Couchfish: Turning community into kindling

Bye-bye Thorn Tree

  
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So I found out yesterday that Lonely Planet has nuked their Thorn Tree forum. Wiped it off the face of the internet. Once easily the largest and most popular message board for independent travellers, it is a sad day. They locked the forum in April 2020 in the early days of Covid19, but most assumed it would re-open—alongside travel.

That, it seems is not to be. Sadly is it not only closed for good but the entire archives, which I would guess number hundreds of thousands of posts have also been incinerated. You can still access it via Archive.org (where I got the screenshots for this post) but it isn’t ideal. This is nothing less than the complete loss of decades worth of travel experiences and advice from tens of thousands of people.

Bummer dude.

Nice image, sad story. Screenshot: Stuart McDonald.

In the farewell post, an un-named author on behalf of Lonely Planet writes:

“Now, in 2021, as we continue to live with the effects of the pandemic, we recognize that travelers need different kinds of tools to navigate this unpredictable landscape. 

As Lonely Planet embarks on a new journey to bring you even better guidance, support, and information for your next trip, we’ve made the difficult decision to completely close down and remove our Thorn Tree forums.”

They go on to suggest travellers instead turn their attention to Lonely Planet’s social media profiles—their Facebook group, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok accounts—as alternatives.

Vintage 2001. This was the earliest screenshot I could find archived. Via Archive.org.

The Lonely Planet social accounts are a different beast to what Thorn Tree was. Listicles and Travel & Leisure-style comment-bait are common, but they’re sometimes instructive, take this for the Mahachai train line near Bangkok:

A post shared by @lonelyplanet

“One of the most unique train rides in Thailand is a short, workaday, commuter line. ⁠⁠It begins near Bangkok and famously terminates smack dab in the middle of a wet market. ⁠Sound like something you're up for? Save this to your travel inspo folder and tag your best travel mate.⁠”

I’m not sure what an “inspo folder” is. Sorry.

You can comment, and ask a question I guess, but it is very much an information push rather than an exchange. There doesn’t seem to be much scope to ask how much a bus is from Siem Reap to Kompong Cham, though I guess if they posted a photo of a bus broken down on the side of the road in Cambodia, you could ask. Instagram posts do not appear to be indexed well by Google, so it isn’t like you’ll stumble across this stuff in search … you know, like when you need it.

Like I said—a different beast.

Vintage 2003. The was the version that “just worked”. Via Archive.org.

I assume these accounts are run by social media managers who may well have travelled, but the value of Thorn Tree wasn’t so much in the people who facilitated it, but rather those who answered the questions—which was mostly not the people who ran it. What regular on the Southeast Asia branch wouldn’t remember the Herculean efforts of Hanoi-based HongHa for example. I met her for coffee in Hanoi once, she had no secret agenda—she just wanted to help Thorn Tree users have a better time in Hanoi.

Now I know critiquing others’ social media habits is pretty rich coming from me. I’ve abandoned the Travelfish Facebook page, my Twitter account is 95% ranting and Instagram is flower pics (I have a separate Instagram account for pics of my dog after someone complained).

Regardless of what replaces it, Thorn Tree turning to ashes is a great loss.

Vintage 2008: Stuff was getting complicated. Why fix what wasn’t broke? Via Archive.org.

I guess though, this is in part a reflection on changing travel habits. Even before Covid19 the Travelfish forum was dead quiet—more so with the pandemic. Indeed the post alerting me to the Thorntree closure was there for a week before I even saw it.

Travellers are sourcing information differently. I often use Twitter (when not ranting) to ask for advice when travelling, and I use Instagram to find local travel evangelists. My kids wouldn’t use a forum if I paid them—they’d be straight to TikTok or Youtube.

So perhaps Lonely Planet is ahead of the game here, figuring their efforts are better off applied elsewhere. Still, it hurts. I used the forum for years—it was everything TripAdvisor wasn’t (yeah I know, a low bar). I made friends through it and found and learned stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have. It was, for me, my first online travel community. So yeah, while I stopped using it years ago (I gave up after one of their hostile and ineptly managed redesigns), it is sad to see it gone.

Vintage 2014: When the downhill slide got greased. Via: Archive.org.

It isn’t just gone. It has been splintered and turned into firewood. There was no notification (not that I received anyway) for people to grab what they’d posted—there was plenty in there that would have been nice to keep. Some members had posted tens of thousands of answers—yeah, some probably needed an intervention. It just seems pointless—and nasty—to remove it in its entirety. Who knows why—some lawyer screaming liability for old advice perhaps—I have no idea.

I think also, it isn’t just that people are collating their travel intelligence differently now, they’re travelling different too. Well, almost nobody is travelling at the moment, but you know what I mean. I went through the stored title pages of Thorn Tree to get an idea of the post counts. It was instructive.

In June 2001 there were 835 topics in the Mainland Southeast Asia branch. Seven years later, this had grown to 13,644. Another four years, to 2012, and it was 45,264. Four years again, to 2016, 60,515. Then another four, to 2020, 65,115. Things were slowing in part due to some dreadful redesigns and incendiary community moves, but I think also because travelling patterns were changing.

Vintage 2018: Where would I like to go? Anywhere but here please. Via Archive.org.

Travel, at least in Southeast Asia, was becoming far more mainstream. More of it was online, there were, in a way, fewer questions that hadn’t already been answered. Lonely Planet wasn’t the only show in town. More websites were popping up (including Travelfish, in 2004) but from around 2015, things on Thorn Tree slowed.

It wasn’t like fewer people were travelling—far from it. Regional travel exploded from about 2010 onwards. It felt though, like fewer backpackers (who I would guess formed the primary Lonely Planet market at the time) and more other travellers—dare I say, tourists! This was when low-cost airlines took off, short trips came within the reach of many more, and regional travel went through the roof. Southeast Asians travelled more in their own region. Enormous independent markets out of China and South Asia came on stream.

Then Covid19 came and it all stopped.

Blah blah blah blah whatever dude. Via Archive.org.

When I think about changing travel patterns, their decision makes a little more sense, suspending it I mean—nuking it will never make sense. Running a forum, take my word for it, is not an undertaking that does not have overhead and drama. So why keep investing time in it, if few are using it? Is a web forum really just a bit too nineties?

Perhaps ask them—I’m sure they’ll have time to answer between posting photos of Mykonos.


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