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Bay Area user "rworange" embodies that treasure-seeking aspect of the prototypical chowhound. Those who follow the board have grown accustomed to her steady stream of extensive reports on restaurants that many folks simply haven't heard of yet — at least three or four new discoveries each week, it seems. For her, the appeal of Chowhound had much to do with its willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. After feeling underwhelmed by a meal at some hot new restaurant that a local food critic had raved about, she Googled to see if a different review might reflect her experience, and that's how she stumbled upon Chowhound.
"This was in 2002, before the proliferation of food blogs and restaurant review sites," she said. "Diners had no voice. ... It was fantastic to have a place to give an opinion."
While the Chowhound message boards gave users an opportunity to weigh in on restaurants, Leff and his team of volunteer moderators also established strict posting guidelines that have remained in effect to this day. Posts deemed to be not strictly food-related or otherwise off-topic are deleted. Posts suspected to be written by "shills" — either restaurant owners themselves or their friends or investors writing glowing reviews of their own restaurant — are deleted, often without notice. Do even a cursory Internet search and you'll find dozens of blog entries by current or former Chowhound users complaining about the board's "fascist" moderation policies.
Chowhound's supporters point out that this hyper-aggressive approach to monitoring the board for suspicious testimonials is the only way to preserve the integrity of the information the site provides. And the removal of non-food-focused posts means that the site has a high signal-to-noise ratio that just isn't possible at unmoderated or loosely moderated sites.
As Robert Lauriston explains, "The heavy censorship meant that useful information wasn't swamped by off-topic cliquish chitchat."
Even before the most recent set of changes, some users felt that Chowhound was already shifting away from its roots, particularly after the CNET purchase and an interface upgrade that expanded the site's user base. That was when Chowhound first merged with Chow.com, an online home cooking site. While the discussion boards maintained their independence, the merger likely added to the flood of newcomers who weren't necessarily familiar with Chowhound's particular ethos.
Yimster — not to be confused with the aforementioned Limster — is another longtime contributor to the Bay Area message board with a reputation for expertise on the local Chinese restaurant scene. What he remembers most about the early days was organizing and attending "chowdowns," where local hounds all meet in person and try out some interesting, newly discovered restaurant together.
"It was like finding a long-lost brother or sister who loves to eat," he recalls.
While chowdowns still take place, Yimster believes that now more and more people come to the site just to "take" rather than to share any of their own food knowledge. They'll ask the board's knowledgeable users where they should eat, but they may never report back on their experiences at the restaurants suggested or offer any of their own insights.
But according to many of the site's devotees, the latest set of changes is particularly "unchowish," in large part because of the star-rating feature. Jim Leff, who no longer has any official position with Chowhound, opposes the change. Among other criticisms, he questions how it's possible to "rate a bakery that is horrendous except for one item so great it's worth a 100-mile trip along the same rating scale as a pretty-good diner, an inconsistent high-end sushi place, and an exemplary Italian-ice cart."
Limster, the molecular biologist, argues that restaurants and food are complex entities. "Simplifying that into a single star rating loses a lot of useful detailed data," he said. "And I say that as someone who's spent time thinking about how best to crunch large-scale data from thousands of biological experiments." What Chowhound is particularly good for, he says, is finding out precisely that kind of detailed information: what off-the-menu dishes you might order, what shift the good chef is on.
The people currently running Chowhound assure users that there's no murky agenda here. Jacquilynne Schlesier, the site's community manager, has been helping to moderate Chowhound since the pre-CNET all-volunteer days. "Our users are incredibly passionate and incredibly knowledgeable," Schlesier says. "But it can be a little daunting if you're someone who's not a long-term chowhound." To help make the process less intimidating, they've revamped the site's restaurant listings — individual pages that have all the basic information about a particular restaurant along with links to relevant discussions on the message boards. It's on these pages that the star-rating feature appears.
Jane Goodman, the editor-in-chief of Chow.com, explained, "Yes, you can get a really nuanced vision of a restaurant or a type of food by wading through 200 posts, but I also think that it's asking a lot of people — and frankly it's asking too much of me, as a user, to do that."