A Note to Atlas Obscura Contributors

Dear Atlas Obscura Contributors,

First, a quick introduction: I’m Tyler Cole, formerly the COO of Atlas Obscura, and now the VP of Community, a new position created just this month.

I’m excited to share that the mandate of my new role is to better understand the needs of our site users, contributors, and paid members, and to work every day to improve your experience with Atlas Obscura. To that end, you’re welcome to contact me directly at tyler@atlasobscura.com.

As unbelievable as it sounds, we’re now approaching a full year of dealing with both the business and personal challenges of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Atlas Obscura has been operating with fewer resources, and this has had an outsized impact on our contributors.

I’ve read recent comments on the forums and know that some of you are frustrated. It can be discouraging to spend hours on a place and then have it rejected, or wait weeks for a reply, or not have your questions answered. You spend valuable personal time to benefit Atlas Obscura and our community, and we need to respect that time and better show our appreciation.

So let me start by being transparent about where we stand today. In short, we’re still understaffed. While we have a full-time Places editor doing an incredible job and several team members who pitch in as they can, we currently only have the bandwidth to publish 25-30 places a week. Each week we average twice that many new place submissions, in addition to hundreds of edits and photo uploads. We’re mostly keeping up, but that’s why there are delays and sometimes questions go unanswered.

The good news, however, is that help is on the way. In addition to my new role, we’re hiring an additional full-time editor. And while adding more people will help, we also plan to review and improve our processes. (One quick idea is adding a short pitch form so that you know your place is more likely to be approved before you start writing.) Whatever we do, though, we will need your feedback and ideas.

So more to come, but in the meantime, please let me know what’s on your mind. And thank you for your hard work and patience!

Best,
Tyler Cole
VP of Community

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Hey Tyler,

Congratulations on the new position, looking forward to the new dynamics to be brought on by the VP of Community role as well as the new editor.

Rather than share this directly to your email, I figured it might make more sense to have it in a public space for feedback and discussion. This is quite a radical idea but, if the ongoing issues, including staffing, are impacting so negatively on the process for new places, maybe it would be worth pausing it to focus on existing entries instead?

I have noticed you constantly reply to my emails about locations marked incorrectly as well as those with spelling, map and other issues so by now you probably know I’m a bit fixated on “correcting”. Considering that, my proposal would be to set two publicly announced deadlines. By the first date, no more new place submissions would be accepted. By the second, no more new places would be published.

Afterwards, the Places team could focus all their efforts on the nearly 21,000 existing place entries and their improvement. In addition to the location problems, there are also a lot of current entries where even the main picture is broken, taken from Google Maps (which is not allowed on newer submissions, creating confusion for their contributors) or without a source at all, as well as factual errors on the text and cases where this has been edited by so many users it no longer has a coherent voice.

I can imagine the fear with such a radical project would be to lose engagement from so many of us that look forward to adding new places and seeing them published. However, an equivalent type of engagement could still come from seeing older contributions, including our own, being highlighted as “place of the day”, featured on social media or having new pictures added by someone else.

To this end there could be events like “Eastern Europe Stubs Week” or “Creative Commons Month” (for adding pictures to the places that need them most), where the emphasis is placed on the user-generated nature of the site and readers who don’t even have an account are invited to not only join but edit and add too.

This would of course not be permanent and once travel has recovered somewhat globally, the new place submissions would reopen and join an improved existing database.

I realize this an intensive, radical project that would take a lot of effort to implement, hence I put it here in hopes other forum members might contribute with their thoughts and ideas for it.

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Hi @linkogecko! Thanks so much for the reply, and great to hear from you in this venue. And let me start with a quick note of appreciation—you’ve done an incredible job of finding and fixing issues with our place entries, much to the benefit of our site users and community of travelers. Please keep them coming, and thank you!

Also, I’m very happy to share the news that this week we hired a second, dedicated editor who’s already experienced with our system, and she’ll start in March. So very soon, we’ll be doubling our capacity for processing, editing, and publishing contributions.

Okay, now back this very intriguing proposal. I’d love to hear what other contributors in the community think, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts. (You’ll soon notice I’m prone to a lot of ennumerating. :smile:)

First, I definitely agree that it doesn’t take much digging to find inconsistencies across our place entries. For better or worse, I think this is a reflection of our longevity. The Atlas is now over ten years old (!) and during that time we’ve had many contributors, editors, and policies, so it’s indeed a bit of a challenge to retroactively standardize those 20K+ entries. And there are also definitely cases of outdated information, expired links, etc. that need updating. Community help with these is always appreciated!

Second, we’ve long thought that a solution to the above would leverage smartphones. The best time to make most of these corrections is when you’re actually at the place in question, but no one really wants to disrupt their travels and edit on their phone via our current tools. If we made it easier, however, and just required a quick click to identify a fix, I think we’d get a lot more help. (Happily, we’re working on just that approach with the mobile app we’re developing.)

Third, I do wonder how much appetite most of our contributors have for “hunting” issues and whether we might identify and fix more if we implement a quicker way to allow all users to flag issues on the website itself.

I’ll now end the same way that linkogecko did, by inviting our forum members and contributors to weigh in on this subject (or anything else).

Have a great weekend everyone!

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Hey Tyler very cool to see that you guys are doing this. :slight_smile:

I largely agree with @linkogecko, especially with bringing out the fact that the site is user-sourced more. I’ve noticed that people on the FB generally have no idea that they can edit or contribute, as most of them just complain about mistakes and how nobody ever makes articles around their place. I honestly think that it would help loads if you guys had a monthly PSA post that says that ppl can register and edit and or submit spots, and link to the FAQ.

In the same vein, it would be cool if the users could some recognition. Like back in the day you guys had the top contributors page, but that disappeared a while back. I think maybe doing some little feature pieces every now and then could be a nice way to drive content, thank those who contribute and motivate others to get this far.

Same for the memberships, please stop asking contributors to ‘help out,’ it has driven away people from the site as it sounds incredibly ungrateful to ask for money to people who give you free monetizable content. The best way imo is to give a week or so of membership for each published spot. Even if its without the discounts, it should make people feel better.

Finally, I got extremely frustrated with a spot recently. It was an LGBT location that got accepted, then unaccepted, and then reaccepted but twisted into some American-centric piece that uses objectively wrong terminology in this country. (and unaccepted again) I talked about it with the editors, and I was basically told that you guys don’t care about how things work in a country but that what matters is how US culture sees things. I’m not going to lie here, I lost a lot of motivation for the website after that. Edit: Just as a clarification, it’s not the fact that it got rejected that frustrates me, it’s the constant flip flopping and the ‘Americanization’ of the articles. It basically feels like you guys started out with a team of very enthusiastic travellers who wanted to spread real and unbiased info on cool places, but now you just hired some interns who never even left their state who just apply their local views on all other countries. Like literally every Dutch article for example, where whatever you guys report on is massively overblown and one sided. It never seems to interview anyone or bring in both sides of the story. Like the recent golden coach article where an infetimessal group gets painted as ‘the average opinion/view’. It is a very contested topic, and was even more so in 2015, but you don’t see a word about that in the article. At that point I start wondering if the rest of these articles are written with the same journalistic standard, and if I should believe any of them at all. In short, I think that the site would benefit tremendously from separating, fact from news and opinion. They can all coexist, but it should be clear what is what. I always try to do that in my segments, starting off rumors, legends, etc with. ‘Some people believe,’ or similar.

To go back to the coach example, some people believe that the images on the coach are racist, but the overwhelming majority does not care and never noticed these images as they never in their lives saw it up close, just on TV from a distance. The coach used to be used for big parades and events, and most people have very fond memories of it. On top of that this discussion is very heavily influenced by the pro and against monarchy movement, as the against people are opposed to the decadence and rich-symbolism of the coach, not the slavery images. None of this even gets mentioned, is there a reason for that? You have Dutch members here, probably loads more in the social media. There are official spokespeople for the Dutch royal house who could talk on the topic, etc. I could go on, but I think that you get the point. Also I wonder if @linkogecko or @Monsieur_Mictlan share this experience for their countries.

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I did post once earlier about the U.S. centrism on the site, but this was mostly in regards to the user-generated sections like place and food entries:

With the food entries now gone, I think it might be worth considering this bias in editorial changes to the place entries.

Regarding articles or “stories” like the Golden Coach one, I personally don’t bother trying to change them beyond typos. From what I understand, some of these stories were in no way commissioned by AO and are instead published on the site under Creative Commons licenses.

To me, those that are commissioned are basically the author’s viewpoint and AO doesn’t necessarily need to agree with them 100%. I consider them to be somewhat like the opinion columns of journals. While I might disagree with some points in the stories or the view that they express, I don’t let it bother me much as it helps break my “echo chamber” a bit.

That being said, it used to be that all stories had a thread opened for them on the forums and the discussion that happened there would be a welcome return for feedback like yours. A majority of these threads would not be replied to, so maybe what would make the most sense is to have it so that a thread is only created when a user comments on the story, rather than the staff creating threads for all in hopes there are replies.

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I agree that opinion pieces are fine, but some of these pretend to be objective and that’s bad imo. If they could make them as opinion pieces I would not have issues with them.

Hey @tyler,

Another question I had was whether the user-based lists, such as Phlizz’s below, were still going on:

If that is the case, I’m sure you have your own list of potential collaborators, but there are a few users I’d like to suggest regardless.

Hi All,

Apologies for the delay in replying to the above—I was working on tracking down some information before answering.

Community Contributions and Recognition
Definitely agreed that we need to do more to communicate that we’re a community project and that the majority of our places come from our contributors. Among the many good reasons to do this is 1) to give credit when credit is due, and 2) to make sure our readers know they can also contribute.

Posting reminders on Facebook would help, but I think the best solution is just to make it a lot more apparent on the site. (This would also help differentiate our places from our articles; some of our more casual readers often don’t see a distinction between the two.)

Increasing contributor visibility on the site also goes hand-in-hand with more recognition. Ideally, whenever a site user visits one of our place or destination pages, they should know immediately who’s responsible for what they’re reading. And agreed that recognition should extend to better leaderboards, summaries of contributions, etc. I know we’ve been saying this for years, but this is something we want and intend to fix.

Membership
Apologies for any clumsiness in how our Membership program was introduced! Please know it was not intended to be dismissive of the contributors who give so much to our community and who are instrumental in helping Atlas Obscura succeed. Part of my new role is to grow and improve our Membership program, and I agree it needs to include and recognize contributors.

Paying members currently get the following perks: 1) free access to a selection of online experiences, 2) a $100 discount on a trip purchase, and 3) significantly fewer ads and popups when logged in. As I work on the future of the membership program, I’d love to hear which of these benefits feel most valuable to you, as well as what benefits you feel we’re missing. More access to staff? Meet-ups? Atlas Obscura merchandise when you reach certain levels of contribution? Please don’t be shy about sharing your wishlist with me. :smiley:

American Editing
Coolcrab and I recently had a great offline conversation about this. Atlas Obscura is a U.S. publication and 70% of our readers are American, so by default, we do use current U.S. editorial standards. That said, there’s an important editorial distinction between what something is named vs. the language we use to describe it. In the first case, we always strive to respect the country or culture of origin by calling it exactly what it’s named in (or called by) in that country or culture. The language we use in describing something in the text of an article or entry, however, will be in line with U.S. editorial conventions.

One More Ask!
Okay, different subject. I’d love to get some gut reactions on an approach we’re considering. What if we added a new, easier-to-submit type of place entry called something like “Community Discovery?” Here’s how that would work.

  • It would only require 1) a name, 2) an address, 3) one photo, and 4) one sentence on why it’s an amazing place. Most importantly, it wouldn’t require a full write-up. (BTW, we expect to have an app out this summer, and we’d love to encourage people to submit a place through it, but we wouldn’t expect anyone to type that much on their phone.)
  • Once the “discovery” is submitted, we’d have staff in place to quickly vet the entry. If it gets a thumbs up, it would immediately appear on the site.
  • Once it’s been approved, you would then also have the option to leave it alone for the community to add to, or turn it into a full entry. By doing it this way, we hope to avoid the bad experience of people taking the time to write a full entry only to have it rejected. (I know that can be extremely frustrating.)

In sum, we think a lot of places don’t get added to Atlas Obscura because we make it too hard to do so, which unfortunately means that our community and travelers miss out on some really cool stuff.

Sorry, that was a lot—your thoughts?

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Hey, yes! We’re actually working one one right now that should go up next week. And we’d welcome suggestions on additional contributors to highlight. You can put those in this thread, or feel free to email those suggestions to places@atlasobscura.com.

Thanks!

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Hey, Tyler thanks for the long reply (and the offline discussion)!

Community Contributions and Recognition
Sounds good! I think that the social media shout outs are easy to do immediately, as the rest can take a while. At any rate, I am glad that you guys agree with bringing the users to the front more. :slight_smile:

Membership
This is very personal, but I think that just giving people access to the ads free version + the free members events would already help a lot. Maybe some kind of ‘hidden board’ where ideas can be bounced around before you want them to be public? (For the member access you pointed out)

Personally, I really appreciated the shirt at whatever milestone I did. (was it 150?) So stuff like that would be cool to make official. Kind of like the youtube play buttons?

Also, not fully related but it would be nice to be able to see the AO profile of people on the forum, especially because the username is not always the same as the registered name.

American Editing
Fair enough, and you guys also got a lot better with units which was one of my biggest pet peeves.
I still think that the articles should differentiate more between opinion pieces and factual articles though.
One more ask
This sounds cool! However, you might risk getting a lot of mini stubs, so there should be more incentive for other members to edit them also. Again, this might be just me, but I think that it is dumb that turning a stub into an article counts as an edit and not a co-authorship. I like the numbers and personally, I would be much more motivated to fix stubs if they counted towards my ‘places added’ versus ‘places edited’. An edit to me is adding 2 lines or shifting the location marker.

Hope that this helps!

Oh! And the newest one just went up:

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A friend turned me on to The Atlas almost a year ago, just as I entered full-time retirement mode. Hubs and I have had a complete blast exploring quirks, historic locations, etc., and we’ve even found stuff on our own that isn’t (yet) in the Atlas site. So, I had to pop for membership - the whole give if you take mentality that my mama raised me with.

This post answers questions about how I submit new places we’ve found, or submit updates to sites we did (or tried to) visit. I get the bottleneck, totally.

AND - even though I’m almost 100% retired (hence the joy of AO travel), my main super power is editing/proofreading. If you can use me as a volunteer, let’s talk. Spelling, punctuation, details, fact-checking, etc. - I’m a total wonk that way.

Love the notion of an app - yes, while we’re at a site, a quick tap o’ the app and we’re updating info.

And, while I can certainly understand the urge to HALT and catch up, solo or duo auto travel is actually at a peak right now by my observations. Who wants to miss something while on a 10-day trek round trip on both ends of I-40 and adjacent cities, right? At my age, a lot of trips will be the first - and only - time I get to do them. My bucket list is topping out.

Great thing you’ve done - 10 years of hard work well before the technology sat on our wrist or in the palm of our hand,

My $.02 contribution.

Peggy

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I’m totally on board with all of this EXCEPT - address - unless it’s not posted. State, sure. City, maybe. Legit mailing or domicile address, nope. Not in today’s world.

I LOOOOOOOOOOVE the idea of a quick notation of a new place with photo and short description. Once it’s approved, we can go wild with more backstory … if we have it.

PG

I think this referring to the address of the place, not your address. :slight_smile:

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Love this flurry of ideas, especially that of bringing back stubs. I don’t particularly care about the name we give them, and I’m fine with “Community Discovery”, as long as more obscure places can be brought to the light. As for the requirements, I hope “address” is broad enough to include GPS coordinates - just in case.

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The potential issue I see with the Community Discoveries ides is that, as I proposed above, I would personally prioritize quality over quantity. I wonder if, making small entries so much easier to post, might not increase the potential for posts with incorrect information and make it more unmanageable if there are far more total entries.

I don’t want to disqualify the concept before seeing it action though, as there is the possibility that making changes so easily means that the community efforts will assist in correcting misinformation.

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Hi Ya’ - Just adding my 2 pence. I’m aware of the hardships & struggles that COVID has taken and appreciate you reaching out to inform us contributors. Personally, I don’t have an issue with delays. I can patiently wait until “X” amount of weeks/months go by before I contact AO. I usually write to places@atlasobscura.com and get a response fairly quickly with either an answer or suggestion to my queries. IF I had ONE complaint/suggestion, it would be about the configuration of the Leadership Board and the Map. Sometimes they don’t always reflect the true numbers or locations.

Keep On Trekking,
S

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Thanks everyone! Just repeating back a couple of the main points I’m hearing:

  • The “Community Discovery” idea has potential.
  • Trying to track down an address in the moment could be difficult, especially if it’s a required field. So it should be sufficient to just automatically add geocoordinates from the phone’s GPS.
  • The biggest risk in the approach is a drop in quality. So we’d need to make sure we have the staff and processes in place to 1) approve and check them, and 2) provide meaningful incentives for the community to work on them further.
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Thanks @SEANETTA ! Noted on the leaderboards and maps, and thanks so much for sharing the story about your wonderful contributions.

Yup sounds good! Another thing that would probably be in line with @linkogecko’s comments. I think that we really need some work on the discoverability of places. Just sorting them by #want to go is not working, as it is automatically always the first few places that are grandfathered in forever.

None of the top 8 has ever changed in the years that I have been active in the cities that I submitted to. On top of this, I see that cities with more than say 2 pages of places suffer immensely from this, as people seem to never go there. This leads to new places basically getting like 20-40 likes when it goes live and then maybe 10 more over the course of a year. I already proposed some other equations for more competitive lists that would change a lot, so I won’t rehash those. But I honestly think that you need something like this to bring the newer stuff to the light and stop the site from looking stagnant.

What could also help is to make a button for expanding ‘nearby places’ under a place entry. Now its just 4, and there is no easy way to expand on that. The ‘related places’ are completely broken IMO. They show very far away places (which is OK) but also ones that are often not related at all. Like if we take this as an example: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/samkonade-trafikljusen
None of the 4 places are in any way related. (I guess that they have the same keywords, but it is not really useful for the reader.)