Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Moderating online communities … and the consequences

Chowhound.com has been somewhat famous in the Toronto area, since Jim Leff‘s visit to Toronto was written up in the Toronto Star. I joined the community of diners dialoguing on restaurants in mid-2004, when I was working on consulting gig in the downtown core. The web interface was home-grown and quite ugly, but somehow functional. Chowhound was migrated to Cnet in late 2006, and there were some growing pains, as might be expected in migrating to new technologies.

I decided to give Chowhound another try yesterday. I had a visitor coming into town, and was searching for a restaurant that serves “beef 7 ways” (which translates to “Bo 7 Mon” in Vietnamese). Without good leads on Google, I wrote a posting on Chowhound’s “Ontario (including Toronto)” board titled “Beef 7 Ways, Vietnamese, in Toronto”. I described my quest, with a mention of an unnamed restaurant on Dundas Street where my wife and I had sampled the dish before — but are disinclined to revisit based on a cockroach crawling down the wall. On my feed reader, I can see that the entry was logged at 10:30 a.m.

Checking back during the day on chowhound.com, the entry was unanswered by 4 p.m., so I phoned around to three restaurants, and found that Golden Turtle (also known as Rua Vang) does serve Bo 7 Mon. Based on the web references, we tried out the modest restaurant, and our Finnish visitor enjoyed the meal.

I like to see the loop closed on my own questions, so at 11 p.m. last night, I went to chowhound.com to reply to my own posting … and found that the entry had been deleted. I didn’t really understand why my posting had been deleted — maybe the moderator thought the readership was too sensitive about the presence of a cockroach in a Chinese restaurant! — so I thought the most appropriate route was to create a “Why was my post deleted?” question on the “Site Talk” board.

This morning, I took a look on the “Site Talk” board … and my question had been deleted. I’ve now moved from intrigue to annoyance.

Searching around the web, I discovered blog entries with interesting content such as “When You give to a Community & it Slaps you in the Face” and “The Incredible Shrinking Chowhound: censorship at work again?“. In the extreme, this seems to have led to some being “Banned from Chowhound?“, with a pointer to reports from Slashfood.

This is probably enough venting about being disrespected in an online community. In a broader context, however, some people have asked me why I’ve been active in blogging (particularly when I’m obviously busy with many other things to do). A lot of my activity has to do with learning the online environment through direct experience. I’ve participated in online forums for over 20 years, and am used to the asynchronous dialogue it creates. I’ve also worked with wikis, which are great in small groups, but doesn’t seem to scale. (I’ve compared the intimacy of wikis as equivalent to standing beside someone at a blackboard, where one person edits the writings of the other while onlookers can see). With blogging, however, it’s clear who the author (or responder) is, and he or she owns his or her own words.

This recent situation on chowhound.com illustrates how the online world is shifting from centralized information as power, to decentralized perspectives meshed together. Instead of looking for a single truth, each of us can learn by observing multiple perspectives, and coming to a personal conclusion. This parallels the social structure with the technology structure, contrasting a network to the Internet or the web. At least, that’s what I think … and you’re welcome to disagree.

P.S. I’ll eventually blog more about our Bo 7 Mon dinner on my personal blog … but I’m a bit behind on that.

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