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.