Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Chowhound Redesign (and the urge to stomp away in a pique)

Chowhound's completed a ghastly convoluted redesign, making the site so crazily flexible that no one could possibly make use of it.

For years now, I've heard complaints of CBS's neglect of the property, and have frequently reminded people that neglect is not necessarily a bad thing (see "Leff's Four Scenarios of Authority" here). Now we're seeing the proof - i.e. what happens when authorities get their hands all up in it. It's not pretty.

So I just got an email from a longtime user:
Hi Jim,

The new chowhound site design is awful, so I'm helping migrate [my local user community] to a Facebook group. I recognize Facebook Groups might not be the perfect platform choice, but I figured the reach provided might enable the communities to get back to critical mass. Perhaps you can suggest others setup similar local groups (that can be loosely strung together)? Would be sad to see such a great global community die as a result of this redesign!
I'll offer my reply publicly, in case it's of use to others.


I'd urge you to carefully weigh, clarify, and separate issues in your mind.

It would, as you suspect, be super uncomfortable using Facebook for this. It will be particularly hard to access/search previous discussion, and, as you know, previous discussion's where the gold is.

So you can scout alternatives, e.g. Google Groups and other forum communities, or the installation of forum software on your own server, etc.. Any solution will involve huge compromises; none will feel "right". But, after much consideration, you may settle on something, at which point you may need to recruit a techie to set it all up, plus you'll need to get word out to participants.

Then you'll need to moderate the discussion, and that's a nightmare (for an idea of what's involved there, see my tale of the sale of Chowhound, where I reveal what goes on behind the curtain). Even if you make it private and keep out the kooks, it will be no surprise to any student of human nature that groups of people resist management, so bad feeling is inevitable. Unmoderated discussion, even in a closed group, quickly devolves to useless chat, off-topic sprawl, and fighting.

I'm leaving out a couple dozen other hurdles, but understand that, no matter what, you'll kill yourself to maintain a community amid an uncomfortable, inadequate, ill-fitting software environment.

Or… can use CBS's current uncomfortable, inadequate, ill-fitting software environment, with no time/work/recruitment/tech/moderation overhead whatsoever.

I feel your pain. I understand the impulse to angrily walk away. But consider what you're walking into. No matter what, you'll have to find clever workarounds to make wrong software work, but, hey, Chowhounds are good at workarounds! Finding workaround to the current obstacles would be eminently saner than leaving in a huff and finding yourself out of the frying pan and into a fire. OTOH, I wish you godspeed (and vast deliciousness) either way!


See also the commentary, below, as well as this follow-up posting.


Jonas said...

Thanks Jim :)

If other hounds would like to setup a similar group for their local community (see:, please get in touch and I'll help you get it online:

Jim Leff said...

Hmm, it looks like you either disagreed with my response, or didn't read closely enough to see what my response actually was. Either way, good luck!

Jonas said...

Our view is that the latest CH redesign is totally unworkable, so 'eating it' wasn't going to work, core users were already departing, so I figured taking a shot at building a bridge for the community was worth a shot.

I already moderate a community (for Canadian Startups) that is currently running on Facebook Groups so I'm familiar with the tradeoffs of various forum options.

FB Groups do offer a search function (though the feature isn't highlighted), though it will be limited to the specific locale (i.e. not global across communities) and obviously not cover the CH archive. On the brightside chowfinds might have much broader reach in the FB newsfeed!

Will be interesting to see how this shakes out and if the community rallies :)

Jim Leff said...

I think, in the highest-level view, this site redesign, silly though it is (I just called it a miasma of inexplicable flexibility on site talk, at ), is still way, way, way better than a FB group. Maybe 20 more "way"s, in fact. I think it's like sleeping in your car because you dislike your apartment's new furniture. It's satisfying as a dramatic gesture, but at some point you'll realize it wasn't quite rational.

And the community will not "rally" if users give in to their pique and walk away. Don't forget....the community is us (we're not watching TV, we're the show). What we choose is what happens. There's no separation. Best way I can explain it is this quick story:

My parents were perpetually indignant about how, as they kept moving further eastward on Long Island, the assholes from Brooklyn kept following them and ruining the rural landscape. They never realized that we, ourselves, were the Brooklyn assholes who kept moving eastward and ruining things!

Robert Lauriston said...

Facebook doesn't seem an appropriate platform to me. I'm setting up a Discourse server on (could move to a better domain if I can find one). Should be live in a day or two. I can set up regional sections for anyone who wants one.

Jim Leff said...

Good luck! But don't say I didn't tell you so!

Robert Lauriston said...

As far as "feeling right," I never found any of the previous incarnations of Chowhound that great. The original was too slow, CNET solved that but was worse in many ways. was, except for the spam, better than the CNET Chowhound.

I'm not leaving in a pique, I just see the elimination of regional boards as a fundamental problem that can't be addressed by tags or tweaks.

Jim Leff said...

It's very much like restaurants. It's easy for someone sitting in a comfy chair in the front of the house to point out problems, but actually running a kitchen is a whole other thing.

You are about to find out the reality of what's involved in this sort of thing (if you're lucky and people do come....not saying they won't,just pointing out it's not a given). There are more "fundamental" problems than you realize. In the ultimate big picture view, finding workarounds for this particular bad set-up is by far the best/easiest/most efficient course of action.

But this is one of those things you need to discover for yourself. I certainly did, which leaves me in a good position to speak to this.

Robert Lauriston said...

I've worked as a forum moderator and I know a lot about the software.

Today's off-the-shelf discussion software is superior in many ways to the patch on a kludge on a reinvented wheel that CBS is using.

Jim Leff said...

It's not a matter of "superior" or "inferior". it's a matter of suitability to the task, and a dining tip forum (where the greatest value is in the "back-catalog" so to speak of previous discussion) has unique needs which no software package - stock or custom - is equipped to provide for.

Whatever route you choose, you'll ultimately be making do and working around while squatting in something unsuitable. If you don't see it now, you will.

I'm not discouraging you. Do as you please, by all means. I'm just warning you about where you'll wind up, drawing upon my experience (a bit more extensive than having worked as a forum moderator).

Robert Lauriston said...

Chowhound was the third regional food board I was active on, so moving on for a fourth time is no big deal. The archives are still there to be copied and pasted when useful.

Jim Leff said...

Only so long as traffic makes it economically viable for CBS to continue hosting it.

Steve said...

You are very right about this Jim. Although they botched the redesign, the only significant differences I've found (after some back and forth) are the need for more scrolling and the search is not as good as before. Both of these can and need to be improved through active participation rather than walking away in a huff.

Remember, issues like page loading and lack of search did not stop people form falling in love with Chowhound in the first place. Working together to improve these things is the mature response.

Robert Lauriston said...

The significant difference is that all of the old regional boards have been killed. Their threads have been moved to topical boards, including old ones such as Wine, Cheese, and Not About Food, and new ones such as, most notably, Restaurants & Bars. The original board is added to the thread as a location tag. It looks like the location tags have also been added to threads from other boards by the auto-tagging algorithm.

I can see how someone who doesn't understand the change would imagine that viewing a former board's tags is the same as viewing a board, but I see it as undermining the structure that in some regions encouraged and reinforced the formation of communities of heavy users.

sooverit said...

More pedantic blah blah. You sold out long ago, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater....tsk tsk.

Jonas said...

The community is the framework (i.e. not the forum software).

Steve said...

Robert Lauriston, I post mostly to Washington DC & Baltimore, and I can still do that. I also post regularly to France, China, Japan, and I continue to browse LA, Orange County and many other boards. When I want to explore a board that I have not listed as a favorite, I "Browse All Locations", and choose Los Angeles, for example, and I am taken to the Los Angeles Board with a heading that reads "Los Angeles". If i want to post a reply, I don't do anything different than before. if I want to start a new thread, I have to be on that board (same as before) and the only thing different is that they make you choose a purely topical (as opposed to location) tag. The new thread is automatically started on the same board as before the redesign. Aside from semantics, I do not see the difference except for the one topical tag you have to add.

What I do see is that the redesign is not intuitive and they make you go through a couple of more hoops. But the community is still there (unless they leave in a huff), the headings are still there, and the info is gathered together in the same way.

Jim Leff said...

Jonas, thanks for the explanation on that. Really appreciate it.

Shel - quite right. Just new stuff to workaround. And there's always need for workaround. But, naturally, new stuff to need to workaround is always more peevishly perceived than the old stuff, cuz the old stuff's been solved and the new stuf feels like someone's spitefully throwing obstacles at you. Every change, every makeover, every transfer (including the ones Jonas and Robert intend) brings that result. I've been managing online communities since 1988 and I never, ever, seen a community go "Ahhhhh!" with delight after a major makeover.. Not even once.

Anonymous said...

Despite my two sentence post on the CH Site Talk forum (or whatever they call it now), I am not leaving Chowhound in a huff. I am just quietly walking away. With this latest configuration it's just too much work for what I get out of it (and what I can contribute). CH has Jumped the Shark. And we all know what is the future of programs that JtS.

Jim Leff said...

Chowhound was never me, and was never CNET, and was never CBS. Those are just the janitors and administrators. Chowhound's a community. Saying Chowhound jumped the shark amid this makeover is like saying your favorite TV series jumped the shark 'cuz your cable company's new remote control has poorly-arranged buttons. Makes no sense.

I do know the future. You'll be back. Or else other hounds will replace you. The conversation will continue, as it always has, including in the "good old days" when every user was fed 100mb board indexes every third click, all over dial-up connections.

Jonas said...

Jim - I wasn't trying to be snarky. Genuinely grateful for your creation and stewardship of Chowhound. Still hoping you can help the community migrate (rather than dissipate) - if you reach the conclusion the community is more important than the domain name.

Shel - My sense is that you are in the deep minority, CBS seriously botched the update and the core CH community is hemorrhaging as a result (i.e. this is more than inevitable grumbling about a new design).

Robert - Happy to collaborate. While I don't think a splinter web forum alone would work, it would be cool to mirror a collection of Facebook Groups on the public internet - there are a number of ways to do that (including with Discourse) if you'd like to explore further please get in touch.

Jim Leff said...

But Jonas, you said yourself: that the community is the framework, not the forum software. The only thing that's changed is the forum software (which I dislike as much as any of you, and I'm guessing Shel does as well). The community's already here. And has benefit of a great team of moderators, terrabytes of archived prior knowledge, someone paying the bills, and a zillion fine points you won't think of until you try to do it on your own. If it's about the community, then work within the community! A Facebook group is only going to splinter things. And you'll find the tech limitations way more constricting than even this current CBS software.

I'm not trying to be preservationist. I just have a wider perspective than you, and am trying to save you time and pain.

Robert Lauriston said...

Actually I think Chowhound moderation has gone downhill. They allow trolls so long as they're not overtly hostile.

My Discourse-based site is live, send email if you're interested.

Robert Lauriston said...

"... if I want to start a new thread, I have to be on that board (same as before) and the only thing different is that they make you choose a purely topical (as opposed to location) tag. The new thread is automatically started on the same board as before the redesign."

That's a mischaracterization of the new model.

If you're viewing threads by location tag and you click New Post (i.e. new thread), you get a page where you have to enter a name and "character(s)" (i.e. the opening post) and select a "community" (i.e. board). The location tag you were browsing is automatically added, but that's a tag. The board is Restaurants & Bars, Markets & Stores, or whatever.

"Restaurants & Bars" should be the tag and the location should be the community. Reversing them is just fundamentally wrong.

Display Name said...

Wow they just banned Linda Whit. She kept the What's For Dinner thread vibrant. I've enjoyed her posts for years even though I doubt I will be in Boston anytime soon.
Guess I will have to join the What's For Dinner FB just to read her.

Steve said...

Jonas- I don't like the redesign, and I have said so. the search function is not good. Hopefully, that can be rectified. But I remember when there was no decent search at all.

Robert Lauriston - it's semantics. I still get all the same posts ordered in the same way. My new post automatically gets added to the DC Board, er, Community, er Tag. Whatev. There is only one additional thing I have to do. At first I did not understand it, it is poorly set up, and is not intuitive, but now that I understand, it is 98% as easy as it was before. I know because I have started a few new threads. Like they sang in Superman the Musical, Everything is Easy When You Know How.

As far as the other stuff is concerned, it's mostly little, PITA stuff. I'd prefer if the valuable contributors stayed and got them to rectify.

What really makes no sense are the folks in total anguish about losing this really important community and part of their existence, when there really is nothing chasing them away. I will say the perception of the roll out is worse than the actual changes, and I am positive that Chowhound can make improvements, Hardly worth all the anguish..... but I am not into the drama in which many are clearly investing.

Jim Leff said...

What really makes no sense are the folks in total anguish about losing this really important community and part of their existence, when there really is nothing chasing them away.

Exactly. Even as one of them even insists it's about people, not software.

I've seen the same happen after every make-over, upgrade, and re-do of every online forum I've ever run or participated in. Even when the changes are smart, reason has no part of the response. Freaking out and acting irrationally (e.g. the notion that a FB group would provide a better environment) is what humans do when their communities are radically upended.

It's easiest to understand by visualizing reaction if real-world communities were radically and unilaterally changed overnight. Even if you woke up to discover that the water faucets pour champagne, there'd be extreme angst. It's deep. It's limbic.

Obviously, this ain't just software. And companies like CBS Interactive should understand that change (even positive change) must be gentle if you don't want to outrage the citizenry. And, 20 years into Internet culture, community members should have learned that they're ALWAYS forced into workarounds. The old workarounds feel comfortable, and the new problems will spur new workarounds that will come to feel equally comfortable. We're all squatters; always were, always will be.

But, no. It's the ancient dynamic of ham-handed administrators and anguished users. They can't even hear each other.

Robert Lauriston said...

Board (renamed community) vs. tag isn't semantics, it's a fundamental change in the software architecture. Community is a required property, tags are optional.

Someone who knew the old board can imitate their previous behavior using the new system, but new users won't necessarily start from a location tag view and might not use the tag that indicates threads that came from the old board.

Calling threads posts and posts comments is just semantics, but it shows that the designers either have no clue what they're doing or, more likely, are deliberately moving the site away from the board / community model toward something more like Yelp.

Unknown said...

A CBS employee added the SF Bay Area tag to that post. Originally it had only Oakland.

Steve said...

"Someone who knew the old board can imitate their previous behavior using the new system"

Exactly, and a new poster will most likely first go to 'Locations" when they browse to post, and at the top of that page are all the locations as they were set up in the previous iteration of Chowhound. So... Los Angeles Area, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago Area, Washington, DC & Baltimore, Outer Boroughs, Manhattan, etc. is where they are most likely to go.

There are problems, and chances are (like last time) they will work out the deficiencies.

Robert Lauriston said...

No one knows what new members will do, but I've never seen a tag-based system where things weren't disorganized due to people not tagging consistently.

Why do you think they killed the regional boards? The most likely explanation for CBS's silence on that matter is that they know their long-term plans for the site would piss off the regulars who create most of the content. That would also explain why they paid virtually no attention to feedback on the beta.

Steve said...

There is still a page for every board, just like before. I have posted several times in Washington DC & Baltimore. I am having no problem with this. As you have said yourself.

Val in Seattle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mal de Med said...

Your position ignores the oppressive turn moderation has taken, from outright banning of long time, highly valued contributors to suspensions for daring to criticize or question. Some posters were rude and profane, I get that, but not most of them. Discussion of alternative sites is forbidden, deleted and threatening emails sent within seconds.

Too bad, too sad, but it's not as it was, they don't want the old guard there and they're banning or threatening old timers, one by one.

No one is even permitted to discuss other food sites now, without emailed slap downs from mods.

Robert Lauriston said...

Indeed. They're lying about it, too. I was sent what appears to be a form letter:

"We wanted to inform you about the temporary suspension of your account due to your trolling behavior. We’re willing to give you another chance, but we won't be able to do so if we don't see a commitment from you to stop the abusive behavior.

"Please think about it and give us an answer on or after October 12th. We will reactivate your account after you agree to abide by the guidelines"

I wrote back asking which of the guidelines they thought I didn't follow, but I don't expect to receive an answer, since it's a lie. This is a new policy and they haven't added it to the guidelines.

I suspect they're under the gun to increase ad revenues by X% by a certain date. That's the only explanation I can think of for rushing out software they knew (from comments in the feedback topics) was unfinished and buggy.

The Los Angeles section of my site now has 2-3 times the traffic of its Chowhound counterpart. That's the only one that's really achieved critical mass so far.

James Leff said...

Mal de Med,

The problem is that, above a certain level, it becomes really time-consuming and unviable to moderate with a wise weighing of the unique details of every situation. Like a mom with 15 kids, you need to draw clear lines, and consistently punish those who step over, period. If you worked on the other side of the monitor, you'd better understand the siege mentality. For one thing, you're not seeing the noise they're keeping at bay (i.e. by doing a good job at moderating, they create the false impression that strict moderation is overreactive).

In my era, we tried to apply a more considered approach, but nearly killed ourselves, and didn't make people any more happy (every moderated online community that's ever existed has enraged a certain number of's a rock-and-hard-place problem, that NOBODY likes to be told what to do or have their expression constrained, but OTOH nobody likes an anarchic forum...i.e. an open microphone). In the end, you just need to get people to work within boundaries, if you're going to preserve a forum worth visiting.

Hopefully, as enforcement gets more and more rigid, users will simply be conditioned to work within parameters. Because while there's advantage to corporate oversight (i.e. it still exists!), this is the downside: less personal touch and wisdom. The problem, really, is in expecting otherwise.

Again, I nearly died trying to maintain personal touch and wisdom. That is, alas, not long-term viable, and we've had a long history of agitated users stomping off to create "less uptight" forums winding up running veritable gulags that were far, far more invasively moderated than we ever were.

Robert Lauriston said...

I didn't start my site to make something different from Chowhound. I started it because Georges Haddad's redesign prioritizes ad revenues at the expense of the regional communities. As far as I'm concerned, Chowhound as it existed from 1997 until last month no longer exists.

Discourse's moderation and anti-spam tools are far more sophisticated than the patch on a kludge on a reinvented wheel that CBS is using. The platform addresses almost all the technical complaints I've made and heard about Chowhound and provides a bunch of extras I'd never thought of.

Mal de Med said...

Jim, I've always been really pro moderation and I miss the quality of it we had when forum civility was still a priority (it no longer is, nor is spam forbidden).

They aren't moderating for civility at all, nor do they take down blatant spammers. But anyone who posts about other sites or comparing them to CH is taken down within mere seconds.

Past moderators didn't choose to; they had a great, unique site and knew it. This is more like North Korea style, afraid to allow any speech about them.

This is the furthest thing from "moderation."

Steve said...

Mal de Mer, your North Korea comment is, for me, typical of the behavior - but on the light side- of what I saw on Chowhound. What, was Hitler taken? Or were you trying to sidestep Godwin's Law? Multiply that by a hundred fold every day, and I am seeing why the mods took action.

I do not cede to Georges the power to shape Chowhound. I still post in the same way I've always done. If folks have trouble with accessing Chowhound with their devices, then that is a serious problem I hope will be resolved. Everything else is noise.

Robert Lauriston said...

Comparing CBS to North Korea is hyperbolic, but they've suspended a lot of people for no legitimate reason so as to suppress criticism of the changes on the site.

Jim Leff said...


People being nonsensical are rarely receptive to higher logic. What you see as a gap in perspective, they see as righteous crusade. Can't win.

I intentionally recruited a huge crowd of loud-mouthed, opinionated, impossible-to-please drama queens. This crowd is awesome when talking about food, but incredibly tedious when talking about talking about food. That's one reason it's always been important to moderate tightly - including the belly-aching about the deleted belly-aching. If you shut their microphone, they'll spill over the rest of the internet venting their pique (even, god help me, here).

I don't like the changes, either. But the Chowhound community can do what it does most anywhere, if it can just settle down and do it (and will actually filter and improve under UI impediment, as the early days proved).

And the rigid banning policies are a horrendous error (I've let CBS know my feeling), but the answer there, too, is simply a bit of flexible adaptation. Just work within their boundaries. They run the place, they get to set the boundaries. They're not going to ban you for talking about cocoa or veal, so just DO THAT.

Mal de Med said...

Yes, it was hyperbole, that and sarcasm are my first two languages. I've never invoked Godwin in my online life, not how I roll.

But I will say, if you're not aware of it, even folks posting in favor of site management are getting warnings for any mentions of other sites, or making slight, humorous comments about the VIP... which is very analogous to NK, minus the sudden disappearance and executions.

So far, anyway. :-)

Steve said...

Some people have been self-deporting.

Jim Leff said...

Yes, they have. I'm pro-churn, myself. Online communities (like all communities) tend to become all about the familiar faces. That's a great result for many sorts of forums, but a data trove like Chowhound tends to congeal into stubborn groupthink - a social framework dissuading errant visitors (who don't feel comfortable with the establishment's vibe or opinions) from offering up their tips. Dissenters are repelled, and forums settle into a steady state of conventional wisdom. That steady state feels great to the few dozen regulars, but the coffee klatch approach doesn't suit Chowhound's purpose.

Don't get me wrong, I love the folks who post twenty detailed reviews each week. But the lifeblood of the site is the UPS deliveryman who brusquely tosses in an errant terse primo tip without fanfare. We get more of that when the ice breaks up a bit.

Robert Lauriston said...

That doesn't describe Chowhound's SF Bay Area board as I knew it. There were too many regulars (I think 75-100 plus maybe a similar number of heavy lurkers who posted intermittently but well) with too wide a variety of interests and opinions for groupthink to set in. New users who made any effort were always welcomed. Various topics drew different subsets of regulars with different dynamics.

Some of the other boards I'd look at when traveling were more as you describe, and less useful as a result.

Jim Leff said...

The SF board has/had great posters, some are good friends of mine. Also one of the most prolific and supportive communities we've ever had (remarkable, because the site started in NYC). But it definitely has a very prevalent tone/vibe/aesthetic, and that had long troubled me, because my vision was for a vastly more diverse set of voices (perspective-wise, not ethnic-wise). Groupthink never feels like groupthink from inside the groupthink. That's the thing about groupthink; its participants never acknowledge it.

The boards with the strongest bonds always have the most constricted voice/perspective/opinion/focus. It's absolutely inevitable in online communities (I've run them since 1988). So while churn is upsetting (because of social attachments), in the end, socially brutal though it is, it's great for the resource.

The bad software is an impediment, and (as I've explained in the series of postings linked above) impediments filter out ditzier, more casual participants. Yay, impediment.

The mass bannings and self deportations will create space and light for more diverse flora to thrive. Yay, flora.

The true peril, which people aren't seeing, is if traffic reduces to the point where CBS can no longer keep the lights on. If so, we lose the place, but we also, alas, lose the BACKLOG, which distresses me way more than any of these other issues. Most people take it for granted. I threw a decade away fostering/building it, so I don't take it for granted.

By (inadvertently) overdoing both impediment and churn at the same moment, CBS is putting the property in grave risk.

I'm not going to have much more to say. This pretty much represents the sum total of my perspective. Perhaps useful or interesting to some readers.

Robert Lauriston said...

What's happening at Chowhound is not churn within communities. The communities have been dismantled and their parts used to build a new structure that does considerably less to foster community. Poor execution aside, this particular bad software is clearly intended to cater to ditzy, more casual participants.

It seems likely to me that the new site will get enough casual users to go forward in some middle ground between TripAdvisor and Yelp.

I see zero danger of losing the Chowhound archive. That will generate enough ad revenue to pay for itself indefinitely, or at least until the content's all so many years out of date that no one will mourn its passing.

Jim Leff said...

I see zero danger of losing the Chowhound archive. That will generate enough ad revenue to pay for itself indefinitely,

You "see". Huh.

Y'know, after many years running online discussions, I'm strongly inclined to show polite respect for ignorant and even flat-out wrong opinions. So it pains me to say this, yet I must: you have no idea what you're talking about, you are totally ignorant of how these things work, and you're pulling this confident-sounding conclusion completely out of your ass. And I'd ordinarily just let it go, but this latest bit of arrogant bullshit you're putting forth is highly dangerous to something I treasure.

I'm certain I'm just the latest in a long line who sees little point in putting a microphone in front of you. You need to expedite construction of your podium from which to offer your deep vision and haughty umbrage to those interested in hearing it, rather than hog time on other people's podiums. If your utterances are as valuable as you think, the crowds will flow mightily. Good luck and buh-bye.

Robert Lauriston said...

Maybe you're right. I may be giving CBS too much credit in assuming that they wouldn't be so clueless as to pull the plug.

The Internet Archive has multiple snapshots. You might contact them about making sure that they have a complete set.

Jim Leff said...

Sorry to lose my temper.

They will drop the brand, the forum, and the archives if the whole bundle doesn't pull sufficient ad revenue. The backlog (a large amount of which is evergreen, btw) is of very little separate value to them. That's not clueless, it's business reality.

If the whole thing goes away, it will rock peoples' worlds more than they anticipate. So while it's perfectly okay to go start new forums (I've always encouraged it; more forums is a good thing), folks should think twice before shitting on the brand. The win-win would be for dissatisfied users to create great new forums, and for Chowhound to continue in interesting ways with whoever remains and whoever repopulates (even if it's just me and Shel!). More forums = a good thing. Chowhound thriving is a good thing. Live and let chow.

I'd love to keep chatting, but I have actual work to get to. Best of luck to all.

Unknown said...

Jim, I was with you from almost the inception. After years of using and contributing I fell on my sword (several times). I could not believe how they betrayed your original concept and your mantra for readership numbers (IE, profit). You sold out to CBS and then they eventually sold out on your concept.
It it is hard to believe that you now say what you do.
"More" is not a good thing. Not more at the level we may be looking at. I am talking about the original concept of talking about places to eat. Trip Advisor, Yelp, eGullet, FB, local blogs, etc. are jumping in to pick up CH survivors. At the web dilution rate we are talking about the person seeking advice might as well be Jim Leff, out there winging it on their own; finding their own deliciousness!
How many will do the Yelp thing and slough and schlep through countless reviews to find one knowledgeable and reliable, local foodie to get advice from? This doesn't even take into account trying to get advice from thousands of miles away. I think the contributions of mature, knowledgeable members (and the camaraderie) was what drew people to CH. Now, all you have are archives.
"The mass bannings and self deportations will create space and light for more diverse flora to thrive. Yay, flora." Jim, I doubt it. One everything is burned you will be left with weak seedlings, at best, and a bad reputation as a place to grow and flourish. I don't know if you have a residual income stream from CBS (or what) but I think you are looking through rose-colored glasses at their future.
Thank you for your time. I really enjoyed the early days, your ideals and what you started.
PS: I am the originator of the FB group, "Chowhounds Disaffected Speak Out". At this point I only hope my group provides comfort for disaffected CH foodies and acts as a resource in helping them find a new home.

Jim Leff said...

Oy vey, Glyn. You are not going to like this. But here goes.

"More" is not a good thing.

Chowhound was the main great-big-site for quite a while. And all the horrors I experienced (did you read this series? ) were due to its having scaled so large (even back in the day, I was trying to get the genie back in the bottle and shrink the damn thing). All the problems we've experienced since I left were also at least indirectly a result of scaling:, i.e. the corporate control necessary to support the operation at this scale, and the compromises, rigidity, and stupidity that stem from corporate control of a thing like this that's not a mere widget.

Chowhound never should have gotten this big. It was the source of all problems. In fact, in the very first installment of the tale of Chowhound's sale (link just above) I linked to the "Goodbye" page we'd planned to swap in when we closed down. Read it and understand why "more" - a profusion of small discussions rather than one large one - is indeed best.

At the web dilution rate we are talking about the person seeking advice might as well be Jim Leff, out there winging it on their own; finding their own deliciousness!

You always had to be Jim Leff. Chowhound, Yelp, and the rest are mere tools, and just as a chowhound must develop skills for sniffing out great places in the real world, one must use skills online with these tools, as well.

In 1997 there was Zagat, there was your local critic, and that's it. Now there's a constellation of tools. The problem has been solved; the eaters, have been networked. The final step - to winnow treasure - is your responsibility, just as it always has been.

You talk about "web dilution", but that's crazy. Chowhounding in the real world means vetting one or two restaurants a minute, at a distance, gleaning minimal data (a sign, maybe a menu in the window). On the web, you can winnow dozens per minute, with all the data in the world. If that leaves you feeling poorly informed, then you need to develop some chowhounding skills, my brother! Because it was never about people spoon-feeding you sure-thing yum-yums. It was about intrepid travelers sharing achievements. And you can still do that anywhere. You have more tools for bagging achievements than ever. Way more! VASTLY more!

(continued in next comment)

Jim Leff said...

How many will do the Yelp thing and slough and schlep through countless reviews to find one knowledgeable and reliable, local foodie to get advice from?

That slough/schlep process is infinitely faster, easier, and more efficient than chowhounding in the real world. You sound like Jane Jetson complaining about her housework after pressing one lousy button!

In the real world, we learn to look past the Bennigans and Wendys. That involves a whole lot of driving/walking around. You're complaining about loading a few browser screens? Do you have any idea how crazy that is?

Look, you say you've been there since the beginning. Then you must have seen the transformation, circa 1999, when Chowhound went from being a panel of expert hounds one-upping each other to a horde of passive dilettantes begging "advice" (your word) from those experts. That's when the problems started: when we became an advice column.

And that's why "more forums" is better. Smaller ones can concentrate experts without blowing up into an unmanageable circus. My mission was NEVER for Chowhound to tell you where to eat, Glyn. That was a mere side effect. But that side effect overwhelmed the main mission because there are a lot more passive baby birds pointing expectantly at their mouths than there are intrepid hunting birds out there ferreting out sustenance.

My failure was that the baby birds never developed skills. They stayed passive. As I said countless times back in the day: finding finds is exhilarating, and makes a great meal greater. Chowhound was intended to entice you into developing chowhounding skills of your own, not to pre-masticate and regurgitate into your waiting mouth. We told you not to eat where you're told, but you waited for us to tell you.

You were there from the beginning, you care enough to post an impassioned comment and start this FB group, and yet you never got near the central point of what chowhounding is about. You're still waiting for someone to tell you what to eat. Geez, go find some finds! They're low and heavy on the trees still. Again: it tastes better when you bag the game yourself. I myself only rarely followed tips from Chowhound, preferring to actually BE a chowhound.

If you choose the route I spent a decade urging, the landscape will shift, and all these resources will come to seem like pleasantly useful optional shortcuts to be wielded at times, or discarded when you choose to free-climb. That's how I see it.

As for my income stream from CBS, no. I am, however, being paid every month by your Mommy who's very concerned about your waistline.

Steve said...


Previously on Chowhound…

When a new poster would post and get rebuffed by the regulars, they could react by:

Staying and fighting
Throwing a tantrum and leaving
Taking a deep breath to pause, listen, and learn

Some of the folks who chose the last option came with passion, but needed some guidance. They could become valuable contributors. That's the option that I would have wanted them to take.

With the redesign, many Chowhounds chose the second option. So now your are left with the idea that more is simply bad….

So if your idea of a clearignhouse/crisis hotline/ halfway home/ and new location for wayward Chowhounds takes off, you will have achieved your goal, though dispersal is also a possibility. Sounds to me like you want it that way as well.

Robert Lauriston said...

I think Chowhound boards varied a lot in style. The SF Bay Area board was pretty hospitable to newbies. Rude responses got flagged and removed.

One of many milestones in the degradation of management was when the moderators killed the sticky board FAQ topic.

Unknown said...

Jim, thanks for the lengthy response. And, yes, I did read
If I look at some of what you are saying from my current lens of being 69 and having a wife and family members to please, then yes, I want more spoon-feeding than before. I have a reputation to uphold as well. Everyone looks to me to pick the place where we will eat, even if I am in an unfamiliar land.
There has to be a large number of people who are unwilling or incapable of finding the goodness on their own. Also finding it in short order can be difficult... So, the "slough/schlep process" I spoke of is me trying to find and vet the reliable person on a forum, who lives in a faraway land, when on vacation, with the wife and relatives who can recommend where to eat for a family gathering. You have one shot at getting it right. Surely this or similar is a common scenario. Those questions came up over and over on CH. A first-time poster wanting to know where to go when out of their hood. I agree it is to be expected when those in the know are bragging about their finds. My motto was to give as well as occasionally get.
I still free climb. I just have to do it solo or with like-minded friends and leave the wife behind.

Unknown said...

Okay, I'll take a stab at it, as I think its important to keep separating out the issues in order for some folks to be able to make a decision on what to do. First of all, I find myself in total agreement with what several rational people have said about the over-reactions, the whining, the tech. fixes that will no doubt occur & the overall point that there's nothing preventing me from using CH the way I've always used it. Jim, you pretty much make the same points & add that, by continuing to use CH, the site's owners will keep it alive & we will continue to have access to most of the archives (which is valuable to protect). I agree there as well. And, lastly, several good people have made the point that there are no real alternatives available for those of us who appreciate CH for what is was/is and there is no place to go to for the same type interaction. That's true as well. The new places that have been set up are not yet established and may/may not become viable alternatives (I'll keep checking to see), other food board sites meet different goals/needs (I'm talking about and and & others are basically pretty much like what CH is becoming (yelp, TripAdvisor).

Ok… that's the part that I agree with. And my conclusion, based on all this, is that (obviously, if anyone's looked at CH lately) I'm currently continuing my participation there. I mean, why not? Maybe with somewhat different expectations but, again, why not? No need to do anything dramatic… I can spend whatever time I feel like on that site (as I do elsewhere) without any cost. I gain nothing from stomping away (or even slinking away). I just don't expect to get as much out of it or find it as useful as I did (& that will affect my future participation)… we'll see.

HOWEVER: there is a relationship between form and function that goes beyond "can a user still use it the same way" or "is there a way to do a 'workaround'" so as to be able to continue to use it? In my career, I set up many programs for real people in the real world. Every time, there was serious discussion about how the architecture of the program would have an affect on who would use it & how it would be used. It was always a given that this was a very relevant concern and that the format of the program, whether intentional or not, would greatly color what the program would wind up looking like down the road. We looked at what we were trying to accomplish, what the fiscal reality was, what other resources were out there or could be created, and came up with a format that we thought would best combine everything and look like what we wanted several years down the road. We failed a lot, we succeeded some times, but it was always an intentional process. In CH's case, where it is now owned by a very large, resource rich corporation, I'd find it hard to believe that they just slapped together a new format without having expert discussion about the new format's relationship to their overall goal(s). To me, the result of those discussions seem to indicate that they want to move the site to be a competitor with yelp and TripAdvisor & that they designed a format to do so.

Unknown said...

(Sorry, had to break this into 2 comments: Jim, I swear I won't do this to you again & thanks for allowing it)

So, what am I saying in my above comment? CH is like the restaurant that keeps the same name, but now describes itself differently in the "about" section of their website, changes the chef to one with a very different cooking history/training, changes the menu to offer a whole different set of options (while, of course, allowing us regulars to order what we've always ordered as a "special accommodation") & even paints the walls a different color. Since the walls are a different color, several patrons won't go. After all, that's what they decided was the most important aspect of the previous place & they can't believe the owners painted. Others, knowing that they can still get their favorite foods there and that no other restaurant feels as comfortable (even with the new paint job, etc), still go back and eat there. Others continue to eat there, requesting their special dishes while looking around for other places that they can make their own. Still others decide this is the time to learn to cook. And some deny that the new menu, chef and description will have any more affect than the new wall color & that, if they can live with the new color it'll all be ok. It won't. It's the same train, with the same comfy seats, but they changed where its heading and you'll wake up in a very different town than was on your original ticket. Seems to me that, by our continued participation, we can elongate that train ride and, well, you never know...

Jim Leff said...

there is a relationship between form and function that goes beyond "can a user still use it the same way" or "is there a way to do a 'workaround'" so as to be able to continue to use it?

I don't eat the way I'm supposed to eat. I am not influenced by marketing, I don't follow crowds or flock. As a jazz musician, I don't give a crap what song I'm improvising over....Row Row Row Your Boat is absolutely fine by me. The world is my springboard, and I make my own way through it, seizing or discarding what I can make use of in my own way. Give me a framework or a platform, and I will use it in ways you'd never expect. I don't care about your expectations. I don't even spend a nanosecond considering them.

I don't give a crap about CBS' vision. I don't care how they slant things; I don't care how they paint the room. I can squattingly inhabit any place and turn it into my own garden. I'm not a magician, I'm just fully aware of my own freedom...a freedom that comes from doing, rather than reacting to other people's doing.

The Angry Ones currently steeling for battle with Chowhound (attacking the victim, in my opinion) are, paradoxically, way too passive and submissive. They feel a compulsion to respect frameworks. Do I give a crap what CBS wants? Please! Who cares what CNET intended, or even what Matt Wright, the original author of our original software, intended. I didn't care what the Web was supposed to be, I didn't care how most people wanted to eat (or discuss food). I do my thing, period.

I don't cluck my tongue every time I pass an Applebees. I don't even see it. I mentally photoshop it off my landscape. I've transformed a grim, 99% un-delicious world into a treasure trove ripe for my picking via a mere shift of my perspective.

That's where I'm coming from.

So I'd imagine you'll reply like this "Sure, fine, but these changes will attract and encourage an entirely different audience to post a bunch of crap we won't be interested in, cuz not everybody's as stubborn and creative as you are, and you can't stem that tide."

To which I'll say, for the quadrillionth time, that Chowhound's not a TV show we're passively watching. We ARE it. It will be what WE make it. And if we freak the fuck out and recoil in horror and leave in droves (thus ceding to the idiots ), we will self-fulfill our own fears. But if we simply keep doing what we do, that will be way, way, way, way, way, way stronger than any corporate tilting or marketing or framework manipulation. That stuff doesn't matter!

This doesn't just go for Chowhound. This applies to life. Gandi summed it up tersely with "Be the change that you wish to see in the world". My douchebag suburban brat version is this:

"My parents were perpetually indignant about how, as they kept moving further eastward on Long Island, the assholes from Brooklyn kept following them and ruining the rural landscape. They never realized that we, ourselves, were the Brooklyn assholes who kept moving eastward and ruining things!"

Unknown said...

I understand where you're coming from & a good part of me wishes that I could say the same things and mean them. I just don't deal with the world the same way. I do notice & work with others' expectations and don't believe that I have the freedom to be more than a couple of degrees away from the norm without real discomfort. So I compromise a lot. I fit in and push incrementally. I try to understand where "they" are coming from so I can maybe help them get to their goal while meeting my needs. That's where I'm coming from.

As for what we see to do here, it looks like we agree. Yes, you got my reply down pat but we do agree that we're not a viewing audience but an audience participation production where the script can go in different directions based on our interactions. As I said I'm still there. And I sure as hell aint going to learn to cook. But I'm way less optimistic that, even with us trying to make it be what we want it to be, it's not going to be. Lots of stuff is like that. Doesn't stop me from trying.

Jim Leff said...

a good part of me wishes that I could say the same things and mean them.

Who's telling you to "say" anything? Just continue doing what you're doing...enjoying posting about food and reading other people's postings (even if the process - which has eternally been fucked up - is now fucked up in a fresh new way).

The alternative is to get all upset and threaten mutiny and post very long postings to blogs and flail around for incredibly stupid alternatives like FB groups (FB groups!!!). That route is HARDER.

The easy solution: relax. Post about food. Enjoy.

I'm not urging complacency. I'm just suggesting that the drama is extremely trumped up. It's just the latest example of an endless series of frustrating interfaces, and while I don't give a damn about CBS, I do like the folks at Chowhound (as you do), and I like talking about food there (as you do) and there's no reason to stop doing the things we like, and keep a swell community (which, to CBS' enormous horror, has very little to do with them, in the end) thriving.

Jim Leff said...

Do, however, keep lobbying CBS about SPECIFIC things they can do to make it work better. I'm not in a very pro-CBS frame of mind these days, but I admire how hard they're working to address concrete complaints. The software's already a lot better.

So if you want to do something positive, let the emotion go, and cooly consider small, concrete changes that might make things better, and make a cordial, intelligent, articulate case for them.

Unknown said...

This we agree on. It would be nice to get back to disagreeing on the important things, like whether Mina was ever that good (& why/why not).

Jim Leff said...

Has anyone spotted her? It's been years. She's out there somewhere. If she's shed that svengali, that would be fantastic.

astoriaboy said...

any updates on what mina is up to???

2020 needs her!!!

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