Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chowhound's Coup de Grace

Lots of links below, all well worth clicking, fwiw.

Well, this is supremely unsurprising. The bean counters and brainy corporate Subway-scarfing geniuses currently running Chowhound have decided on a major change of course. Can't say I didn't see it coming.

As I explained in my series of postings recounting the growth and sale of Chowhound, what made Chowhound good was a counterintuitive move: filtering. Rather than aim for the largest set of eyeballs, we did everything possible to discourage the overwhelming majority of visitors from using the site. The result was an incredibly distilled and valuable group of users whose info was amazingly savvy and reliable. This, in turn, drew hordes of onlookers, who might not be food crazies, but who couldn't resist staying apprised re: the latest soft shell crab discoveries by people whose entire waking lives centers around such quests. The axiom "less is more" has never been more aptly proven.

Every gardener knows that limitation is key. It's easy to cultivate an overgrown thatch of weeds and scrub, but it takes a great deal of work to cultivate a really beautiful garden, and that work is almost entirely subtractive. The more meticulously you stave off bad stuff, the more good stuff happens.

In the case of Chowhound, "bad stuff" means postings which dilute or contaminate the savvy and reliability of the data. Self-promoters and shills contaminate, and the ditzy people who don't mind contamination dilute. This is a vicious circle. As I explained in part 8 of the aforementioned series:
Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed. Chowhound required sensitive management by people with a deep affinity for subtle cultural issues of tone and values, and those factors couldn't be faked, because our audience's most inherent quality was its ability to sniff inauthenticity.
Over the years, the moderators have done yeoman's work staving off contamination. But other factors have created dilution, leaving Chowhound a shadow of its former self. This latest decision - to embrace what was once heroically fended off - will be the coup de grace. And c'est la vie. I never expected the thing to run for 10 years, much less 17. How many other circa 1997 web sites remain, plying more or less the same mission?

As you can imagine, veterans have been messaging me like crazy all afternoon. Many will leave the site, which, alas, will only accelerate the decline. The people who make things good are much more skittish than the people who make things bad; that's why entropy and dilution usually win in the long run. In the human realm - even more than in the horticultural realm - flowers perish voluntarily at the sight of weeds (often even upon first glimpse).

My first thought is the same one that's nagged at me over the course of Chowhound's decline: perhaps I should open up a smaller, more soulful forum. My usual second thought is to consider something more pleasant, like grinding out lit cigarettes in my eye.

But, you know, none of the things that made Chowhound's management a horror (staving off contamination, dealing with jerks and psychopaths, coping with jury-rigged software, and flailing to pay bills) are unavoidable.

It strikes me that a private forum populated by a couple hundred serious hounds would avoid all those pitfalls. Heck, it could be a public forum, just so long as onlookers were read-only. I loved Chowhound when it had a couple hundred users. Those were the good days. If we could keep it limited, moderation wouldn't be an issue, dilution wouldn't be a peril, and there'd be no bills to pay. If I could think of a nice easy pre-existing platform to launch it on (Google or Facebook groups wouldn't cut it), I might not even mind spearheading it.

One of our best and most veteran hounds just told me that he no longer uses the site much. His chowhoundish friends simply text each other when they discover good places. That's obviously not a viable way to aggregate and archive tips. In a sense, it's like 1997 all over again, with chowhounds alienated from mainstream food coverage and resorting to tenuous and inadequate word-of-mouth networks. They could use a home.


rajeev joshi said...

"They could use a home"

if you build it,they will come. (vbg)

Robert Lauriston said...

I don't think there's any reason to severely restrict membership, all that's required is screening.

I guess it's time for me to take my site development project off the back burner.

This seems like the right software:

I deleted some posts because I was showing up as "Unknown" and to fix typos. Arrgh.

Jim Leff said...

Do it!

I think lots of small sites - either limited or screened or simply enjoying "security via obscurity" is the way to go.

I was guilty of hubris, as many pioneers are. It was heady making a big change and having a lot of people join in. Smaller is better. Don't be ambitious, be useful!

Just before we were bought by CNET, I was on the verge of closing the site, and me and Bob designed this "goodbye" page, where I made that same point (sort of foreseeing where this would all go):

Jim Leff said...

...also, if you do do it, I'd suggest you view other sites as colleagues and fellow travelers rather than as competitors.

I encouraged lots of people to start food sites, and was happy some of them did so, going on to serve people who our particular sort of site didn't suit.

They all thought they were competing with me, but I was just digging on the world having lots of places to discuss this stuff.

Robert Lauriston said...

My view is that the people who write the content own the copyrights on the individual posts and should get a share of any profits. I think modern tools should make that fairly easy.

The Discourse founder said a lot of the same things you did:

Jim Leff said...

Sounds great. There are a lot of reasons (large and small) why I don't think it's viable. But I'd love to see you make it work!

Blog Archive