Thursday, July 30, 2020


The events I'm about to recall took place between 15 and 20 years ago. It describes one of the hardest problems I've ever faced, leaving me so rattled that I've waited this long to tell the story. I've often remarked that running Chowhound taught me things I'd preferred not to have learned. This one's a whopper.

Around 2001, a new poster appeared on Chowhound named Julie. She (I have no idea of this person's actual gender) had no interest in food whatsoever.

Why would you post to a food site if you didn't care about food? Don't look for reasons. Seriously, don't. Crazy people - not mere neurotics, I mean full-out loonballs - don't operate in a linear fashion. There is nothing to be gained by trying to suss out their reasoning. In face, the deeper you dig, the crazier you yourself will become. You know all those serial killer movies where the detective is a twisted-up wreck from being too dialed-in? That's not unrealistic.

Julie posted a lot. And she was annoying. That wasn't foreshadowing, by the way. Her annoyingness was the best thing about her. That's a human trait. She didn't have many of those.

To the other chowhounds, who never imagined the true scope of the problem, her annoyance was significant. This was one of many instances where our meticulous management left users blissfully unaware of how bad our raw feed actually was, and how hard we worked in the background to keep it that way. To them, the problem was an annoying poster. To us, we were facing a Visigoth, a Hannibal Lechter, a ditzy gamer kid, and a Tasmanian Devil all wrapped into one opaque shell of a psychopath.

Julie eventually became super-extra annoying and we had to kick her out. Her final utterance under the "Julie" name tag was her version of the Saddam Hussein taunt. Prior to the Gulf War, Saddam had promised "the mother of all battles." Julie's actual words have been lost to the ages, but they were chilling. She'd thrown down her gauntlet. This would be war.

Long story short, after the smoke cleared, Julie had created thousands of user accounts under thousands of nametags, via dozens of computers at dozens of physical locations. She'd switched ISP many times, and even moved across the country for a while. All to defy our ban. We were her project. Her nemesis. Her raison d'etre. Julie was our User Zero.

In the first installment of the epic tale of Chowhound's rise and sale to CNET (now CBS), I noted:
As our audience increased, so did the scary 1%, which ran the moderators ragged (at our size, even the .01% rabid psycopaths at the far end of the bell curve represented a hundred or so individuals, some bombarding us nearly 24/7, one hallmark of psychopaths being, after all, dogged persistence).
Julie was far from our most dangerous psycho (worst of all was a food-loving Russian mobster who'd passed through the legal system several times but had never been indicted - because all his co-conspirators had, whoops, suffered mysterious and very often life-ending mishaps before they were able to testify. He’d decided to try to buy Chowhound for a pittance so he could install himself as the new Alpha Hound. Fun times!). Dangerous, not so much, but Julie at least won Miss Persistence, hands down.

Midway through my year-long tenure with CBS (Julie disappeared forever the instant our sell-out was announced), I visited my former business partner Bob, who'd used his earnings to buy a new car. I suggested he get vanity plates reading "Julie", and we barked out bitter laughter, our expressions devoid of any trace of mirth.

Let's retrace back from that flash-ahead. Julie's first move after going all Terminator in 2001 was to post as "Jeff Goldman". Knowing I was Jewish, she was probing to see whether I'd go easier on a bro. Don't think about this too deeply, as I did. Like I said, there's a level of cray-cray that rubs off if you dive too deeply.

But the turning point moment - causing me to gulp and to reel dizzily around my hovel of an apartment for a good long while, and pick up the phone to consult with every smart person I knew - was when I suddenly realized she could kill the site.

I received an emergency message at 2am from a moderator in Japan. The previous day, someone had posted a vivid posting that was attracting lots of attention. An innocent chowhound had asked about good eats near Tokyo's Narita airport, and someone replied about an alternative international airport in Japan that's way better. That one is located right next to the sea, so you could exit the terminal, out the front door, and take a refreshing stroll by the water. There is a bench you can relax on, and next to that bench, an aged and mysterious vendor of grilled octopus balls does amazing work. It was a pearl of chowhound tippage, and our denizens were taking notice. A star was born.

My moderator, rigid with foreboding, told me that he'd been to that airport. And it's nowhere near the sea. And there's no bench. And there are no octopus balls. It was complete bullshit.

We quickly recognized that this fake posting was Julie’s work. She’d been posting dozens of times per day, and we'd been struggling to keep up and weed them out, and now she'd escalated (the scariest word in a moderator's vocabulary; akin to an alien monster evolving). Using her 30th or so nom-de-guerre, she'd fired a shot, signaling that she intended to fill our message boards with fictional bullshit. She would attempt to dilute us out of existence.

We took action. Necessity mothered invention and we quickly threw together an ingenious gem of a defense system. Every time Julie posted, we all heard about it because an instant email alarm rippled over the surface of the planet to dozens of far-flung moderators, helpers, and Julie specialists. And they had a protocol to follow.

How did the defense system work? Far brighter technical minds than mine would be stumped. How does one identify an individual who uses different computers, different ISPs, different physical locations, and different names each time they created a new account? I'm still not ready to reveal the secret. It's drilled so deep that I'd choke on the words if I tried to utter it, and my fingers would turn gangrenous if I tried to type it. This, for me, is akin to nuclear codes. It was the hail mary scheme that protected Chowhound - a good and worthy thing thanks to the efforts of a million smart and generous people - being reduced to worthless crud by one random kook.

But I will describe our protocol. It was extremely counterintuitive by design, and it was all about framing. I didn't fully understand framing at the time (full understanding - the ability to frame framing - arrived just a few years ago), but I did have a natural flair for it.

I felt a certain empathy - some distant simpatico - for most of our hundreds of psychos (remember our oppressive scaling issue). I could usually grok their motives and anticipate their moves. But not Julie. She was too empty and metallic. I'm not saying she was some awesome mastermind. Just that there was little human meat on those bones. There are people who act like ciphers, and there are ciphers who act like people. Julie was the latter. I couldn't see her because there was no "there" there.

Yet one single thing was always clear about Julie: she was playing a video game. Not just that; she was addicted to the videogame, which explains at least some of her persistence. We all know kids who stay up all night to play Minecraft. Julie stayed up four years to play Chowhound. Understanding this big picture gave us an advantage.

Again, Julie didn't care about food. She just wanted to "score", by posting and engaging. None of it was real; it was 100% emulation. Emulating a full-fledged citizen in a virtual community, like a Real Girl. So a "win" for Julie would mean establishing an identity and being allowed to participate. The problem was that once she'd dug her hooks in, using her nth new name tag, she'd lay eggs and begin to infest that particular discussion, injecting her preoccupations and relentless obnoxiousness, and spreading wildly to other parts of the site until she was sprayed back. Then she'd restart. Over and over. For years. That was the game.

Here's the thing about people settled into a game-playing mental frame: they will assume, unquestioningly, that the other side is playing the same game. Like military leaders throughout history, we discovered the secret: it's a huge advantage to flip the script and find a way to play a different and higher-level game, unbeknownst to your adversary. This relocates the adversary to a sealed box, under a bright light, where they can unknowingly be examined, manipulated, and disarmed. They carry on their fight, and may even feel they're winning, but you can't lose because the conflict's been transparently reframed on your terms.

Of course it’s never quite that antiseptic and seamless. Periodically, Julie would become faintly cognizant that our game did not match hers. At such moments, we were forced to switch tactics and shift protocols, leaving us momentarily vulnerable to further escalation. But she never quite got the best of us.

Julie assumed the game was a simple cat-and-mouse. She'd try to post, and we'd try to detect and delete. If we tipped our hand by rapidly and thoroughly deleting her, that would provide her with juicy, useful feedback regarding our capabilities, and she'd develop countermeasures. Escalation! Julie's prickly antennae were perpetually tuned to this dance. Again, she was no mastermind (for example, she could never quite fully organize her myriad personas), but, like any sentient organism, she could absorb feedback and use it to learn and to grow.

We recognized early on that we were under no compulsion to play the same game. Honestly, we didn't care much if Julie posted, so long as she wasn't damaging the site. Her attempts to ingratiate with the community - to blend in, apparently defeating our defense systems by posting like a normal harmless Chowhound user - actually didn't bother us at all. So we left those up.

Most of them, anyway. We'd randomly delete a few, after waiting a random amount of time, just to confuse her feedback curve with noisy data. Consistency on our end would teach her things.

So we mostly let her linger in the early, more innocuous stage of her curve, where she won seeming victory over us by hiding her malevolence and behaving well. Assuming this was all about her, she failed to realize that, to our perspective, no malevolence was no problem. The mouse itself wasn’t what we were chasing (we had declined to frame it that way, seeing the larger picture quite clearly, which few people in our position would have thought to do). To her, though we were failing pathetically in our mission of Total Julie Annihilation. She was winning, and that's exactly how we wanted her to feel. Loser Julie would have incentive to escalate.

We gave Julie her petty victories. She'd write pleasant postings complimenting someone's taco discovery, giddy at her cleverness in evading our guns by using, say, a library computer. For Chowhound, there was just one more nice person out there adding good vibes. She'd won...but we hadn't lost.

But we couldn't let her settle in, because at a certain point she could not help herself from compulsively filling our message board with irritating nonsense (or worse). Having revealed that she’d been detected, we'd clean up all output from her latest identity....though even that was done on time delay. She couldn't suspect our easy seamlessness. Better to let her assume we were bumbling Keystone Cops, embarrassingly feeble and incompetent, struggling to keep up against a clever Bugs Bunny perennially ten steps ahead. One needn't seek out advanced laser weaponry to defeat feebly incompetent Keystone Cops.

A reader asks: if you could detect her so easily and seamlessly, why pussyfoot around? Why not just block her completely? The answer: fear of escalation. If she tried harder, shaking up her methods even more extremely than she already was doing, she might serendipitously manage to evade us. If so, and we'd been efficiently expunging her, she'd instantly know which shake-up had been successful, because she'd suddenly find herself able to post with impunity. This, in turn, would have clued her into our methods. Escalation is terrifying because it can happen very quickly (like a chain reaction), leaving us nakedly vulnerable and desperately needing to come up with another stroke of genius. We absolutely could not chance that. Like diabetes, Julie was to be controlled, not cured. She needed to feel victorious and mildly complacent, and to view us as low-challenge opposition.

This might read like a tale of strategy and gamesmanship - spy vs spy - but it's deeper than that. It's about framing. I've noted in the past that
Some people can spur others to reframe in certain ways. That’s what art is all about, for example. "Art is any human creation devised to induce a reframing of perspective." Also, gifted salesmen close sales by changing perspective. A number of people have some visceral notion of reframing, and may have developed ways to induce it in others for fun or profit.
For example, comedy involves reframing. And psychologists (who believe the concept is way too esoteric for the public to understand) have a limited understanding, at least if they're super-good.

But this posting suggests we should add to that list those who strategize for a living. Game players, athletes, coaches, and military leaders - at least, super-good ones - intuitively understand a thing or two about framing, and develop the ability to nimbly reframe, at least within certain narrow realms. You can win by bashing your opponent's skull harder than he bashes your's, or you can win smarter by letting him bash away while you shift to fight on a whole other level. The fact that subtlety is dead makes it more advantageous than ever to know how to shift and zigzag. As such moves grow increasingly unpopular, they become more and more of a superpower.

Consider Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They played a whole other game than their adversaries, but they got the result they wanted. And they didn't even need to be sneaky about it. They announced their intentions.

I'm not a naturally a "super-good" strategizer. I don't like being sneaky, and don't enjoy manipulating people any more than I enjoy being manipulated. But circumstance compelled me to fire on all cylinders to protect something I loved. Like I said, running Chowhound taught me some skills I'd have preferred not to master. It's one reason my everyday persona is goofy and ingenuous. I choose not to flex these muscles.

Further reading:

"Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out": the tale of Chowhound's sale to CNET. Installment #1 is quoted above, but the whole series intermittently discusses our psycho travails.
No One Loves You Like a Hater Does
Always Talk to the Mask
The Day Vandals Wrecked Chowhound
My Own Robert Mueller Scenario
...and all posts tagged "Chowhound"

No comments:

Blog Archive