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The Demise of Online Food Forums


prasantrin
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It all started with various Bulletin Boards which eventually morphed into Usenet. Thinking of rec.food.cooking and its ilk, usenet forums gradually declined in popularity with the introduction of Chowhound (now Chow) which (if you read about food forum lore) begat eG which begat MFF/AOD/etc which have probably begat other avenues by which people talk about food.

Looking over the different (self-proclaimed) "serious" food fora around the Internet, I have found a surplus of what I would consider silly, somewhat vapid, "let's try to introduce 'content' in whatever way possible" threads; repetitive threads; and completely off-topic threads (similarly, threads that start on-topic but rapidly decline into off-topic or argumentative banter that serves little purpose but to show how smart one person may be compared to others). It's Usenet all over again.

It makes me wonder how much longer these food fora have left in the virtual world. Some say blogs are on the way to extinction, but judging from what I see, I would say food fora will die out earlier.

What say you all?

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I've been thinking similar thoughts in recent days and weeks.

I think the problem is partly fragmentation (too many different food forums and too few real enthusiasts to spread among them), partly the rise of individual blogs (many people who used to discuss food on forums now just write their findings on their own sites) and partly simple boredom on the part of regular contributors.

One of the continued problems I see on any forums (on any subject) is that they reach a stage where the regulars have discussed everything they're interested in, are reluctant to cover old ground again, and as a consequence any newbies dipping their toes into the water are likely to be received somewhat poorly. I'm not accusing any poster or any forum specifically, but I often feel there's a certain kind of regular who'll only be happy when a board becomes a search resource rather than a forum for discussion. Of course, I know how irritating it is to see the same question posed time and time again, but if the alternative is discussing our favourite colour of egg-cup or similar, maybe old ground isn't such a bad idea.

Anyway, that's my little rant for the day!

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Excellent points. The only sites that seem to never run out of fresh material are the celebrity gossip sites. Perhaps eG should start a celebrity chef stalker forum. Between Sandra Lee (and the other FNsters) and Bourdain it should be pretty busy.

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I'd quibble with some of the historical summary (though IMO it's far better than most), but agree with some of the upshot.

"Bulletin boards" are, or were at the time, starting in the 1970s, basically self-contained, on individual time-shared computers that users dialed into. Whereas UUCP and the newsgroups (collectively and confusingly "Usenet") by their nature emphasized communication between different computers (anticipating a later widespread need). The "News" tools that carried the Internet's public discussions for 15 years until 1995 or so (and continue in a lesser role) spun off from Internet email, already around.* This does not mention the often overlooked or misrepresented role of private-networking firms (CompuServe, Prodigy, etc. etc.) that developed separate subscription-only, off-Internet discussion fora, including on food and wine. That was during a decade (1985-95) when several such firms competed with each other and with the developing, anarchic Internet, before they eventually merged into it. (Some of those firms, in trying to go their own way, blocked subscribers' access to existing Internet email and newsgroup services, delaying those subscribers' contact with the Internet for up to a decade, and contributing to the rich store of popular misinformation about Internet history.) The HTTP-era summary above was highly compressed, CH was far from pioneering. Another US consumer discussion forum on restaurants preceded CH by years. No one would be hearing of CH today had its predecessor's creator not found a spinoff angle paying much better money than any food forum has. Dynamics of newsgroup fora are different: Most were umoderated; I can tell you from reading r.f.c since its predecessor appeared in 1982 that its pervasive quirk was newbies not bothering to lift a finger to check any past content at all, therefore to perceive that their eager question was already addressed in 650 easily accessible threads (an actual number, from memory). Incidentally it IS "fora," originally and formally -- a casualty of declining dictionary use, a problem only if you also dislike "data," "media," and similar common plurals.

I thought at the time that the mid-90s arrival of modern HTTP Internet tools launched the real food-forum fragmentation. Quality, well-established Internet food and wine (and even local-restaurant) fora were already thriving, and not in obvious need of break-up or competition. A point that never seemed to be noticed or discussed by the influx of new Internet users unconscious of existing fora, their traditions, histories, etc., prompting both heavy re-invention of the wheel, and creation of sites with privately stored, owned, and controlled content (unlike newsgroups). Blogs are merely an extension of this now 15-year-old larger fragmentation.

*Trivia note: Both Sendmail and several News-related utilities, culminating in NNTP, were written by students at the same academic department.

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A community is only as good as its members.

Communities change over time. This has been true since the Internet was invented.

I don't see eG (to pick a forum out of a hat) dying anytime soon. Ditto for blogging.

Rumors of impending demise are grossly exaggerated.

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A community is only as good as its members.

Communities change over time. This has been true since the Internet was invented.

I don't see eG (to pick a forum out of a hat) dying anytime soon. Ditto for blogging.

Rumors of impending demise are grossly exaggerated.

eGullet is a different type of forums than most though. It is well and thoroughly moderated and kept on topic. Almost (in my probably incorrect opinion) to the point of overkill at rare moments but that is much better than the alternative... floods of off-topic posting and spam. The fact that eGullet members must tow the line in this regard eliminates many of the problems associated with other forums. While I would point to eGullet as an example of how to do it right, I'm not sure I'd point to eGullet as proof that others are going to be okay. Not that it matters on a personal level, this is the only food forums I participate in anyway.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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A reasonable number of contributors to forums, both food based and others have been less interested in discussion than they are in publicising their own thoughts and experiences (Not saying there is anything wrong with that!) - and blogs/twitter have become a much more effective way of doing that.

Then there is the other sort of forum, which is used mainly as a question and answer board, usually with a hardcore group of users answering most of the questions (Interestingly stack overflow have a cooking board now, where the rules are that everything must be an answerable question rather than something for discussion). Egullet hasn't ever gone that way (we get the odd one time poster asking a very specific question, then leaving, but the membership requirement keeps most of them out)

The very focussed nature of eGullet probably has helped it keep going, although equally when certain measures got more rigorously enforced, we lost quite a few members too.

I love animals.

They are delicious.

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There are other forums modelled on eG that survive quite nicely (no, I am not talking about MFF). I belong to a couple but I haven't posted for some time. I need to though ... my problem is I have too many distractions, one of which is Facebook.

It's the nature of the Internet to encounter change constantly. Even eG is not immune to this rule, however I think it'll be around for a very long time, not just because of the rules and policies but also because of its community.

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I think the Chicago food board, lthforum dot com, will stay around unless someone decides to kill it and/or or the major players migrate elsewhere. It's a really good source of food news for that specific area. (I think the news part is key; there are people who are tireless about spotting and reporting developments, which is an ideal use of the board format imo.)

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Incidentally it IS "fora," originally and formally -- a casualty of declining dictionary use, a problem only if you also dislike "data," "media," and similar common plurals.

As a professional user of dictionaries, I would point out that no major English dictionary--there's a few of them here in my office--lists fora as the preferred plural, not even the OED. Which doesn't give it at all, not even in the extensive list of historical references.

As to the forum thing, it seems to be a usual thing for most of the content to be generated by a small portion of the members, topics get covered repetitively, partly because search functions tend to suck. It does happen that topics come up where I know it was covered two, three, four years ago, whatever. I don't think this necessarily means that every possible topic is exhausted or that no new thing will come up. Or that we're going to find something better to do.

And yes, the moderated single-topic boards tend to be better.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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I think, perhaps, whether something is "dead" is very subjective (at least in the case of the internet). rec.food.cooking, for example, is still in existence and there are still a number of on-topic posts, but I would argue that the quality of what is being posted is a far cry from rfc of the '90's. To me, rfc is dead.

An example closer to home. . .

I'm fairly certain eG will still be active in 10 years, but with discussions around topics such as "What should I do with excess ice cubes" how relevant will the group be to those who are "seriously" interested in food, aside from (as Simon_S mentioned) as a search resource?

There is, of course, still a community here, but I think it is much smaller and much less diverse than it used to be. Some of the international forums, such as England, France, and Japan, used to be some of the most well-trafficked forums, and posts are few and far between there now. If you look at the eG food blogs, which were one of the prime attractions and which encouraged a strong sense of community, you'll see they are mostly frequented by the same dozen or so posters. Even the best example of community--the eG Heartland Gathering--seems to be attended primarily by folks who rarely participate in the forums anymore. It's as though people think it's still interesting to hang around people who are interested in food, but it is much less interesting to hang around food forums.

It's true that there are cycles of participation in any group, and people's interests do change. People come and go, and there are those stalwarts who will remain forever loyal. And this is not exclusive to eG; I am merely using eG as an example since it is in this forum which this topic is being discussed.

Just out of curiosity--what percentage of active eG members (by active I mean those who actually post) live outside the US, and how does the current percentage compare to the same group in 2003? Or 2007? (I chose 2003 since it was the year I joined, and 2007 because it's in the middle of 2003 and 2011)

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I think one problem with egullet is that the mission statement is kind of pretentious and elitist, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through to join (and to stay active). While this has the (presumably intended) consequence of keeping out a lot of the riff-raff and ensuring that folks who are here are interested in participating, I'm sure it also puts off many people from joining entirely. I only joined to post in a few threads I found interesting, but when I first came across egullet years ago, all the requirements definitely kept me from signing up.

I'm not saying it's a bad way to go -- there's some benefit to limiting the size of a community, but by restricting growth, you do also run the risk of lack of growth or stagnation. I'm not against aggressive moderation and keeping things on-topic, but personally, I would question the need to be so restrictive about who can join, or try to inflate the idea of a forum by making it a "society".

The name also seems a little dated - the whole 'prefixing things with e' trend died out a while back...

This is not to say I don't enjoy this forum - it's a more manageable volume of topics than Chowhound is, and in certain areas of discussion, there's less noise / repetition.

Edited by Will (log)
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I think one problem with egullet is that the mission statement is kind of pretentious and elitist, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through to join (and to stay active). While this has the (presumably intended) consequence of keeping out a lot of the riff-raff and ensuring that folks who are here are interested in participating, I'm sure it also puts off many people from joining entirely. I only joined to post in a few threads I found interesting, but when I first came across egullet years ago, all the requirements definitely kept me from signing up.

I'm not saying it's a bad way to go -- there's some benefit to limiting the size of a community, but by restricting growth, you do also run the risk of lack of growth or stagnation. I'm not against aggressive moderation and keeping things on-topic, but personally, I would question the need to be so restrictive about who can join, or try to inflate the idea of a forum by making it a "society".

The name also seems a little dated - the whole 'prefixing things with e' trend died out a while back...

This is not to say I don't enjoy this forum - it's a more manageable volume of topics than Chowhound is, and in certain areas of discussion, there's less noise / repetition.

EG pretentious and elitist?

Hard to believe, Harry.

Edited by lancastermike (log)
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I suspect that one of the things that causes a gradual demise of an online forum is the increasing use of forum-specific lingo or jargon by the "regulars". This makes it hard for new people to understand the conversation, and makes them reluctant to join in. Some specific examples: In this thread, the acronyms MFF, AOD, eG, and CH were used. I got eG :smile:, maybe got CH, and have no idea at all what was meant by MFF or AOD.

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I think one problem with egullet is that the mission statement is kind of pretentious and elitist, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through to join (and to stay active). While this has the (presumably intended) consequence of keeping out a lot of the riff-raff and ensuring that folks who are here are interested in participating, I'm sure it also puts off many people from joining entirely. I only joined to post in a few threads I found interesting, but when I first came across egullet years ago, all the requirements definitely kept me from signing up.

I'm not saying it's a bad way to go -- there's some benefit to limiting the size of a community, but by restricting growth, you do also run the risk of lack of growth or stagnation. I'm not against aggressive moderation and keeping things on-topic, but personally, I would question the need to be so restrictive about who can join, or try to inflate the idea of a forum by making it a "society".

The name also seems a little dated - the whole 'prefixing things with e' trend died out a while back...

This is not to say I don't enjoy this forum - it's a more manageable volume of topics than Chowhound is, and in certain areas of discussion, there's less noise / repetition.

That is the primary reason why I initially went with Chowhound... but also the reason I evenutally hovered to EG hoping for a higher level of discussion. Unfortunately, most stuff on EG is pretty light weight, and discussions can end so abruptly.

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I suspect that one of the things that causes a gradual demise of an online forum is the increasing use of forum-specific lingo or jargon by the "regulars". This makes it hard for new people to understand the conversation, and makes them reluctant to join in. Some specific examples: In this thread, the acronyms MFF, AOD, eG, and CH were used. I got eG :smile:, maybe got CH, and have no idea at all what was meant by MFF or AOD.

MFF--Mouthfulsfood

AOD should actually be OAD (can I claim dyslexia?) Opinionated About Dining

Just two other forums out there that sometimes talk about food.

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That is the primary reason why I initially went with Chowhound... but also the reason I evenutally hovered to EG hoping for a higher level of discussion. Unfortunately, most stuff on EG is pretty light weight, and discussions can end so abruptly.

Welcome to the Internet, man.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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Even the best example of community--the eG Heartland Gathering--seems to be attended primarily by folks who rarely participate in the forums anymore. It's as though people think it's still interesting to hang around people who are interested in food, but it is much less interesting to hang around food forums.

I'm hanging my head in shame, Prasantrin. :sad:

I don't see the entire issue as a "demise" of online food forums, more as an evolution. Whatever the topic, people have always gravitated towards others who are like-minded. With the advent of "connectedness", it has just been easier to seek out others outside of your immediate circle of family, friends, and town.

UUCP

FIDONET

Dial-up BBS

AOL/Compuserve

DARPA/InterNET

IRC

USENET

GOPHER

World Wide Web

Topic-Specific Forums

???

Interestingly, if you look closely enough, you can still find people using (most) of the technologies I listed above. Will "forums" ever be replaced as a mainstream technology? Absolutely. Will they ever go away? No. Either because they serve a useful purpose for a minority set of users or because of simple nostalgia.

What will eventually change is the method in which people connect, not the fact that people want to be connected to one another.

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When was the pick of eGullet? 2005? I remember being addicted back then, checking for new posts every 10 minutes at work... I believe the content quality was a lot higher. I come now once every few months and I have not posted in years....

Assuming that I am right, where did all the people that posted in eGullet back in 2005 go? Personally, I cook now more than ever, but I rather spend my limited free time reading good cookbooks that checking out websites such as this one, or MFF or OAD... Even if you just check restaurant and chefs websites, you can access some great content.

I am actually surprise that eGullet, MFF, and OAD have lasted this long.

Alex

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I guess I am a bit dim because I simply don't understand the premise.

Are food forums actually in decline?

Or, have they simply been diversified into forums dealing with specific foods of regional, ethnic or type of food (meat, vegetarian, fruit, and so on), plus those devoted to specific appliances, (Kitchenaid and etc.) because I have seen quite a few develop over the past decade.

I don't know how many barbecue forums are presently active, but there are quite a few, as well as several sub-forums devoted to smoking, or to specific types of cookers.

I've been a member of the bread-bakers forum since 1991 and it shows no sign of decline since it was founded in 1990.

More recently I joined forumThermomix and it is quite active, though most of the members are in Australia, there is enough input from other countries to make it interesting.

I have been a member of eG since April '04 and to me it seems as active as ever, even though many of the people who were very active when I first joined are no longer active, I don't think it is because of disinterest in topics but perhaps life situations have changed.

In the '80s I was a member of a couple of user groups and "bulletin boards" that discussed foods as well as other topics. I also still have some early Prodigy files loaded with recipes traded by members on a forum that was mostly related to food, gardening and a bit of travel, with a lot of info about restaurants and shops to look up when visiting a strange city.

They didn't die, they morphed into other ways of communicating.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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When I first started here, I really disliked the moderation especially the need to throw everything about a subject into unnavigatable giant megathreads. If I wanted to ask a question about SV, I had to post it into the leviathan and hope that someone in the thread decided to move away from the current topic in the thread and help me out. Most of the times my questions were just ignored. It almost made me stop posting.

Indexing helps but being able to ask specific questions about a subject in a separate thread not only makes it more likely the question will be answered but it also helps someone in the future when they search. The forcing of everything into generalized threads makes it more likely someone will ask the same questions in the future because they likely don't have 2 days to read 98 pages of posts (and searching more than just thread titles often gives you more hits than you could possibly go through).

I worry that these things will cause other people to feel as I did when I first came. It certainly doesn't feel like this forum is growing with new and interesting posters.

All that said, I still prefer EG to the other forums for reasons similar to what first ticked me off. I appreciate that for the most part the posters in here refrain from LAMPs (Look at me posts). We don't get a lot of thread hijacking or inane posting like you get on most of the other forums.

For instance, I asked a question on a bread baking forum about Brioche recipes specifically to be used for French toast. I made it clear that the actual bread recipe was all I was interested in. I got two posts telling me about what they would put on top, one post saying they use any type of bread to make French toast, and one telling me where to buy fluted molds. Very frustrating.

I think to make sure that these forums survive you have to find some compromise between the two extremes or the forum will either become so elitist as to slowly dwindle away as people get bored or it will become useless because no one with actual knowledge will go to your board because of all the inanity.

Edited by BadRabbit (log)
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When was the pick of eGullet? 2005? I remember being addicted back then, checking for new posts every 10 minutes at work... I believe the content quality was a lot higher. I come now once every few months and I have not posted in years....

One thing that occurs to me, and this may not be true in absolute numbers but just dilution due to the growth in the number of members, is that it seems to me that there used to be much more participation from professionals in the food industry than there is now.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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