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04.26.2010

The World's Most Popular Wine Bulletin Board Goes Away

Over the past few years I've partaken occasionally in an entertaining spectator sport: watching wine bulletin boards implode under the weight of their own inhumanity.

The self-destruction of most topical online forums, I have come to believe, is only a matter of time. The physical remove of online messaging, coupled with our tendency towards knee jerk responses, mixed with the difficulty in reading emotions in plain text, doused with a liberal dose of pricks and know-it-alls spells disaster for most of forums over time.

I liked checking in on the Mark Squires Bulletin Board, hosted by Robert Parker, from time to time just to watch the display of hubris, petty tongue-lashing, immaturity and hyperbole, occasionally mixed with an interesting opinion or two. I think I made about 30 posts on the board over the course of the last 5 years, but I read my way through thousands of messages, most often with a shaking head, wondering how on earth people managed to continue taking part in such mayhem.

But the mayhem ends today. Visitors to the Mark Squires bulletin board today were greeted by a message that the forums will be closed until April 27th, and when they re-open, they will be available only to paid subscribers of eRobertParker.Com and the print version of the Wine Advocate.

In short: the party is over.

Of course, as is common with all such communities, several splinter groups had already broken off to found their own forum sites over the past four years, thanks in part to the irrational and draconian tactics of site administrator Mark Squires. Squires earned the nickname "Chairman Mao," along with the lifelong enmity of scores of members who found themselves banned from the site without explanation, and in the worst cases, to forever to have their names automatically replaced with asterisks whenever they were mentioned on the site after their departure.

In the past year or two, the site played host to an increasingly vocal opposition to Squires' tactics on the board, as well as to a growing base of both subscribers and guests who were using the forum to criticize Robert Parker and his cadre of contributors, most notably Jay Miller, whose tendency towards high scores made him a favorite punching bag. The last thread I read on the site, a few days ago, included about 12 pages of ankle biting about the fact that Parker had given a very low score recently to a wine that one of his contributors had rated very highly.

My own professional opinion (now wearing my hat as brand experience expert) is that Mark Squires and his actions on the bulletin board did untold damage to the reputation and brand of Robert Parker. He made countless enemies of those who would have otherwise spoken highly or at least favorably of Robert Parker, and created a culture that left a sour taste in the mouths of many more.

It's not clear exactly why the forums will now only be available to those who pay. The official explanation provided contends that the site has become "extremely costly" to supervise and maintain, but it's hard to imagine how that could be the case, or more specifically how kicking off half of the members would make it substantially cheaper to do so.

Did Parker and his contributors tire of criticism by members that were not loyal subscribers? Were they sick of blogs like this one linking to the excruciatingly long battles of ego and pride that characterized such simple discussions as whether context actually matters in the evaluation of a wine?. Was this an easy way of once and for all separating the forums from the brand and the presence of Mark Squires? Or is this move simply a decision to serve only "our loyal subscribers through a more focused effort on them."

We'll never know for sure, but this move at a time when the bulletin board seemed to be losing steam certainly raises many questions, including whether it will thrive, or whether even paying members will find other outlets for their discussions.

There were enough good discussions on the Parker forums to make me somewhat sad to see them go -- friends would send me a gem every once in a while. But even the very best discussions required sorting through so much bile, inside jokes, and machismo that it's hard not to feel a certain sense of "good riddance."

Those of you who have already fled elsewhere, where is your favorite place to engage in flame wars and civilized discussion about wine these days?

Comments (32)

Eric Hall wrote:
04.26.10 at 10:43 PM

http://www.wineberserkers.com seems to be the obvious place to land for this lurking ITB Pinot Guy...

04.26.10 at 10:43 PM

The monetary argument makes no sense. His empire, if he has the 50,000 subscribers that he is supposed to have, runs to $5 mil. The cost savings by closing the bulletin board cannot amount to a hill of beans to Parker.

Chances are that the board just got too crazy and was no longer viewed as an asset to the expansion of the empire.

04.26.10 at 11:56 PM

At one point, I viewed that forum several times a day. But the illogical censorship foisted (seemingly) at random by Chairman Mao drove me away. (Since then, I confess to having some slight contempt for those who stayed; low standards have they.)

I think it's clear why they're switching to Subscribers only - 1) Less complainers for Parkersquires to deal with. 2) Hides the decline of the board (hadn't they already lost more than 2/3 of their traffic?).

One can wonder if this will accelerate the decline of the RP empire. Savvy wine consumers, after all, are finding CellarTracker/GrapeStories reviews - a 2004 Beringer Private Reserve has 84 reviews - isn't that going to be 10-80 times more valuable than RP's review?

To answer your question...Wine Disorder: http://winedisorder.com
...is the only wine forum I visit once-a-month or more, now.

Thomas Macpherson wrote:
04.27.10 at 5:20 AM

Thanks for your comments Alder. As a subscriber to the eBob and WA dead tree versions, I was suprised -- like many -- to read the decision on access to the Boards.

I agree with you there was a good and a bad to the eBob boards. For every golden nugget there was some inane discussion debating the meaning of the word "is". But I came to realize this is what you get with the great "democratization" of wine and all things about wine. And -- regardless of the madness of Mark Squires -- the board represented the growing breadth of participation by people world wide in talking, learning, and (occaisionally) griping about wine. For a brief moment it seemed Parker was riding that extraordinary wave of popular demand for discussion and knowledge.

But Mssrs. Parker and Squires have made the decision to abstain from these developements and seek solace from the inside, without the chaos of unfettered access. I think this is unfortunate. Part of Parker's charm was his ability to be seen fighting the Old Guard and bringing wine to the masses. Unfortunately, with these actions, eBob has become -- for better or worse -- part of the Old Guard.

So where do members go from here? For most of us, we will continue the conversations and friendships at sites such as Wine Beserkers. I will discontinue my involvement at eBob -- not because of anger or frustration -- but simply because Mr. Squires pushed the needle just a little too far. I wish them the best of luck.

1WineDude wrote:
04.27.10 at 5:26 AM

Hmmm... guess I totally missed the chance to get myself banned on that forum.

Greg Walter wrote:
04.27.10 at 5:54 AM

Alder, I think your analysis is spot on. The explanation give simply doesn't square with reality or common sense. I also agree with you that the petty bickering and mean spirited commentary especially from "insiders" to those with a low number of posts was really sad and made me not want to hang around too much.

Rajiv wrote:
04.27.10 at 7:11 AM

Alder,

There is another way of looking at this situation: The eBob forums had massive amounts of content, information, debates, intellectual discussions - a lot of which was contributed by non-members.

Now they have taken all that intellectual property that was a public good, and made it private. They are selling something that non-members helped create as a public good. It's like they walked into the middle of Central Park and sold the whole thing!

I expect that people will leave and go to much less snarky forums like the Wine Library TV forums ( http://forums.winelibrary.com/ ). Heck I was also turned off by the massive quantities of ill-thought-out, mean, and egotistical posts that one had to sift through to get to the good stuff. But I still learned a lot on my brief forays outside the WLTV forums. And I think I added some good discussion as well, which is now being sold without my permission.

Is this even legal?

-Rajiv

Alder Yarrow wrote:
04.27.10 at 7:24 AM

Rajiv,

I don't recall the specific language, but the Squires board, like most such bulletin boards, had a member agreement or terms of use that you had to acknowledge when you joined. Those terms, if I recollect, had a clause basically saying that anything you posted to the board became the property of the owners and you gave up most basic rights to that content. So no recourse there.

Rajiv wrote:
04.27.10 at 7:32 AM

I suspected as much.

Legal, it may be, but still evil.

Anyone who posts on public forums expects that their posts will remain public for as long as the board exists.

ryan wrote:
04.27.10 at 7:33 AM

Glad to see it go. Been there too long with too much vitriol. Mark Squires is the main reason I left, and I haven't felt like I missed anything since. Back in 2000 when I was active till about 2006, it was at times fun and full of fun discussions and a good place to learn. Now a days it's become a place to wave you cellar about and brag about what you had the money to drink.

Oh well, life goes on...and another slip in the domination of the Parker brand.

Steve wrote:
04.27.10 at 8:59 AM

What a stupid decision. They clearly have no understanding of how the Internet works. Good riddance. The board is comprised of whiners anyway who have little to do but complain about one thing or another.

Mark wrote:
04.27.10 at 10:28 AM

It's no doubt a dumb and short sighted decision. It simply continues Parker's fight with new media. First it was blogs and now it continues to his own message board. I can attest to the chairman Mao rep being well earned, they definitely didn't appreciate anyone posting from inside the industry, even if it was a video review of a wine that no one else had tried.

It'll be interesting to see where people tend to go instead, my bet is Wine Library which seems to be the most unpretentious around.

Mark wrote:
04.27.10 at 10:30 AM

Alder,

Interesting point in regard to the intellectual property. My understanding is that those blanket clauses which are required for membership are not always enforceable based on current case law. Maybe Rajiv will test it out for all of us :)

Rick Bakas wrote:
04.27.10 at 10:34 AM

It was inevitable for this to happen, and I'm surprised it took this long for the switch to take place.

I was a long time board visitor from 2001-2007 and used to like it, but over time it became less about quality interaction and more about alpha personalities and as you say, "petty tongue lashing". Even worse, Mark Squires' role as board administrator evolved into a dictatorship where he was judge, jury and executioner if he didn't like what you posted. Mark's ego took over the steering wheel and began driving around 2007. That's when I stopped going there.

A user getting banned became a daily occurrence, and dare I say a badge of honor. In recent years, Squires ran the board with an iron fist, and it just got to be not fun anymore which is too bad because wine is fun. And wine with friends is fun. If you check out Mark on Twitter, he has a very small following. No one wants to opt in and hear what he has to say. That's one thing he can't have control over.

04.27.10 at 10:45 AM

I find it interesting that Parker is launching a new career in Asia. http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100427/lf_nm_life/us_wine_parker_asia_2
I suspect he senses that things in the USA are on the downslide for him, and that Asia opens up whole new markets of naivete and cash.

BaroloDude wrote:
04.27.10 at 5:05 PM

SOunds like I (happily) missed a lot of petty garbage. Answer to your question: I enjoy the postings (most of the time!) on cinderellawine.com (hosted by winelibrary, but not their main forums). It has gotten petty there before too, just as you describe. But overall it seems to stay pleasant, informative, and the hosts post a lot too (Gary V and staff), and that makes it more fun. CHeers.

Pedro wrote:
04.27.10 at 8:44 PM

I barely touched on the Parker boards, but even that made it clear how repellent the whole thing was. Currently I find the CellarTracker Forums the most congenial place to hang out. I'm told Jancis Robinson's members-only forum is seriously good chat.

04.28.10 at 5:49 AM

I had over 700 posts over many years and will miss some folks on that board. I enjoyed posting about grape growing and interacting with other farmers around the world. I hope this decision winds up biting them in the ass. Wine Berzerkers and WCWN are my two other spots.

04.28.10 at 8:46 AM

Alder,

Great post and observations . . .

As a frequent poster on the board since getting ITB in 2005, I have always viewed this board with admiration - not for it's moderator, but for it's free flow of information and the fact that those ITB could talk in a 'vertically integrated' manner . . .

Did Mark go too far at times? Sure. Did some people deserve to be annexed? Sure. When you have a bulletin board, as you know, without any moderation - you have anarchy. With too much moderation, you have a dictatorship . . . The 'sweet spot' lies somewhere between, but finding that spot can certainly be difficult.

I'm somewhat saddened by those who feel that those who continue to stay and contribute to the ebob board are simply 'whiners' . . . This is not true - there are still many of us on this board and others who hope to share our knowledge of the industry with others - and learn from them as well . . .

I'm hopeful that boards that will no doubt gain from this situation - Berserkers, WLTV, etc - remember that civility is an important part of success of their boards - and once this begins to go, they too 'will be comprised of whiners' . . .

Cheers!

Matt wrote:
04.28.10 at 9:37 AM

That's a shame. It's always entertaining to see egos fighting with each other.

And when they get angry because someone has a different opinion to theirs... well that's just priceless.

I can't bring myself to pay for it though.

Jane wrote:
04.28.10 at 1:13 PM

I go to Robin Garr's Wine Lovers Discussion Group forum and to www.wines.com which Jerry Mead was instrumental in starting. I also look for reviews on Cellar Tracker.

Lee wrote:
04.28.10 at 2:18 PM

what "non-commercial" site will start up mailing list only wineries go to now to advertise their wares?

Kathy wrote:
04.28.10 at 7:13 PM

I wonder if Mark will be involved in the pay site? The Wine Advocate owns erpberetparker.com.
I don't think this was necessarily a hasty decision. "Robert Parker" was trademarked in August (his full with Jr was already TM).
May be more excitement to come.

Ben wrote:
04.28.10 at 11:41 PM

Alder, I really appreciate your post - it was insightful, witty and well-written. If they closed the BB because they couldn't take the heat, what a cowardly thing to do! Maybe they did it to increase subscriptions to the Advocate? Seems hard to believe... I don't believe that it cost too much to manage - that seems like a red herring. In any event, the decision is a such a mistake! They had traffic and content - what stupidity! what cowardice! what supreme arrogance! what a waste...

04.30.10 at 5:59 PM

That's too bad, what a loss of a great, democratizing resource! Is anyone going to be willing to pay for it? I'd rather just get a subscription to the magazine...

John wrote:
04.30.10 at 10:49 PM

Casey Hartlip reads your blog! You have just acquired more legitimacy than ever.

I used to drop in on alt.food.wine back in the prehistory of the internet and would read Mark Squires back when he was not in control. I got tired of him, but I sure miss Tom Hill.

Henry wrote:
05.02.10 at 12:32 PM

I think Tom Hill still frequents the West Coast Wine Net

http://www.westcoastwine.net/ubbthreads/ubbthreads.php

Clarky wrote:
05.02.10 at 2:33 PM

I only just found out this evening, this is a massive blow to the wine blogging community

05.03.10 at 11:00 AM

How can an Icon of the wine world still insight discussion.I thought he was quietly moving out of focus.Unless he clones himself the end is near and it's not really pertinent anymore as well as those of his crony's. Much a do about nothing.

Walid Romaya wrote:
05.03.10 at 9:54 PM

Although forums can serve as a good landing site for many good topics, there seems to be a pervasive undertone of rudeness and lack of civility in many of the discussions. I treat wine talk like any other talk: If you cannot say it to someone'e face in person then do not type it and hide behind the keyboard.

ps: I did have the honor of having my first ever post on erobertparker promptly get removed because I posted a video of a very benign yet slightly funny interaction I had with Robert Parker at a Napa charity event.

Wilfred wrote:
05.11.10 at 9:20 AM

I see lots of familiar faces at http://www.winetalk.com

James wrote:
10.24.10 at 1:09 PM

It's a shame, the forums always struck me as considerably more useful than the site and I loved the culture of 'taking one for the team' and dipping into a case early to report back to the forum.

Generally though, wine writing needs a kick up the arse. I'm finding that pairing wine with music is fun. It goes better than cheese.

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