Managing Trollish Behavior on Discussion Boards

There are many ways to manage an online discussion

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By David Hammond

Ten years ago, when some friends and I founded, the Chicago-based culinary chat site, we decided we'd have a lightly moderated discussion board. As of today, we have over 14.5K registered members. Since the start, we've tried to keep the conversation focused on food. There are a number of ways a post can be pulled, and a post will most definitely be pulled if the poster engages in personal attacks, name-calling or other discursive strategies unlikely to lead to a productive exchange.

Unproductive exchanges are a problem for all discussion boards. Last Friday The Chicago Sun-Times, another paper I write for, posted the announcement:

Starting this weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times and the other titles in the Sun-Times Media group will temporarily cease to run comments with our articles.

The world of Internet commenting offers a marvelous opportunity for discussion and the exchange of ideas. But as anyone who has ever ventured into a comment thread can attest, these forums too often turn into a morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.

…we do want to take some time and work on the qualitative aspect of how they are handled and how we can foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.

Last week on, I posted about a visit to Chipotle that had made me unhappy: I thought the server perceived me as a low-value customer and so treated me poorly. Good customer service, of course, means treating all customers equally well. That seems inarguable, and yet this was an opinionated piece, and being a big boy, I expect and accept differing opinions. But here is a representative taste of what accounted for maybe 75% of the responses:

* "This is dave hammond, a self important hack of a 'writer' who is a coward and a jerk."

* "Using his position to get back at a kid who was rude to him in turn makes Mr. Hammond a bully."

* "Despite his admittedly poor personal hygiene and boorish behavior, no serving girl has the right to address a wealthy white male in such a manner."

* "Complete A**hole."

* "faaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrt."

On, the policy is pretty much to allow all comments, unless they're so out-and-out racist or otherwise offensive to common decency and community standards that they simply cannot be allowed to stand in this publication's public forum. Sometimes, if an article has a racial dimension, the comments section may be pre-emptively turned off; there are some in hyper-liberal Oak Park who leap at the opportunity to vent the most scabrous racist tripe at every opportunity – particularly if they can shroud themselves in anonymity. On, all posters must register, which goes some way toward making people feel some responsibility for adult behavior; in the comments I'm referring to from last week's post on, not one poster except me was Facebook-verified, so there was no way to know if there were many voices or just two or three people who kept posting under different names – in fact, in one case, one poster admitted to using slightly different screen names on different posts in the thread because he said it was actually too challenging to type his actual name consistently (insert eyeroll here).

Constructive criticism, even if harsh, can be helpful. For instance, re: the Chipotle article, a criticism I received on was:

* Sorry Mr. H, but your outrage at what sounds like an appropriate chastisement registers particularly hypocritical coming from the same delicate flower who has written multiple chastising columns about the unsanitariness of fingerlicking at the table, and (gasp!) eating a chicken leg with one's fingers.

You got me on my hyper-hygienic approach to finger-licking, though I honestly do not recall ever expressing the thought that it's wrong to eat a chicken leg with one's fingers. But whatever: I'm open to whatever criticism might come my way -- and I try hard not to resort to name-calling because that, of course, would be pointless.

Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 21st, 2014 1:48 PM

It's not likely that the truth is going to be of much concern to you, Bill, but Matt was wrong in his preposterious claim that I wanted negative comments removed (I never came close to suggesting that any comments be removed) and he was wrong that articles were put up to shove the controversial article off the front page (I was out of town when the conversation began and all the articles for that week were scheduled the week before the conversation began ?" I'm glad this post is getting all the traffic it has, including your post). I have pretty much let this go; I can see, however, that you haven't, which is totally cool with me, as your comments keep this post alive. Have at it! About buying dinner for a homeless guy, I've tried that: it was quite an experience, and made for a good story: (warning: adult language).

Bill from Oak Park  

Posted: April 21st, 2014 1:19 PM

@matt. You are soooo right about the three articles! David Hammond - Let it go! No author has ever commented so much on these boards trying to mitigate a stinker of an article. You were over the top to compare yourself to a homeless person. Stop focusing on a few comments out of 80 to deflect attention from your article. A gentlemen (your term) would care about his appearance, apologize to the Chipotles worker for the misunderstanding and buy some homeless folks lunch.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 15th, 2014 1:23 PM

"Wednesday Journal Comments gives us all a voice in the village. It allows people to exchange idea, viewpoints, and friendship." Totally agree, Mr. Murtaugh.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 15th, 2014 1:10 PM

I have been posting on WH Comments since the service first went on line. I enjoy "Comments" and believe that it provides viewpoint on a broad scale, an opportunity for debate, communication with speed, and provide replies to your written thoughts. That rarely happens on Letter to the Editor. Yes, there are some posts that I wish never appeared. I don't read them. There are some posters who use an alias and offend me at times. I never respond to their posts. I "DO" reply to most posters using aliases. Why? Because most are excellent writers, have great insight on what is going on in the village, and frequently post research on subject matter that you can't find anywhere else. There are solutions that do not require rage. Wednesday Journal Comments gives us all a voice in the village. It allows people to exchange idea, viewpoints, and friendship. I think Wednesday Journal Comments follows the rules it set and enforce them. I'd like to see it continue just as it is.


Posted: April 15th, 2014 9:18 AM

When people were praising your articles you didn't say then to take down all comments.


Posted: April 15th, 2014 9:13 AM

Congrats, you wrote 3 collumns in three days to get your Chipolte story off the front page.The problem is you don't see that you are the problem.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 8:53 PM

"The WJ would be best off it they turned off public comments period. Letters to the editor would suffice for public input to the newspaper." Seriously, no@thanks?

The Never Ending Story Part 5: Dream of Dreams from Oak Park  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 8:29 PM

You gotta admit, the "faaaaaaarrrrrrrrt" was pretty funny, especially since the commenter spelled it wrong the first time, then had their "Editor" correct it.  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 8:27 PM

Comments on newspaper websites cheapen the quality of the reporting and should be hidden by default, if not turned off completely. The Wednesday Journal would be better off it it hid comments by default, and required readers to "opt-in" to read them. The WJ would be best off it they turned off public comments period. Letters to the editor would suffice for public input to the newspaper.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 6:29 PM

David, I think you have a blind spot, which could be eliminated if you took some of the comments (on the original column and this one) to heart.


Posted: April 14th, 2014 4:49 PM

So you were treated rudely by one worker, wrote a column about it and received numerous comments. Unfortunately for you, most of them were negative. Now instead of a Local Eats blog, you write a Miss Manners column on how uncivilized anonymous trolls saying mean things is bad for public discourse. Has it occurred to you that what you wrote last week was just a tad bit out of line? Maybe you should eat a bit of humble pie and apologize.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 4:24 PM

You've poor reading skills, 'Freakin.' Have someone read it for you if you can't understand simple English. Nowhere has the 'ex-journalist' called for censoring anything. Nor Hammond. Just suggesting we call the boorish and always anonymous and usually rather ignorant posters what they are.

Big Al from Oak Park  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 4:20 PM

David, David. This could have been such a good learning experience.....but no. Very sad.  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 4:15 PM

Yeah, he still really doesn't have a clue why people were mad about that column. And he thinks we're all one person. With this column, he sounds even more out of touch with humanity, and I didn't think that was possible. I guess it's easier to paint all critics as trolls than to look in the mirror and acknowledge his own trollish behavior. Sad. He used to be an ok writer.

Freakin' Hilarious  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 4:15 PM

This is so rich. Journalists (ex- and current) and an NGO bureaucrat who sucks on taxpayer money arguing for censorship on a newspaper message board. Thomas Paine, anonymously, would still you to suck it up, you thin- skinned crybabies.

joe from south oak park  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 3:20 PM

wow.. just wow. first you are offended by being called out on your own bad behavior so you use your position as a food writer with a local paper to lambast the individual that called you out. Now your offended that your readers were fairly boorish in their criticism of your behavior and the tone in which you chose to do so. Enough that you need to create a second post to address the comments but not your behavior. If that isn't the very definition of passive aggressive, I don't know what is.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 3:09 PM

Anon commenting is about protecting differing or minority opinions imho. Yes, it would be nice if everyone could share their opinions without fear of reprisal, but we all know that the world doesn't work that way. Those on the left seem to be particularly rabid about attacking others who don't agree. With that said, yes anon commenting can lead to some boorish behavior, but I rather have differing opinions to hold journalist feet to the fire than group think.

Rob Breymaier from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 2:59 PM

It's not just a matter of inconvenience and ignorance. This story that ran over the weekend on This American Life shows how anonymous commenting can be harmful. In the end, I guess I just don't understand why anonymous commenting on a media site is tolerated. There seems to be no upside to it and a lot of downside is clearly evident on every single news site that allows anonymous commenting..

OP Transplant  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 2:07 PM

Mr. Hammond, you're not the only person who is owed good service. If the employee had allowed you reach to reach your admittedly unwashed hand across the counter toward the food, that's bad service for everybody but you. You got a lot of negative response because you used your column to criticize a restaurant employee for doing something that most readers want restaurant employees to do. I don't know you, but the column makes you sound entitled and self important, in my opinion.

Don Pablos The Real Enchilada  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 1:22 PM

The Sun Times turning off the comments is a cowardly act. When the revamped system is unveiled, I am sure it will favor viewpoints more than others, just like the Chicago Tribune's does. Anonymity plays an important part in a free society.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 14th, 2014 1:10 PM

I call them 'the ignorati," David. Juvenile types who spew ignorant and uninformed drivel in response to news articles and columns. Always anonymously, of course, since deep down inside they're embarrassed by their stupity. They know little, write poorly, and think even more poorly. Which explains the ridiculously ad hominem nature of their attacks.


Posted: April 14th, 2014 12:55 PM

You can always troll the trolls back, for instance I half expected you to have turned the comments off for this article (which would have been funny) its all about taking it in stride,

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