When Hungry Onion celebrated the joining of its thousandth member, I thought about Amy Scattergood’s LA Times article, What Happened to Chowhound?, which explains the genesis of Hungry Onion and Food Talk Central. At the bottom of the article, Chowhound co-creator, Jim Leff, who sold the site in 2006, suggested that the changes which prompted a Hound diaspora could “make room for new blood, fresh perspectives and a new crop of chow tips”.
Some devotees continue to contribute high quality content to Chowhound, but five months after that article was written, participation is still down overall and new blood has not repopulated the site. Usability issues no doubt deter new users, but the pattern of participation on Chowhound for the past few years tells a larger story.
New content has been slowing down
Chowhound is 19 years old and Hounds have noted that the site isn’t as popular as it once was. By how much? Threads are associated with a sequential numerical code, so I was able to determine the number of new posts created each year (the numbering system gets wacky before 2007, and there’s a blip I had to remove that housed Chow.com editorials). As shown in the bar graph, the number of new threads created in 2015 is 1/4th the amount created in 2007.
That said, threads are living documents, and Hounds like to build on old threads rather than create new ones. A more telling measurement of activity is the number of Hounds who use Chowhound.
Where have all the Chowhounds gone?
Like any community, Chowhound has had community members taper off their participation as their life needs, interests, or website/technology preferences changed.
Hounds have also left Chowhound because of conflict. I’ve been reading Chowhound since 2010, and every time CBS changed the interface or policies, some portion of established members were resistant to the change and left, or threatened to leave, the site. Prolific community members left when CBS deleted the restaurant address database and potentially when CBS invited industry people to join the site. The Sept. 2015 changes to the site caused a mass exodus in part because the community felt their needs weren’t being taken seriously by CBS.
What happened to the cavalry?
George Haddad, the Vice President at CBS in charge of Chowhound, states on his Linkedin page that traffic has increased during since he came aboard. To the extent that Alexa is a valid measure of web traffic, Alexa confirms a big jump in search engine traffic since the fall 2015 revamp. Presumably the big jump has something to do with the new tagging system and better search engine optimization. Another way they achieved this is by cutting staff, and getting more page hits with automated newsletters. Increased traffic is good for CBS’s profit, and for marketing the evergreen recipes and cooking tips on the site. However, as my below analysis shows, these clicks translate to lurking, not the addition of content by new users— that’s bad for the Chowhound community.
Chowhound userids are sequential, so I was able to identify from user profiles when a Hound joined the site, and their pattern of participation/posting. I looked at four types of members. The “participating members” posted to more than one thread. These are the folks who curate the site and add content. There are the “one post wonders” who weren’t interested enough in the site to post more than once. There were a ton of “lurkers,” people who never post. Finally, there were over 100,000 “spammers” who never post, but list their websites in their profile.
Scattergood cites a CBS representative as saying that 10.2 million individual users visited Chowhound in September. Who were they? As of March 11th, only 75 of those September people went on to become “participating members” by posting to more than one thread in the five to six months that followed. Of those 75 new “participating members” from September, only twelve have posted to more than five threads.
To give the September numbers some more context, I calculated the number of “participating members” according to when they joined the site. I restricted this analysis to 2010 to 2015. As shown in the graph, fewer and fewer people become participatory members each year. Twelve times as many “participating members” joined in Sept-Dec 2010 as had joined in Sept-Dec 2015. (Note: 2010 members have had more time to make their newbie posts than 2015 members, but membership duration is not the big factor here-- were that the case, you’d expect the 2010/2011 differences to have closed by now).
Whether CBS changed the site or not, these patterns suggest that there would have been fewer new members in Sept-Dec than any analyzed group of four months. CBS was unable to combat this trend with the revamp.
Growth in local communities, as opposed to general topics like Home Cooking, has been especially dismal. I looked at members who might hold the torch in the future— people who joined between Sept and Dec. 2015, and who posted to more than 5 local community threads (Restaurants or Markets & Stores). Chowhound, a global community founded on sharing restaurant information and tips, had only 10 such new members join. Multiply that by three, and Chowhound is predicted to have only 30 prolific sources for restaurant tips join in 2016.
Chowhound.com is a business that needs to stay profitable to continue and CBS has control of its future. Unless Google changes its algorithm (note what happened to MetaFilter), I anticipate that freelance listicles, bumping up Chow.com articles (e.g., this recycled 2010 Chow.com article), and 19 years of archives will generate enough traffic to keep alive the content so many of us contributed to. However, I don’t have much faith in the Chowhound community expanding beyond its current numbers, especially on the regional boards.
Concluding thoughts and why I like Hungry Onion
Chowhound may have been the only game in town 19 years ago, but things have changed. The food obsessed can use complimentary sites in their pursuit of all things tasty, and their choices of where to hang out can be informed by each site’s culture, ease-of-use, and quality. Discussion boards, be they about food, cars, or video games, are still the best medium for hobbyists to exchange ideas, questions, and build an archive of community knowledge. That’s why I am hopeful that Hungry Onion will continue to grow and encourage people to contribute content.
Hungry Onion’s major asset is the voices already here, and it stands out by being a free site without ads. That means the community’s interests are what guides the site, not profit. In addition to offering high quality discussions about restaurants and home cooking, Hungry Onion also offers many things that Chowhound doesn’t— a simple interface; a comparable mobile and desktop interface; auto saving of posts in progress; formatting such as embedded hyperlinks, italics, bold, bulleted lists; full-sized photographs which are good for uploading menus; private messaging; the ability to download an archive of all of your posts at once; and the ability to sort search results by date on a mobile device.
See you on the boards! - Hyperbowler