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14 November 2005

Love, politics and eGullet

France is famed for its food.  It is currently reacquanting itself with its reputation for political rioting.  eGullet is famed for being all about food.  It is currently getting a reputation for being the home of gastronomic and political skirmishes.

For those who don't know, eGullet defines itself as being "The Society for Culinary Arts and Letters" and has a tag line of "Read. Chew. Discuss."  You would be right if you thought - what a load of pretentious bullshit.  But, for many of us, we've overlooked such issues for the pleasure of posting on the site, reading the experiences of others, vicariously enjoying meals at the best restaurants in the world, picking up tidbits of cooking info or hearing the latest gossip.  Sometimes we even get to share space with the great and the good of the culinary world, such as Anthony Bourdain or Michael Ruhlman.

However, the past couple of weeks have seen a battle ensue.  On the one side are those who argue the place is run like a dictatorship, with no appreciation of the members and a wanton attitude by the management.  The other side, largely made up of the management, argue that they are running the society in the best interest of the Society, the members don't really count and simply, they know best.  You may have guessed, I side with the former band of malcontents.

After many locked threads and deleted posts, they at last allowed a couple of threads (here and here) that questioned the management (remind anyone of the happy days of the USSR or China?).  Up until today, the majority of the complaints have come from everyday members.  They may be well respected, such as Jack Lang or Jon Tseng, but they're not names.  Not like Michael Ruhlman.

Ruhlman it would seem is mightily pissed-off at having a post deleted.  This afternoon, he posted questioning why this happened, and what the motives behind it were.  I'm not going to go into the full ins and outs of this whole ugly affair because frankly there isn't the bandwidth.  I've posted below a verbatim quote of Ruhlman's thread, because in the ugly world of eGullet, such dissenting views often get erased.

Hopefully, Ruhlman's vehement intervention will mean this issue gets some traction, maybe picked up in the print media.  This might then mean that the likes of Steve Shaw, Dave Scantland and all the other moderators and managers on the site see sense.  They realise that the reason so many people are complaining is because they enjoy the site and want it at it's best, not destroyed by people whose power has gone to their head, thanks to the 'Delete Post' button.

As promised, here is an exchange between Ruhlman and Dave Scantland.  You should be able to link to it here, but just in case it's deleted, read away.  (NB The first two posts below carried extracts from earlier posts in the same thread.  For ease, I have edited out the extracts, as it would be very confusing for you, dear reader, distinguishing between the extract, and what had actually been written by the poster.)

Posted by Michael Ruhlman
Ah, the crux of the matter.

Russ was right that this thread came about because of a single poster—but there are more components than that, which he rightly brings up here.

To put it more explicitly: say, hypothetically, the person calling themselves rocketman were in fact Michael Psaltis—let me continue! This is only hypothetical. Well if it were or if the brother of the maligned/defended chef were posting through a pal, it would very much change the meaning.

One person who monitors this thread, comments at length on it, and has the ability to edit and censor, namely Fat Guy, happens to be the client and friend of Michael Psaltis—this is a clear conflict of interest in a thread devoted to Michael's brother.

Combine this with comments I’ve been hearing off eGullet from current and former eGullet team members about unfair censoring (and an unexplained deletion of a comment of mine that I’m sure Steven didn’t care for, one supporting something russ had to say)…well, I smelled a skunk. But more important: if this could happen, what else could? If the eGullet ringleaders knew someone to be a shill or a slanderer, would they still allow them to continue to post? Will a friend of Steven Shaw who wants to promote his book on egullet be more likely to have it done than someone who doesn’t know him or Jason or whomever. And if Steven doesn’t like someone, say he’s annoyed by some of the things I say, is it less likely I’ll be able to have eGullet excerpt my next book if I ask for consideration?

I don’t know how management makes decisions but I’ve heard enough upset people who care about egullet and felt my own radar on high enough alert, to need to be skeptical and to want to know how it works.

I’ve never argued that people should be forced to reveal themselves (this stalking issue is unnerving), but perhaps there are some instances in which managemnt might require people to use real names. Those who for whatever reasons wish or need to maintain anonymity would have to watch from the sidelines in those rare instances. Anonymity comes with a price too.

Perhaps those who post on tendentious issues, shouldn’t be allowed to moderate and censor as well.

Steven’s most salient point in all this was his comment that this is a new medium. Indeed it is and I want it to work and develop meaningfully. I don’t think you need a Public Editor, but maybe some sort of cyberspace version of it.

I’m grateful for all these posts, too much to comment on--smart and interesting comments for and against anonymity by so many people.
Posted by Dave Scantland
Michael, you have had your say. Now it's time to move on. We are not going to continually rehash the handling of any given topic or the deletion of a post. Not only has all this been explained to you in private correspondence, but it is a never-ending process that we don't permit, for reasons we have explained many times.

For the record: we have thoroughly investigated Rocketman's identity. He is not a chef, not a sous chef, not Michael Psaltis. He does not appear to be involved in the culinary community in any way, except by acquaintance. He is surely a friend of one or both Psaltises -- but then, you don't need to know his name to determine that, do you? We know his name (a rather common one), his address (a big city) and where he works (at a desk job unrelated to the culinary world). Knowing any of this wouldn't change a thing, and we are going to maintain his anonymity per our policies. If he violates the member agreement, we will delete his posts (and have on several occasions), just as we will delete any post that violates the member agreement. The issue of Rocketman is closed. It is inappropriate -- not to say inconsiderate -- that we have had to speak so specifically and publicly about a member in response to these incessant harangues.

Of course we know there's a potential conflict of interest whenever a member of management is close to a debate. That's why we don't allow those conflicts to affect our moderating policy. A manager -- even the executive director -- who gets close to a debate is required from the point of their involvement to act as a participant.

Everybody who has had a point to make in the Psaltis discussion has had the opportunity to make it -- repeatedly -- including you, Michael. You are still complaining that your post about anonymity was removed, even though you were allowed to start this whole, lengthy topic on the subject. Likewise, the purpose of this topic was not to rehash the Psaltis affair but, rather, to discuss the phenomenon of psuedonyms and what they mean for online discussion. That discussion is worth pursuing. From this point on, rehashing of: any specific topic; any decision to delete; or any member's status will be removed without further comment. And no, Michael, you won't receive an explanation. You should be smart enough to know that when a moderator says stop and you continue, your post will be removed.
Posted by Michael Ruhlman

no need to get pissy. dave.

I'll continue to complain if the person deleting my post is someone actively involved in the argument.

but I'm happy to let this matter drop. would much prefer to read what paula has to say...


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If for any reason I edit a comment, I explicitly say so. I only edit comments if they are rude, abusive etc. I reserve the right to delete comments if I think they're unduly offensive or constitute spam.

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They deleted Ruhlman's "pissy" remark, and I bet unceremoniously, too.

You're an idealist if you think those people are going to change. I feel like Deep Throat, saying, "Follow the money."

No, in this case, "Follow the stench." Of corruption and lies.

I'm glad to see all this stuff coming out in the open. I think I'll blog about it, too, and about all the private encounters I had with Jason Perlow, as well.

You're right I know, but I can dream.

That they treated Ruhlman that way is absolutely shocking and odd. Especially if they think it will go unnoticed.

I look forward to reading your blog on it.

Hi, after reading your blog, the book publisher (situated in Northern California) that I work for would like to send you a review copy of a food memoir. Is there an e-mail address or snail-mail address that we can use to contact you more efficiently? We will not use your e-mail address for purposes beyond the sending of the review copy.

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