good to more consistently and evenly make things good. Simple as that!

Blog Archive