Long before food became a Twitter trend, before everyone Instagrammed the latest restaurant openings and you could learn how to cook a chicken on BuzzFeed, there was Chowhound.
Started in 1997, an entire generation ago, Chowhound was a food website for the interested, the like-minded and the obsessive, where you could discuss the latest Burmese restaurant in your city, which sushi chefs knew their craft and where to get a great bowl of barbacoa. It was a cultish site, where often anonymous users debated food the way conspiracy theorists discuss Roswell.
For 18 years, as the Internet and social media grew in prominence, Chowhound provided the food-obsessed an online community, a forum and an archive for a massive amount of accumulated conversation on discussion boards that were organized geographically and had threads that stretched back years.
Until last month, when a comprehensive redesign of the site prompted many longtime users, including many in Los Angeles, to abandon the site. Which has, in turn, prompted questions: What's the future of the community? And, in the age of Twitter and Snapchat, are these kinds of sites even relevant?
Chowhound, founded by Jim Leff and Bob Okumura in New York City as a message board, was run for years by unpaid volunteer moderators and carried no advertising. Its mission was iconoclastic, irreverent, proudly obsessive. "We're not talking about foodies," the original manifesto declared. "Foodies eat where they're told. Chowhounds blaze trails."
In 2006, Chowhound was sold to CNET, a San Francisco-based online media company, which merged the site with Chow magazine. It's now owned by CBS Interactive, which bought the company in 2008, and is still based in San Francisco.
As you'd expect, Chowhound's design and basic operations have changed over the years. As you also might expect, especially given its outlier manifesto, such changes have often not gone over well.
On Sept. 15, the most recent redesign was unveiled, a change that replaced the regional message boards and moved the topics among specific boards called "communities." Comments are "tagged," or organized, by topics such as "home cooking" and "restaurants and bars." Many users started complaining, not only about the differences but also about the site's usability, notably its distribution of content.
The changes have done more than create discontent — here in L.A., they've spurred an exodus. Chowhound users (called Hounds) are nothing if not vocal, and they made their discontent clear on the site's own boards. Not only did many users, some of whom have been posting for years, leave, but they also started new sites, like shadow governments, where they began forming new communities.
Many of the dissenting Hounds migrated to two new sites: Hungry Onion and Food Talk Central. Hungry Onion, set up by Sampson Shen in Palo Alto, has so far mainly attracted San Francisco-area users. Many L.A. users have moved to Food Talk Central, a site started by Berkeley-based technical writer Robert Lauriston. Both sites were set up in September as a direct result of the Chowhound redesign, in formats that purposefully imitate the old Chowhound site.
Starting splinter groups is hardly a new impulse. Chowhound users have left the site before, dissatisfied over changes or after being banned, and set up new sites. Steven Shaw started eGullet after leaving Chowhound, and Opinionated About Dining, Chicago's LTH Forum and Mouthfulsfood.com were all started by ex-Hounds.
"We've made some changes over the years, and this is the biggest yet, for sure," says Susan Lundgren, vice president of communications at CBS Interactive. "The driver for the redesign was to manage the content. There's just so much." Lundren says that the site expected "both a positive and negative response" and that it would work with users to learn what can be "further refined."
Managing users is not easy but neither is managing 18 years of conversation. And it's conversation that, over the years, has included some pretty notable food writers — Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, Eater's Robert Sietsema and New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells among them. CBS Interactive has the daunting task of archiving that content as well as providing a forum for future conversations. And it's a pretty substantial conversation: CBS Interactive says Chowhound had 10.2 million unique users in September.
Meanwhile, FTC is still only a few weeks old but is growing quickly. "I'm adding boards as people request them," Lauristen wrote in an email. He says he now has about 25. "Some are metropolitan areas, some states, a couple countries, some topical."
Lauristen attributed some of the discontent felt by Hounds to the redesign but also to what they believed was CBS Interactive's lack of engagement. "A lot of users who might have gone back to posting after the bugs were fixed felt insulted and left."
It's a comfort zone, this feeling of community, that so many Hounds feel they've lost. The question is whether they can find it again. Any new site, by definition, won't have the depth and the history of the old Chowhound, a place where some of the same people pulled up a computer chair for years.
David Chan is one of those people. Chan, who is legendary in L.A. food circles for his documentation of thousands of Chinese restaurants, many in the San Gabriel Valley, thinks he first posted on Chowhound as far back as 1999. It was through Chowhound that Chan found many of the restaurants he cataloged. For him the last straw with the new format came when he tried to post comments on a new restaurant within a thread criticizing that new format — simply because he couldn't figure out how to post otherwise.
"So for me it was goodbye to Chowhound," said Chan.
All of which raises a more obvious question: Do we really need message boards anymore, when we have so many other forms of more immediate feedback on social media? Many Hounds are voracious social media users, many have their own blogs, and L.A. Hounds at one point started their own Facebook page. But long threads can be difficult to sustain on those sites; an old-fashioned discussion board has a depth and range that repeating lines of 140 characters just can't reproduce.
"Message boards are great at scaling knowledge. Social networks are great at scaling users but challenged at scaling knowledge," says Sampson Shen. Or, as longtime Los Angeles Hound Tony Chen put it, "The message board is a treasure trove for 'us.' It's the same reason why car/gun/watch/shoe boards exist."
"Die-hard Chowhounds have made do amid duress since the dawn of the site," says Leff, the Chowhound co-founder. "Bad interfaces can be helpful; they filter out the Olive Garden set. The emigrés will make room for new blood, fresh perspectives and a new crop of chow tips. A bit of churn in a nearly 20-year-old online community might be a good thing."
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