Thursday, August 26, 2010

Has Chowhound Jumped the Shark?

Over the last few years, it seems that the once great website's posts and influence are dwindling which forces me to explore the question, has Chowhound jumped the shark?

What is Chowhound?

Founded in 1997 by New York food critic and trombonist Jim Leff, Chowhound should rightly go down in history as one of the most important food websites of all time, and possibly the most important food media source of any type in the first decade of the 21st Century. Before there was Yelp or even the concept of a food blog, Chowhound was the main source for on-line food reviews and discussion.

I joined Chowhound back in 2001 and over the next five years it was a thriving community of like minded food-lovers intent on hunting down the very best of everything in every corner of the globe.

Why Chowhound was Great

During its heyday, Chowhound exemplified the best aspects of internet media. It was a free flowing, democratic community where valuable information was exchanged on a daily basis. Want to know the best Korean BBQ in the Valley? Someone on Chowhound just visited every single Korean place north of the 101. Need to know if Patina is worth the hype? Ask the Hounds, they will know. Have questions about which factory makes the best Girl Scout cookies in Brooklyn? Yeah, a Hound will tell you.

Sure, you could read postings by food luminaries like Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold, but if you hung out on the site, you would get to know legions of knowledgeable posters, unknown to the general public, who could teach you just as much and lead you to some great chow. And part of what made the community work was the constant back and forth. There were distinct personalities on display, and back in the earlier days, there was a lot of cross-board pollination, partly because the layout of the boards at that time allowed you to see and comment on all active topics in a convenient way. Sure I might live in LA, but that didn't mean I wouldn't chime in about New York, New Orleans or a great discussion happening on the general board.

Things were never perfect, of course. There were the inevitable flame wars, the predictable cries of foul at this or that removed post, and the constant challenge Leff faced in maintaining the site as a labor of love, but it was a remarkable place full of remarkable voices.

Not only did I find some of the best things I ate over the past decade on Chowhound, I read some of the best food writing around. Check out Thi Nguyen's (now a frequent food writer for the LA Times) write up of his first visit to Langer's or the poster known as Minty's description of her childhood trips to Red Lobster which you will find as the seventh reply in this thread about chain restaurants. The archives of Chowhound are rich with this type of thing, and it's great fun to spend some time just reading through the cache of five to ten year old posts.

What Happened?

Today, Chowhound is a shadow of its former self. The LA board, which I spend the most time on, still has some good posters and good information, but it no longer feels like the thriving community it once was. There are many fewer posts per day than there used to be, and many of them are simply reprints of the posters' blogs (I am guilty of this myself). But more importantly, the site is simply less useful than it once was. I used to find a few great tips per week from Chowhound, now I'm lucky if I get a single great tip in any given month.

It's tempting to blame the decline on Jim Leff's decision to sell the site to CNET Networks in 2006. Leff was not only the founder and administrator of Chowhound, but the guiding force and spirit behind it. He was the Wizard of Oz, sometimes cantankerous or curmudgeonly, but ultimately there to tell you, like the Wizard told Dorothy and her friends, that you always had it in you to find the best food out there, you just had to look for it. Without Leff, the site became, just another corporate web forum. (Jim Leff has been writing his own fascinating account of the CNET deal on his personal blog).

But while the CNET purchase may have temporally coincided with the decline of Chowhound, I'm not sure that it caused that decline. While CNET did do an aesthetic remake of the site, it left the boards pretty much in tact, and even added some cool new features like the ChowTips and Obsessions videos which complemented the on-going discussions. Even if Leff wasn't in charge anymore, CNET pretty much followed his roadmap.

Rather, I think what caused the decline was just a natural evolution of food sites. First, Yelp came along, and younger food lovers seemed to gravitate to that site with its more free form postings and snarky, self-referential style, a food site for the MySpace generation.

Then came the deluge of food blogs. Nearly every regular poster on Chowhound, present company included, now seems to have a food blog. We spend our time on our blogs rather than posting on Chowhound. Sure, once in a while, we might cross-post a particularly worthy review on Chowhound, but our priority is our blogs, which must be supplied with regular content, and that takes up most of our food writing energy.

The proliferation of blogs has its positives and is in some ways the logical extension of Chowhound, but it came at the expense of community. In speaking through many different blogs, the conversation among those who consider themselves chowhounds has become more disperse. We talk less to each other and more around each other. Instead of a linear conversation, we are now many voices shouting in the cyber-wilderness.

Surprisingly, with all of the blogs out there, it can actually be more difficult to get reliable food tips. Finding large volumes of information about a particular restaurant or type of cuisine is easier than it was in the pre-blog era, but finding quality information and trying to determine whether there is any consensus is more difficult precisely because of that lack of direct communication. I pine for the days of a Chowhound post about a new find with 135 responses pro and con.

The Legacy of Chowhound

No medium lasts forever and perhaps Chowhound has just outlived its usefulness, but it leaves behind a lasting legacy. Chowhound was the training ground for a whole generation of food lovers. I doubt that food blogs, as we know them today, could have happened without Chowhound and its dose of direct food democracy. All of us in the food blogosphere owe some of our existence to this groudbreaking site. And I wouldn't be surprised if the next generation of professional food writers are people who spent the early years of the century posting on Chowhound. Chowhound may not be what it once was, but it has served us well, and I'm thankful, if a bit nostalgic, for the time before it jumped the proverbial shark.


Chuck Cowdery said...

One of the great things about the internet is that it is self-correcting. We are in a period of transition right now during which it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff but clarity is coming soon...probably.

karaoke steven said...

I hardly look at chowhound anymore. The fact that it is not really i-phone accessible may be another cause of its decline. I hate yelp, but I use the yelp app on my phone when I'm in an unfamiliar area and in need of food.....with uneven results.