Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thorn Tree: In Memoriam


I know it may come off as a little melodramatic to write an obituary for an online forum - especially one that still exists - but I feel, for whatever reason, that I have to say something.

In my younger days (OK, 4-10 years ago) I spent a lot of time on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree traveler's forum. I started an infamous thread on green anal leakage after a particularly ill-fated encounter with an oilfish - I hadn't bothered to Google "oilfish" before taking my grocery store find home, cooking it and eating it. I'd link to that thread for your viewing pleasure - it was paragraphs and paragraphs of descriptive prose and I am proud to say might be my greatest literary achievement to date or possibly ever - but I can't.

It was a freewheeling, lightly moderated (as in, they wouldn't censor your swearing but they would ban you if you were insulting others or blatantly trolling, unless the troll was funny and everyone was in on the joke) place that fit the spirit and attitude of most travelers, which is why it always seemed to attract a more interesting, talkative crowd than other places, like the fairly quiet and generally inoffensive BootsnAll or the stodgy "the shower curtain ring was broken in my room - worst hotel ever!" TripAdvisor. Some regional forums were a bit slow, others had tightly-knit communities of people who had met several times in person onboard who would dispense fantastic, dependable and current advice. The Indian Subcontinent and North-east Asia forums, in my experience, were particularly great sources of knowledge for travelers heading in those directions, other branches I didn't explore as much were equally useful. I was active in these branches, and met people, in person, from them as well as from the chattier forums.

There were quite a few chat-oriented forums - politics, women travelers (which I had started out posting in but in later years avoided because it had gone from a friendly place to a catty one), cooking, photography, biking and more, and the horrific-but-you-can't-look-away Your Choice, which was related to nothing else on the board, not even tangentially, and liked it that way.

"Were" being the correct verb tense here.

The regional branches would generally police themselves for content - regulars called out misinformation and shouted down offensive posts, and swearing was kept to a tasteful minimum (as far as any swearing can be tasteful). Your Choice was a preposterous free-for-all that was definitely, unarguably not child-friendly, nor was it usually work safe (see: Green Anal Leakage). It contained a lot of idiocy, a lot of trolling (some intentionally funny, some less so, some obnoxious, some genuinely dodgy), a lot of strong opinions and humor that would have shamed The Aristocrats. It was a place where very intelligent - well, mostly very intelligent - people went to act dumb together. Where, if the regional forum was too slow or wasn't giving you the answers you needed, you could post and get all the information you ever wanted and then some. "I'm going to be in Djibouti next week for a month - what can I do about [travel issue X, for all values of X] and where should I stay when I arrive?" might get crickets on the Africa branch, but get everything from "I had to deal with [X] when I was in Djibouti last year", "Actually my mother lives in Djibouti, you can stay with her", "Don't miss [amazing local thing you would have otherwise never heard about] in Djibouti" to "My love child is half-Djiboutian, here's what I've learned from my time there". Sure, those same people would go off-topic, would swear constantly and would make horrific jokes, but that's what traveler culture is like. The good with the bad, and the bad isn't always bad so much as not appealing to everyone. Without that, you got nothin'. Thorn Tree had it.'s got nothin'.

Just before the holidays I posted a few times as I planned for our day in Shanghai, and upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. I hadn't been on much in the previous two years - life took over, and the questions on the Taiwan subforum of the North-East Asia branch all sounded the same after awhile. Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, renting a car, I have three days in Taiwan and want to visit Taroko Gorge, Tainan, Sun Moon Lake and Taipei, how can I do that, etc.. I admit that I grew tired of answering them. While posting questions about Shanghai, some friendly soul offered to help me make restaurant reservations at Jesse (wait for the upcoming post), one of the most deservedly famous local Shanghainese restaurants in the city. I got my reservation, through Thorn Tree, courtesy of someone I have never met. Before the takedown of the forum, I might have met him sometime in the future, the next time we were in the same city. After the takedown, with no off-topic posts allowed, I probably never will. So I can kiss that potential friendship goodbye.

In the interim, the whole shebang went down. I'm not clear on why - apparently someone reported some, let's say, less than ideal content...which turned out be false, but did reveal all of those off-topic posts. Apparently this "whistleblower" was actually a troll - and not one of the funny ones - intent on destroying the place. BBC, which owns Lonely Planet and therefore Thorn Tree, shut it down and has since reopened the destination forums only. Some forums, such as Your Choice, will remain permanently shut down. The forums still up are tightly moderated: no more swearing, new threads and replies must be moderated approved before they are posted, and off-topic chat is strictly forbidden.

BBC, via Huffington Post, have made this out to be a positive change, as though they cleared out a den of skeezy perverts and weirdos. But we weren't perverts and weirdos - we were just mostly travelers with potty mouths having some fun before we shared our knowledge.

I took a poke around before writing this post, trying to keep an open mind. Maybe it would still be OK. Maybe it wasn't as bad as everyone was saying.

But no...the place is neutered. Dead. It lacks the spark needed to keep a forum - a community - alive. It no longer reflects actual traveler culture. All the hardcore travelers - the ones with the dirtiest mouths and the best advice - are gone, having nowhere to post and no desire to say anything in a censored, desert-like environment. There are practically tumbleweeds blowing through the place. I tried posting a few times, just basic replies to questions about Taiwan. I was annoyed to find that it was true: each post had to be approved by a moderator before posting. This is a fine policy for a blog - I do the same to my own comments - but not to a major forum and online community. At that point it turns from moderation to censorship, and I abhor censorship. It also sucks all the vitality out of the place. Why post when I know that every word I write has to be churned through the censors before it goes up? It castrates advice-givers, makes us feel impotent. Like children. Not even rebellious teenagers - think bibs and sippy cups. It makes us not want to be there, because adults won't accept being treated like children in daycare. We're travelers - we want to hang out online in a place that mimics, in some way, traveler hangouts in real life. We want a bar with Daniel Craig downing a shot before a scorpion can sting him,  not Disneyland with its "Do Not Walk On The Grass" cordons and wholesome, boring, moderated "fun".

This is how I felt as a long-time regular coming back in to see what had happened. I imagine that a newbie just finding the place or just starting out would simply find it underwhelming. Lacking spark, lacking life, lacking community. That newbie might ask and answer a few questions, but then go on their way. There would be nothing to keep them there.

When the best people, the scions of the community, depart because the place is so dusty and boring, there's no one left to give good advice, and it's not much fun to hang out on. And everyone knows this - an online community will falter, even crumble, if people don't hang out there, so posts are replied to quickly, and questions are answered promptly. Especially when it's a travel forum and responses need to be timely.

To use some more imagery, Thorn Tree is like badly designed public space - there's nowhere to hang out, nor would you want to. It went from being a buzzing cafe to a concrete embankment - a place both useful and alive with human activity to simply a dead mass that has utility but no humanity.

Am I being melodramatic? Yes. But that forum was a sizeable part of my life for the better part of a decade. It saw me through a move to China, a move home, a terrible office job, a string of disappointing boyfriends, an emotional rough patch, a trip to Europe and then a move to Taiwan, all while being a conduit for meeting interesting people in different cities and getting the best advice, once I learned how to filter for it. And now it's dead. Some googly-eyed young twentysomething in 2013, just setting out on the road, won't have such a community to discover as I did when I was a googly-eyed twentysomething a decade before. And I, a decade wiser now, won't be around to advise her. in peace, Thorn Tree. I'm done with ya. As both a traveler and an expat, I'm exactly the sort of person a forum like Thorn Tree would want to keep as a regular, green anal leakage not withstanding. I don't like being told to keep off the grass. I don't like being handed a sippy cup. So I won't be going back. I'll miss you, Thorn Tree. But what you are now is just horrid.


maoman said...

You know you're always welcome at the forums on!

Jenna Cody said...

I know! (I left forumosa because the burns). I will miss Thorn Tree for its forums spanning other countries - a great way to get information - or give it - when traveling outside Taiwan. Most countries have expat forums that can fill in those gaps, but it was nice to have it all in one place.

David said...

I share your dismay. When the Thorn Tree came back online I posted a short comment in the FAQ forum that was critical of Lonely Planet's actions. The comment never got past the moderators.

Anonymous said...

It looks like it was due to the BBC's hyper-sensitivity over the criticism it's gotten because of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Jenna Cody said...

Absolutely, but that doesn't make it ok. It was a poorly thought out overreaction. I still won't be back.

Julia said...

Hey jenna - now might be the time to tell you that i am a long time lurker of your blogs since the old days of thorn tree. Back in ?? 2002-ish?? I was confined to a desk job and spent much time dreaming about going to india. I came across TT and got hooked. I read it religiously everyday. Was a big fan of yours. I accumulated so much info of that forum and then finally made the opportunity to go. You provided me with sooooo much advice channamasala! I ate a tomato oothapam in Madurai in your honour.(yum! Thanks for that tip!) later i read your blog when you were in washington but lost track when you went to taiwan but then a year or two googled to see if you were still writing. I am now still a reasonably regular reader... Weird or what! I live in Australia am 38yr old female i dont know if i have much in common with you reallybut i love your writing and the strength of your personality and intellect that permeates through your posts. I admire your unique take on life. Hope you have found this revelation to be heartening and not creepy! Keep it up. Love your work.

Jenna Cody said...

JuliaR? Is that you? If so, I know (of) you! I stayed friends with various people from TT that you'd likely know. If it is you, we are probably connected in the 2nd degree on Facebook.

Julia said...

Nope im not JuliaR. Is it a bit weird that i know much about you and you dont know me at all? Im not sure. In Some ways yes, but I think of it as like when you find an author or journalist that you like and you follow their work because you gain enjoyment from reading their writing. To be honest taiwan does not feature high in my list of current interests but i enjoy reading about it through your words and observations. I did keep a blog for a wee while, inspired by yours but i found it hard to keep up so it fell by the wayside. Your persistence is impressive! My blog if yr interested was kept in 2006 in mongolia