Philosophy of VegGuide.org
This essay was first written for the Voices of CAA blog on September 24, 2007. That blog was later destroyed in a fiery CMS upgrade. Last revised on February 25, 2012.
The VegGuide.org site has been around for almost five years now. Sometimes people ask why we made it, since there were already two similar sites in existence at the time. That's a good question, so here's the answer.
The goal of the guide is to provide a tool that helps makes it easier to live a more animal-friendly life. Specifically, we want to make it easier for people to find vegetarian and vegan food, products, etc. This guides our decisions about features, design, and everything else. If it doesn't make it easier for people to be (more) veg, it probably isn't right for the guide.
The first requirement of a useful guide to veg-friendly places is that it be big and up-to-date. There's no way that we could build a huge database single-handedly, much less keep it up to date. This can only be done through the efforts of a community. If you've ever thought about how Wikipedia works, the guide is quite similar, and in many ways wikis provide a good model for what the guide should be.
If we want to build a huge database, adding information to the guide must be as easy as possible. When users browse the site, even if they're not logged-in, they see the links and buttons that let them add new entries and reviews. They're also encouraged to edit existing information in the same way.
We want to lower the barrier to entry and to make it obvious that stuff is added by users, not some magic site admin. You are building the site, all we made was a framework.
Contrast this to many other sites, where it's not always clear how you can contribute, or even if you can contribute. Some sites allow you to submit data, but the submission process is filtered by a human, so there is no instant feedback.
It's not enough to make adding things easy, you also need to provide instant feedback, and the guide tries its best here. If you let people do something and show them positive results ("hey, my new entry is right there!") they feel satisfied and encouraged to repeat that behavior ("why don't I add a few more?").
Since the guide is all about making it easier to be veg, we try to consider users' needs first. If it's useful to users, it's good. Otherwise it's not.
For example, the guidelines for what makes an acceptable entry are pretty loose. If a steak place is the most veg-friendly restaurant in a small town, we want it listed in the guide. We don't require a certain level of "purity" for new entries (all-veg, mostly veg, whatever). That simply reduces the amount of useful information we could provide for our users.
We also don't censor negative opinions (except for ad hominem attacks). Some sites do, in the interest of helping businesses. That's a nice thought, but if a place is really terrible, you want to be able to find out before you go there. Remember, the guide wants to make your life easier, which means helping you find good food and helping you avoid the bad stuff.
Serving users well also means avoiding conflicts of interest. We don't charge restaurants for listings. This would lead to us having less information in the system, and we want a huge database. We don't charge people for access to features, since this would definitely not make your life easier!
The guide has no ads, since these are just visual clutter and provide no end-user benefit. Nor does it use much real estate asking for donations (in fact, it's near invisible, look at the footer).
Finally, there is another philosophical drive to the guide, which is to promote the free exchange of information. We use the word "free" here to refer to freedom, not price. The guide is a community resource, and as such we want to share ownership with all of our contributors.
When users submit entries or reviews to the guide, they grant us a license to use that content, but they don't give up their own rights. Other sites have much stricter terms, even up to demanding exclusive ownership of a submission.
Even better, the guide's data is all freely available and reusable for any purpose. You don't need to ask permission, just abide by the simple Creative Commons license. How cool is that?
So that was our very long-winded answer to why the guide exists. Of course, besides the philosophy, there's also the hubris. We were convinced when we started, and remained convinced, that we could make a better, more useful and fun site than what was out there. We hope some of you agree. If you don't, we're still working on making things better, so maybe you'll change your mind some time in the future.