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How has the Internet changed the food and restaurant scene?

Brian S Dec 24, 2006 03:45 PM

Back in the '90s, they said the Internet would change everything, and in many ways it has. But how has it changed the food scene? I'm not referring primarily to Chowhound.com, though this website has certainly made my world vaster and more fascinating. In my few months in New York, I ate at Burmese, Moroccan, Brazilian, Ghanaian and Egyptian restaurants I would never have known existed if not for Chowhound. Thanks to the Internet, if I hear the name of a foreign dish, I can find out what it is, its history, and how to make it -- and maybe even order it online.

Perhaps the most interesting effect of the Internet is empowerment. That's why most repressive regimes ban it; it's a threat to them. But how does this work in the world of food? Does it change what kind of restaurants open, the service, and the dishes they serve? Are customers more responsive to waiters' pet peeves? Does it affect food critics' reviews -- and their reputations? Before the internet, if I thought that the critically acclaimed Cafe Hoity Toity was a sham and a fraud, there was nothing I could do about it except tell my friends and family. Today I can tell the world.

You are reading this because of the Internet. You are a part of my life because of the Internet.

  1. u
    uptown jimmy Dec 24, 2006 05:10 PM

    I don't think there are enough people using the internet to guide their dining decisions to make much of an impact, at least not yet, and certainly not outside of the major major markets. Perhaps foodies in SF, NY, and LA are an exception.

    On the other hand, it must be said that widely-available high-speed access has changed Chowhound for the worse, in the sense that we now have many more people posting poorly-informed, overly-enthusiastic nonsense than used to be the case. Sorta the "MySpace Narcissism" effect.

    Anyway, here in the South, most folks are oblivious to sites like Chowhound.

    10 Replies
    1. re: uptown jimmy
      Jim Leff Dec 26, 2006 02:20 AM

      "here in the South, most folks are oblivious to sites like Chowhound"

      True, but that doesn't mean there aren't lots of folks out there trying to suss out great places, go very out of their way for greatness, etc. Hopefully they'll stumble upon this resource so all can share notes so we all eat better.

      I did a radio show in Nova Scotia a while ago, an area not known for great food, and where we have scant readership. It was a call-in, and you'd be amazed by how savvy and chowhoundish folks are up there. I just received permission to post the show as a podcast, so watch my Chow Tour <http://www.chow.com/tour> for the Halifax report.

      The point is that chowhoundish people are everywhere, so eventually we'll build critical mass in all areas. You can accelerate this by spreading the word and priming the pump with good tips. We'll help by trying to bust out our overly broad geographics (especially in the south and midwest)!

      As for our hosting more poorly-informed, overly-enthusiastic nonsense these days, that's true! But it's 'cuz we've grown....so we have more of EVERYTHING, including good chow tips. The Green M&M Fallacy (those who hate green M&M's dislike larger bowls of M&M's because larger means more greens) is a powerful thing and an unavoidable perceptual fallacy. FWIW it's the reason lots of country people dislike cities, believing, accurately, that there are more crazies and nasty people there. Back home you rarely see aggressive nasty crazy people, whereas in, say, NYC you might see four or five per day - among the 8,000 or so nice folks you pass in the streets each day). Green M&M's....

      Merry Christmas, hounds!

      1. re: Jim Leff
        u
        uptown jimmy Dec 26, 2006 04:40 PM

        Obviously I have mucho respect for you, Jim. But I am not so sure about your "green M&M's" theory.

        I think that what was once a pretty good signal-to-noise ratio around here has shown signs lately of tipping so far in the wrong direction as to be more properly termed a noise-to-signal ratio. :) As I intimated before, I do think the problem is much more pronounced outside the major markets, for instance on the "South" board.

        And that's okay. It seems an inevitable by-product of growth, as you point out. And it's not so bad, really. I just hope it doesn't get any worse. It's galling to see people strongly recommending barely-edible crap, is all I'm saying. And that just didn't happen too often a few years ago.

        But please understand: I'm sincerely grateful that Chowhound exists at all.

        1. re: uptown jimmy
          Brian S Dec 26, 2006 04:53 PM

          I think what I wrote just below is relevant. People who write good posts get respect for their next post. So the noise gets filtered out.
          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

          1. re: uptown jimmy
            Jim Leff Dec 27, 2006 05:54 PM

            Hey, disagreement on anything is welcome (and I respect you right back, regardless!). But I'm not pointing out that degradation is an inevitable byproduct of growth. Just that PERCEPTION of degradation is.

            When we went from 50 to 200 postings per day, we had users very upset about how much worse things were getting. Same when we went to 500, 1000, 2000 (and I have no way of counting now, but suspect it's getting near 3000). I don't think the proportion's changed. My point is that at 200 postings per day, we had 125 good postings, 65 so-so ones, and 10 awful ones. At 2000 postings per day, even with the same proportions (and I do think it's the same), that's a TON of so-so and awful ones! And if you hate bad stuff more than you love good stuff, you will inevitably prefer small realms ('cuz large realms have more of what you hate). I like a large-realmed chowhound, because it means more coverage, more tips, more diversity. Even though it means proportionally more lame stuff.

            Interestingly, it works looking the other way too. As we grow, the moderators have to fend off a larger number of psychos, shills, and vandals. Again, the proportion may remain the same, but a greater volume of Bad Stuff takes its psychic toll. Among this huge quantity of nice people lurk some really twisted individuals (as you can well imagine!).

            I totall agree, though, that boards like The South can be teetery. But that's our fault...the geographics there are just stupid bad. We're working right now, in fact, to bust up The South, the Midwest, and a bunch of our other boards into more local coverage. Until we do, they'll always be skewed and a little "off".

            I have zero doubt that Louisville, Atlanta, and Memphis boards (etc) would rock.

            BTW, I have to note that you can affect this ratio. Chowhound isn't like a tv station to be received passively. YOU are the program director! By "priming the pump" with good tips, you sow the seeds for smart hounds coming in (there's always a big flow of newcomers) to stick around and contribute in kind. And by engaging with really good posters (newcomers who post great stuff and are ignored often feel shunned and go away), you likewise help make the site smarter and better. "It's what you make of it" is such a cliche, but in this case it's true!

            ciao

            1. re: Jim Leff
              Andiereid Dec 27, 2006 06:04 PM

              Well, as a member of the South board, and a lifetime resident of the South, I'm not sure how I feel about being called "teetery". Granted, we ain't Manhattan, but there are some great places to eat off the beaten path, and just because we don't have as many great restaurants to choose from, it doesn't necessarily equate that we don't have good taste in food.

              1. re: Andiereid
                Jim Leff Dec 27, 2006 06:14 PM

                We have some AWESOME people on the South board, and some terrific chow tips (from the likes of you!).

                My point is that by showing your region the disrespect of lumping you all into an enormous draw, we've harmed your ability to gather a critical mass of hounds in all the component locales. It's not very attractive a proposition to pipe in a tip for some little muffin place in a small town in West Virginia amid a forum titled "The South". It's like trying to discuss a local zoning issue in the UN General Assembly!

                I think there are MORE great places down there, and more diligent people tracking them, than in most areas. Chowhound's done a crappy job of offering you guys a proper clubhouse. We're trying to correct this. And I, and all who eat, appreciate posters like you who've stuck around and chipped in their chowconnaissance in spite of the poor organization....

                ciao

                1. re: Jim Leff
                  Andiereid Dec 27, 2006 06:21 PM

                  Ah. I see. I misunderstood. Yes, I agree, dividing us up a little might distil us into a little more useful information - like a Triangle board, yes, a Memphis board, etc.

                  1. re: Jim Leff
                    u
                    uptown jimmy Dec 27, 2006 07:15 PM

                    Good stuff. I'm with you.

                    1. re: Jim Leff
                      c
                      cheesemonger Dec 30, 2006 12:56 AM

                      As long as you're thinking about the lumping, can I pop in? I'm in Colorado, and well, most of us have just given up. The "Southwest" board is, to reflect your words, an enormous draw. It's really a "Las Vegas" board, occasionally Phoenix, rarely Denver area or other Colorado.

                      I think if the tons of Vegas Vegas Vegas posts were re-directed, then other areas could break through that noise.

                      1. re: cheesemonger
                        Jim Leff Dec 30, 2006 03:26 AM

                        Absolutely. Hey, to not drive this thread totally off-topic, everyone back here is well aware of the geographical issues, and we'll improve it. Back to the chow!

          2. Glencora Dec 24, 2006 06:07 PM

            I can't say how the internet had changed restaurants but I do know that it has changed my dining experience. Being able to look at restaurants' menus online has had an effect on where I go out to eat. I can get a sense of the food and how the menu changes seasonally--and, usually, of the prices. Fewer rude suprises. On the other hand, sometimes knowing too much about a place can make the experience feel less spontaneous. Maybe that's a problem with the internet in general. Too much information. I know I don't need to read 5 movie reviews, but sometimes I do anyhow...

            1. c
              cheesemonger Dec 24, 2006 06:18 PM

              I think it's changed a lot of things about eating, in and out.

              For one- the availability of products, and the ability to get information on products.

              Recipe searching on the internet has changed a lot about the way I cook at home- I can look at a number of recipes and decide which comes closest for me, instead of going to the bookstore or library.

              I can order regular groceries to be delivered to me, or I can have specialty items shipped.

              And like others have said, I can look at restaurant reviews online, I can look at a menu. I can plan a drive cross-country or a trip to a new city and eliminate a lot of randomness about where I eat.

              Does anyone remember when rec.food.cooking first started by the way? I used to participate in that, and I learned a LOT about cooking and food, just from discussions about technique and style. And as for the argument that dilettantes post on chowhound- the rec.food boards were unmoderated. What a mess that could be, but it did make me a better cook.

              1. h
                HillJ Dec 25, 2006 01:56 PM

                Given the number of restaurants/fresh markets/farms/specialty stores throwing their hat into the WWW; creating sites/blogs/forums/BB and ads, I would venture to say that the Internet has forever changed the way in which both owner & consumer research & explore a global community of all things edible.

                Ain't it cool!

                1. r
                  RicRios Dec 25, 2006 06:33 PM

                  "Before the internet, if I thought that the critically acclaimed Cafe Hoity Toity was a sham and a fraud, there was nothing I could do about it except tell my friends and family. Today I can tell the world. "

                  Well, yeah, you can tell the world... but the world won't be listening. Internet seems an ever-present all-encompassing media only to its users. Which are a tiny minority, believe it or not. I live in LA, you'd be surprised how few restaurant goers have ever heard of Chowhound ...

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: RicRios
                    Brian S Dec 26, 2006 03:22 PM

                    This might change. Lots of people use Google to check out a restaurant. And Chowhound has a very high Google rank. For instance, about a week ago I replied to an old Chowhound post asking for food recs along the road between Louisiana and Tulsa. I mentioned Runt's Barbecue in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Just now I did a Google search for Runt's Muskogee and my Chowhound post appeared as the ninth post on the first page.

                    Chowhound.com gets almost a MILLION hits a month.

                    1. re: Brian S
                      r
                      RicRios Dec 26, 2006 08:17 PM

                      Petitio Principii (circular reasoning)!
                      The population of google users is identical, for all practical purposes, with the population of internet users.

                      Re. number of hits: please don't confuse a "hit" with a "user". Every single time you click on a chowhound link you generate a hit. My activity right now on Chowhound is generating probably about 100 hits...

                      1. re: RicRios
                        Brian S Dec 26, 2006 09:33 PM

                        Not circular. You said, "you'd be surprised how few restaurant goers have ever heard of Chowhound" Most of them HAVE heard of Google. And Google, if they use it, will lead them to Chowhound. About the hits, I think you're right (at least partly, they do try to track unique users, etc) ... but everyone uses that statistic, and the important factor is not how much influence someone has, but how much influence the restaurant owner THINKS he has.

                      2. re: Brian S
                        Jim Leff Dec 27, 2006 05:58 PM

                        Way, way more than that, Brian. I haven't seen stats in ages, but we passed a million monthly hits (i.e. page views) years ago.

                    2. c
                      ClaireWalter Dec 26, 2006 03:18 AM

                      Many people now make restaurant reservations on-line, because diners can do so at their convenience rather than when the restaurant happens to be open and/or the host/ess is not so busy seating parties that s/he has no time to give full attention to the reservation request.

                      1. n
                        nsheth Dec 26, 2006 04:38 AM

                        Pretty sure I came across this somewhere else on chowhound . . .

                        http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: nsheth
                          Brian S Dec 26, 2006 03:02 PM

                          Interesting article. I just sent the author an e-mail:

                          A link to your article on amateur local reviews was posted on chowhound.com and I read it with interest. Chowhound.com gets almost a million hits a month, and the bay area is incredibly active. I'm surprised you didn't mention it. Chowhound may be of interest to you because it avoids one of the biggest problems you talk about: on most sites there is no way to assess the reliability of the reviewers. Chowhound is different. Anyone can post anything (subject to rules about derogation, relevance etc) as often as they like. Most people don't post, or post only rarely. From the moment a guy posts, Bayesian things happen. If it's a very good post, a lot of people are going to read his next post. If it's a lousy post, fewer people will. After a while, a small, fairly stable elite forms of people whose posts everyone reads and respects, with a lot of other people whom most people will read if it's something interesting.This is what happens on many very big websites. They are self organizing systems.
                          Brian S.

                          about Bayesian:
                          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesian...
                          (I haven't read the whole article and probably can't do the math

                          )

                          and I just got this reply from the San Francisco Chronicle article's author: "Thanks for your note, Brian. Chowhound *is* a great site."

                        2. m
                          ML8000 Dec 26, 2006 05:16 AM

                          The internet = more information, which is both good and bad.

                          Good that's it's at your fingertips quickly...bad that you have TONS and TONS of sources and have to move through more clutter more junk.

                          The biggest thing to me is the democratization of information of which CH is a perfect example. Instead of the critics and "experts" holding the power, the common and collective voice carries weight...if you use a little common sense. If you have a good idea of what your personal filters are you can lots of useful info on cooking, restaurants, etc. It's not perfect but it's very, very helpful.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ML8000
                            Jim Leff Dec 27, 2006 06:02 PM

                            Yep. The winnowing required to find successful tips online is very similar, in fact, to the process one applies to the real world when sussing out places. Strategizing, the ability to filter obviously bad choices, etc, all play into it. Ideally, a resource like Chowhound will have more gold nuggets and less silt than the scene it surveys - and thus be useful.

                            One reason the mods work so hard to preserve our signal-to-noise ratio is to ensure that Chowhound remains distilled. If this site were chattier and more off-topic, we'd no longer be a useful resource, because the required winnowing would match that of the real world!

                          2. MC Slim JB Dec 28, 2006 05:02 PM

                            There's no question that the Internet has changed the restaurant business, paralleling its impact on many industries:

                            1) It's a new marketing channel. Putting up a website with menus, supporting local restaurant-focused sites, creating e-newsletters to promote wine nights and other events, posting job openings: a website has becomes one more channel (supplementing, not supplanting, the traditional ones) to reach out to prospective customers and employees. The less scrupulous restaurants post shill reviews to sites that accept customer reviews and do a shoddy job of moderating, and post negative reviews on those same sites about competitors (see citysearch.com for endless examples).

                            2) It has the potential to significantly change the reservations process, especially in the middle and upper tiers. The ability to use, say, opentable.com to find what's available in a certain neighborhood for a party of a certain size at the time we want to eat is a tremendous consumer convenience. I use it a lot, to the detriment of restaurants that don't participate. I'm guessing this will only grow.

                            3) It's a potential source of valuable customer feedback; some negative reviews are legit, and smart restaurants take them to heart. For example, I personally know of several restaurateurs who monitor Chowhound closely, and review negative posts with their staff. I think the industry could take a cue from other sectors and get much more programmatic about this, though.

                            4) It has the potential to make some consumers smarter and choosier, though user sophistication about online opinions has a long way to go. Much online "opinion content" is unmoderated and suspect, and many consumers still don't factor in the trustworthiness of the source with the weight they give the opinion. Chowhound's aggressive moderating makes it superior to its various competitors, who could benefit greatly from its model.

                            1. free sample addict aka Tracy L Dec 30, 2006 07:00 AM

                              Maps!

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