Monday, March 7, 2022

...A Farm Upstate Where He Can Run and Run

So they're shutting down Chowhound, just four months short of its 25th birthday. Converting dog years to human, that's "long dead-and-buried already." Which sounds about right.
Here is my 20th anniversary post...and my 15th anniversary post.
This will not be my touching final goodbye to The Chowhound Project. I've already offered that via a series of postings, written years ago; an epic and hilarious tale full of hindsight, juicy background on what actually went down, and deep affection for Chowhound's users and gratitude for its fantastic moderators and supporters.

If that's the sort of thing you're looking for, I've linked to that series both here and below. But having previously "reflected" at length, the following will be a mere gaggle of impressions jarred loose by the recent news.

A Three Hour Tour. A Three Hour Tour.

I was never trying to build something to last forever. I was an old-school entrepreneur, building a cool thing largely for the challenge and satisfaction, rather than territorial ambition. A brief caprice. I never intended to, like, run a big thing. I'd perpetrated a slew of cool ventures, hoaxes, goofs, and schemes before and since. This was just one you heard about.

Mark Zuckerburg is a freak, dug in on both sides of the equation: building and sustaining. And now everyone wants to be him, so that seems normal. But it's not. There used to be a firewall between creative, free-wheeling entrepreneurs and dreary corporate wankers. Before Zuckerburg straddled both sides, these were seen as very different tribes (Steve Jobs also crossed over, but only after a humiliating decade of retooling).

I used to joke with Chowhound co-founder Bob™ Okumura about buying guns so we could ease each other's misery in the event the thing dragged on for 5 years or - impossible to imagine! - even longer. So 25 years seems like extreme extra innings. I’m fine with this news, and relieved that the data continues to live at Internet Archive (I hope people pass the word around about that, as Chowhound content will no longer appear in standard web searches).
When I built my magnum opus, a smartphone app called Eat Everywhere, I needed to research and check thousands of food facts, and it was immensely gratifying to see, again and again and again, Google pinpoint esoteric bits of knowledge found exclusively within old Chowhound discussions. And it's never not authoritative. To this day, no resource in any other media compares.
While I'm not wistful, it's my nature to assess things, and moments like this organize one's thoughts. For example, while I've previously accepted some blame for how things turned out (the site hasn't been good in a long while, hence the dog joke, atop), I'm realizing that I deserve a larger share than I'd initially imagined. But more on that later.

We Had Our Own Mole

Chowhound was badly mismanaged by a succession of companies who tossed it around between themselves like a hot potato. And here's a surprising chunk almost nobody knows: At the largest of those companies, the divisional super boss was an old fan and site user who, in a previous life, had been part of the effort to find a solution when Chowhound originally turned into a scaling monster (I told the story of that period, and the ultimate sale to CNET, in this epic, traumatic series of posts, referenced above), too much for a freelance writer/musician to support out-of-pocket in his "free time".

This executive, who truly understood and cared, did nothing constructive. It broke my heart, but I got it. Fresh initiatives - and going out on limbs, generally - might have endangered a fast-rising exec career, and no quantity of Chowhound love was worth putting that at risk.
Don't cluck your tongue disapprovingly. Empathize! It makes me crazy to see people righteously expect career sacrifice for higher principle when those very same people would meekly look the other way if their boss poisoned a nursery school. Other people aren't cartoons. They live lives as visceral and high-staked as one’s own.
This uber-boss hired on one of a series of bold geniuses to run things, none with any feeling or savvy. They’d all tell you how frustrated they were by the lack of financial support - as if throwing money would have been the answer!
Note: I'm complaining about the strategy people; the honchos. The day-to-day admins were genuinely devoted to the thing, especially the final one, Pat "Sully" Sullivan, who worked tirelessly alongside a couple of anonymous volunteer moderators from the old days (who stuck around to the bitter end and were absolutely the unsung heroes of the entire ordeal).
My Master Plan

I had a plan, dating back to 2002, to create a structure to organize and streamline our fire hose of timely local food info, polishing it for syndication into local newspaper columns, books, maps, alerts, plus the holy grail: a way for non-fanatics to query our chaotic resource cleanly and effortlessly. Find a great place to eat without delving into gigabytes of spidery, contentious discussion.

That would be the shiny front end. A black box offering casual users sleekly dependable output, while the spidery contentious discussion gushed undisturbed, daunting to all but the devoted fanatics who stoked the operation with their great reporting. Chowhound's delicate ecosystem would be preserved, while we'd normalize, utilize, and monetize our famously expert torrent of data.

My first step was to launch ChowNews, a weekly email newsletter cobbled together by smart editors who read everything posted for a given region, extracted the best tips, looked up address/phone/web info, and distilled the smart consensus. ChowNews answered the prayers of food-lovers who didn't have time/interest in following hundreds of daily posts. It shot them all the hot tips in polished form.

As I sold Chowhound, I was hard at work creating a system to digest all editions of ChowNews into a database, so people could search for, say, great Southern Italian places within X miles of a certain address. I'd built a prototype, and it worked. Bear in mind that Yelp was still two years away as I launched this plan (and they didn’t reach critical mass until 2006, long after I was gone).

We could have been Yelp...while staying smart. All for the cost of a dozen part-time editors (doubling as moderators), plus a copy editor. Just keep feeding the beast as the great tips flowed in. Repurpose our fantastic crowd-sourced reporting in more or less real time.

Here's how I summed it up:
The geese who laid our golden eggs, contributing the savvy, cutting-edge food information and news that made the site such a draw, wouldn't enjoy having their clubhouse diluted by hordes of Olive Garden fans raving about free breadsticks. Hardcore chowhounds would bolt in a nanosecond if all of America ever dropped by to inject food opinions. This was another reason we needed a shiny front end; a glossy layer to absorb and entertain less fervid newbies. The discussion part would be de-emphasized, requiring persistence to find and join. Ideally, only serious people would make the effort, and the resource wouldn't dilute. The rest would be entranced by shiny baubles up front.
None of the bold geniuses charged with managing Chowhound for the various mega corps were the least bit interested in the founder's kooky ideas. Each, in succession chose the lazy route, tarting up the design, festooning it with ads, and aiming to attract the widest possible crowd to maximize ad views. Just as they'd heard me predict, this strategy diluted Chowhound's unique expert vibe. Our data no longer dependable, the community deteriorated into ditzy nonsense, the torrent dried into a trickle, and, with no one left to view the ads, well, here we are.

The Critical Failure Was Mine

I naively imagined that a big corporation might deploy fresh, creative initiatives like my scheme. But even my secret friend/fan in the exec suite wouldn't lift a finger for any such thing. That's just not how it works.

The shiny front end should have been bolted on before selling Chowhound. I needed to demonstrate its effectiveness at my risk, not theirs, because I'm the risk guy, while corporate executives are ass coverers. But, alas, I'd run out of gas before I could hook it all up. And my plan was too unusual (at the time) for managerial honchos to listen to, much less envision, much less approve. It should have been completed on my watch, and that failure made Chowhound's slow decline inevitable.

Here is a gem of insight that popped up in the epilog of my Chowhound exegesis:
The best route for creative people with business impulses (or vice versa) is to hatch one's own startup. And then sell out to puddy pudpuds who'll follow procedures to maintain it and apply relentlessness to profit from it.
I did not pass the property on to the pudpuds in full bloom. I figured they'd help it happen. Instead, the pudpuds, imagining themselves virile swaggering geniuses, had their own master plans, thanks very much. And the plan was always the same: sell ads until it all collapses.


Creativity is not their strength. But it’s definitely mine. So I should have breathed life into my idea on my own, rather than hope to develop it "in-house." The corporate "house" isn't for brainstorms. It's for drearily cautious monetization. Not because these people are so greedy, but because they completely lack creativity. It’s not that creativity gets rejected; it doesn’t even register.

Founders are the creative ones, able to make something from nothing, while corporations are patently uncreative vehicles for relentless management of Something. To the uncreative, creativity seems like loosey-goosey touchy/feely bullshit, of interest only to children and whackos.
Here's the story of the CNET manager enraged by my clever proposal to solve his multimillion-dollar problem for a few thousand bucks.
The Energy of a Thousand Suns

I'm a jazz trombonist and food writer. I had no entrepreneurial skills or training. No funding, no structure. No tech guy. Just boundless enthusiasm and dedication. Chowhound scaled mercilessly, which was fun for about three weeks, but $50/month server bills began accruing $800 or $3000 bandwidth surcharges, and the software couldn't support the load (and developers need $$$$$), and I found myself engaged in 24/7 existential warfare with hundreds of psychos and vandals, anxiously downloading immense Apache log files every 15 minutes via dial-up because, even at the late date of 2004, I couldn't afford broadband. Having worked seven or eight full-time jobs for Chowhound for nearly a decade, unpaid, I was beyond exhaustion.

But, even so, I was proud to have kept it all up and running, at a high level of quality. It felt miraculous to me as-is, and it would have been unrealistic to imagine pushing forward with big ambitious plans in a state of exhaustion, with negative net worth and zero income, all possible favors already called-in, all for a breezy project that was never supposed to be more than a sidelight.

Here's how I explained it:
There are two main reasons why building stuff is harder than you'd think: First, most capable people are pretty maxed out doing whatever they already do, so there's little marginal time or energy to pour into big new initiatives. Second, while a great idea is a nice thing, there's vastly more devil in the details than you'd imagine. "Get some ads!" "Talk to some venture capitalists!" "Upgrade your software!" "Move to a cheaper serving company!" All these suggestions spill easily off the tongue, but it's the dark matter - the hidden complications and expenses, the unintended consequences, and the black swans - that gets you. Pushing through the swamps, time sinks, and aggravations, all above and beyond preexisting commitments, requires nearly superhuman resolve. People who lack experience building things always vastly underestimate this dark matter, and that's what execution is all about.

This explains why CEO's get paid so ridiculously well...and why so many people are so mystified by their pay scale. Everyone's a genius at sideline quarterbacking, but only a very few human beings have the competence, the stamina, and the cojones to navigate the miasmas and wrestle into existence something successful.
"There's only so much a fatally over-extended penniless shlub can achieve without funding or manpower or tech. But I did amazingly well, considering." That's been my rap this whole time. But I've repeated it long enough that I can spot my own fallacies.

"It's Hard" is No Excuse

Every successful endeavor pushes past "completely unrealistic" points. There was nothing unique here. What I did was very hard, and required vast work and commitment, yes. But everything is very hard to build. Including, counterintuitively, crap.

Let’s consider that last part for a moment (I previously examined this here):
•It takes enormous commitment and labor to open and maintain a crappy diner serving crappy frozen burger patties on freezer-burnt buns.

•Every mediocre book or movie gave its creator an ulcer and took years off their life.

•Even rip-off car repair shops are barely solvent, despite the cheating. Most sleazy people are just barely hanging on. Their lives are not easy.

•Beyond the business realm, consider your worst-ever relationship. It still involved mountains of consideration and compromise. Immeasurable bullshit toleration on both sides. For any two human beings to closely associate for more than a single day without exploding into aggrieved contentiousness requires miracles of bilateral tolerance and self-sacrifice. Even the most unbridled, selfish, and impulsive asshole tries, in innumerable ways, much harder than you'd ever recognize. Every shmuck is Hercules.
Sticking your nose out to build something - to do anything beyond idly drifting to Point B, i.e. serving as a cog in some larger machine - is unimaginably hard. The universe favors entropy. Chaos is the default. The energy to fight the tide and establish some momentary sort of Order powers galaxies.

So "hard" is no excuse for failure. "It's a miracle anything got built at all!" is not an excuse for failure. The daunting odds defied to get something partially made do not excuse the failure to bring it to full fruition. Every success (except for a few lucky bastards) bucks the same tidal opposition. Near-impossible hardness is the starting point of any worthy endeavor. So this was really on me.

Some of that may sound bitter, and overly self-critical. But no. I write this with lively bemusement, recognizing that we're all, ultimately, failures. Entropy always wins in the end, sand castles wash away, and my kudos to anyone who makes an effort. I take my hat off to the windmill tilters, the Herculean shmucks and the larcenous mechanics! I am comfortable among their rank.

We don't like to think of ourselves that way. Americans are all winners, every single one of us, including the myriad shleps who idly drift to Point B. But I favor truth even when it doesn't fit a glorious narrative of stupendous achievement. That's my greater Order.


Unknown said...

I'm sad. I haven't visited CH in ages. But in its heyday it taught me that there were other people out there that shared my obsession with experimenting with unfamiliar cuisines. I attended dinners arranged by other Chowhounds, and even once arranged one for my foodie compadres. Some of my fellow CH'ers are still my friends. It was lovely in those days, and I thank you, Jim, for starting it all. Now the internet is about monetizing everything in every possible way, and its lost most of its specialness. I will always remember Chowhounds fondly.

Ivan said...

Fuuuck. I still checked it on a regular basis but... one could feel it dying. The vitality was long gone.

Nina said...

Thank you Jim, for all your work. What you created was a really special thing for a long time. And sorry for all the shit I gave you :-) Wishing you lots of good food with good people. -Nina W.

gbutera said...

Well, learning this news led me to your Slog yesterday, and I've enjoyed reading many many of your posts. I think I still have 25 tabs open on my browser from links in one article leading me to another... Don't know if you've considered compiling some of your insight into a life philosophy book, but you certainly could. Enjoyed reading the 26 (27?) part saga of the Chowhound sale...I was often a reader (never posted anything there) and thought I had lost interest in the site because of life changes (having a kid makes it a lot harder to eat at restaurants) but reading the saga about how the site changed, the entropy spiral makes a lot of sense too.

James Leff said...

Welcome, and thanks, gbutera.

No book. The web perfectly suits my efforts here.

You asked thoughtfully, so I'll try to answer thoughtfully.

I've spent my life trying desperately to understand stuff (there's a fine line between confusion and curiosity).

In the process, I've cobbled together a bag of insights, building/stacking one atop another. The web format allows me to simulate that stacking. I can easily refer readers to the explanations and basis of conjectures which might otherwise seem inexplicable.

It's a recursive stack - and worthwhile only because I'm so careful about filtering out claptrap. My head's not free of claptrap; it's full of it! But I work crazy hard to avoid *building* upon it. So my foundations are pretty solid, giving the structure a certain sheen bearing no resemblance to the murky, confused, shmucky guy who built it. It's amazing what you can do with very diligent filtering.

So this is sort of a neural net of my mind. Which, to my thinking, is a nicely apt use of Web technology.

It's not a normal thing to do, because most people don't stack fresh thoughts like this. It took me years to realize most people don't have many fresh thoughts - only because they're busy with other stuff. Many/most are way smarter than me in terms of thinking linearly to conclusions. I'm not always so good at that. When I get stuck, it's bad.

For them, books make the best map for their thought processes and conclusions.

But there's something about me and the Web. We were made for each other!

Anonymous said...

Jim! NO!

So sad to hear. This was the first passionate community I felt at home in. I am sorry to see it go.

Perhaps we should get some soup dumplings at that new Szechuan place...

Zach Georgopoulos said...

It's depressing, but maybe it was time. I never really liked the format after the corporate reconstruction, and it actually sort of put me off posting, so I drifted away from Chowhound. I have great memories, though, of the wonderful discussions on line before the web became such a hateful place, as well as the Chowing with the Hounds picnics and other gatherings. Thanks, Jim, for making all that happen!

Barry Popik said...

I was a fan of the early years, but rarely visited after the sale. I'm a food etymologist/lexicographer/historian/dad joke guy--I think I contributed the origin of the term "chowhound." I probably should have contributed thousands more, and developed a proper food and drink historical dictionary. I see on the front page today that it has no clue about the American etymology of "corned beef and cabbage" (Jiggs dinner). Ah well.

Yes, you could have been Yelp, or whatever you wanted to be. Instead, the sale just turned it into a generic food site and a cash cow. Thanks for all you did in the early years. They will be remembered.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the gift of Chowhound, however ephemeral, and the ongoing gift of the culture of food discovery and celebration that you helped foster. From where I sit, a block from the Arepa Lady's brick-and-mortar home, that spirit is alive and well, amplified by a dozen writer-explorers who followed in your footsteps.

This culture is so mainstream now, it can be hard to recognize. But I thought of you and the early days of Chowhound when the NY Times restaurant critic granted a taco truck a rare two-star review ( Even elite gatekeepers like to bask in the reflected glory of Chowhound's tradition of grassroots word-of-mouth food discoveries.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Jim! I owe you one. I met my now best friend at a chowhound outing. Can't thank you enough. Ironically, that particular meal was kynda meh, but many others weren't. Thanks for that, too.

James Leff said...

What a terrible story! You deserve better than "meh"!

Anonymous said...

Chowhound was magical in its prime, and it happened to coincide with a period in my life where I made twice as much as my rent, thought myself rich, and lived in the outer boroughs right on the precipice of areas where English gave way to Russian, Spanish and Arabic and delicious smells hit me from across the street on the regular.

I didn’t meet my wife or friends _on_Chowhound but I lived through it all the way up to about 2006. Time was spent consulting the site before making any plans, and while I was very occasional contributor of new information I often confirmed truths others had discovered.

I made piece with the demise of Chowhound way back, so it’s disappearance is only another step. But I’ll always appreciate it.

Unknown said...

Some people "see the devil in everything"; I "see the Chowhound in everything".

Current and former celebrity chefs introducing America to the culinary treasures of the now defunct Golden Mall in Flushing, Queens, NYC. ¿ Wonder where they did their pre-visit research ? Chowhound.

Owners of Xi'an Famous Foods crediting a celebrity chef for super charging their business: Chowhound.

"Influencers" discovering the spicy wontons at White Bear Restaurant in Flushing: Chowhound.

Owner of White Bear saying, "¿ Number 6 ?" to anyone studying the menu on the wall too long: Chowhound.

Professional restaurant reviewers at news media, such as the NY Times and New York magazine aimed at the Ezekiel Bread eating elite, tripping over each other trying to discover the next legendary food cart: Chowhound.

The President of the US and a celebrity chef eating pho in Vietnam street-side: Chowhound.

My learning enough Mandarin to order "the good stuff": Chowhound.

As a heavy reader, light poster to the Outer Boroughs (a.k.a. Flushing) board, Jim Leff, someone only known as Hling, and all other posters changed the way I eat -- more important, Chowhound changed the way everyone eats.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for the comment.

FWIW, re:: White Bear...published 1999:

Bombadilio said...

So sad to see my favorite internet website gone.


Your work was loved and enjoyed. I had forum posts on pans that became a Bible to friends.

Thank you.

Mr Taster said...

I've got a friend who's just repatriated her family to South Korea after being born & raised in Argentina and living illegally in Los Angeles' Koreatown for 18 years.

She just told me that she visited a Korean noodle shop in Seoul that some Netflix show hyped up (a little hole in the wall that has became super popular with the instatok crowd). Her reaction? Nothing special. She can think of half a dozen better places in Koreatown alone serving better versions of that dish, and this got me thinking.

One one hand, I feel privileged to have experienced first hand the elevation and appreciation of regional cooking in American culture (because Netflix = America). But on the other hand, I lament that the foodies appear to have taken over.

Mr Taster

Jim Leff said...

You and me, both.

I go to these pop-up things, waiting in line to cop fetishized bundles of breathlessly-described this or that, patently designed for Instagram rather than my palate or stomach, and inevitably detect no soul, no real deliciousness.

The passion you or I and the others wielded to extol discovery of amazing neglected grandmas still echos, but has been subsumed into trend mongering - scavenger hunting through deliberately created scarcity. The hordes of neo food adventurers sound unsettlingly like us kvelling over their photogenic fetish objects, but it's all oddly empty and templated.

OTOH if you ever imagined that the small but satisfying hole we ripped open for a brief moment wouldn't heal and be coopted by the trendy inanity we originally arrived to fight, you were unrealistic. It's always Animal Farm.

Hell, I called it back in 2005 (discussed same on NPR, too:

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late to the party, having just learned five minutes ago -- many months after the fact -- that ChowHound is gone. I was a very, very regular user (like 10-15 posts a day sort of regular) for maybe 10 or 15 years prior to CBS taking over and all that resulted from that. ChowHound was my main place on the Internet, my home away from home. Food was (and still is) a major passion of mine, and ChowHound was far and away the best food community I've ever experienced.

So I just want to say thank you for all you did there. While your baby is gone, its memories and, I daresay, its legacy, will live on for a long, long time. You did an amazing thing, you positively impacted many lives, and you should forever be proud of what you accomplished.

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