The Joke’s On Us?

The biggest April Fools’ joke this year isn’t actually a joke. It’s a true story of needlessly wasted content, frustrated users, and a less-than-graceful exit.

Graceful Exits

Yesterday, on the heels of its acquisition, popular recipe site Punchfork closed its doors. This kind of acquisition / shutdown combo is increasingly common these days, but there were some things about the way Punchfork bowed out that caught our eye:

  • The fairly callous exit post

  • The ominous shutdown banner

  • The complete lack of any communication about what would happen to user data

Taken together, the message came across a little like:

"We’re excited to share the news that we’re gonna be rich! To celebrate, we’re shutting down the site and taking all your data down with it. So long, suckers!”

It’s a frustrating message and a sign that — as a community — we should be trying to set and communicate our expectations for a more graceful exit, including some accountability for the way users are treated.

Content Ownership

When you talk about graceful exits, you quickly find yourself talking about content ownership, and that’s where things get murky. This is because digital content — which can be infinitely copied, shaped, and organized — is rarely a case of “mine” versus “yours.” Instead it falls into the nuanced land of “ours.”

Punchfork actually has two kinds of “ours” data.

First, it has the data that belongs to them and their users. The best example of this is a user’s “like” of a recipe. A like is both Punchfork content (as metadata on a user account and a recipe) and user content (the decision and action that creates the like).

Second, it has data that belongs to them and the publishers whose sites they scraped. The best example of this is the recipe content. There’s the source content from the publisher and then there’s all the sugar that Punchfork added to make that content more usable and more searchable.

This all gets extremely complicated and deserves its own article. The gist is that when there is dual ownership of content, we believe it’s not okay for one party to just unilaterally take it down. With this in mind, we decided to intervene on behalf of Punchfork users.

The Hugspoon Experiment

Our initial plan was to put up a searchable index of the existing Punchfork recipe bookmarks and a simple backup tool for users who wanted to save their likes. We called it Hugspoon. (Amirite?) As we were working, we heard that Jeff Miller, CEO of Punchfork, might be building his own tool, so we reached out to see if maybe we could just skip the whole thing or work together in some way. He declined to speak to us, so we put up the Hugspoon archiver and its corresponding /purpose.

Then, we heard from Jeff.

He had a similar request of Jason Scott, one of the people.

Ultimately, Jeff made good on his unannounced user archive tool. However, the “archive” is actually just a list of links. It bears no resemblance to the content (structured recipe bookmarks) that users actually liked. No ingredients. No images. No metadata.

A Tasty Alternative?

We asked Jeff if he’d consider just leaving the existing content up, but he said no. He put an admittedly large amount of work into scraping those sites and isn’t feeling especially generous with those scrapings. He did, however, offer some words of encouragement:

“If you think it is easy to build, feel free to replicate it yourself.”

We were super inspired by Jeff’s “teach a man to fish” attitude and have decided to do just that. It’s called Open Recipes. We are no longer going to use any Punchfork data, but we could sure use your help to recreate parts of it. If you’re interested, please check our GitHub page and volunteer to help parse one of the existing publishers, or suggest a new great publisher for us to tackle.

We want to build an open database of great recipe bookmarks. This includes structured data for the recipe ingredients and a link to the publisher for preparation. In doing so, we hope to help drive traffic to recipe publishers, tell a story about open data on the Web, and make deliciousness available to everyone in a clear and structured ( way.

That’s pretty much it. We’re not trying to save the world. We’re just trying to save some recipes.