Ten years ago, when some friends and I founded LTHForum.com, 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 oakpark.com, 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 oakpark.com, 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 LTHForum.com, 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 oakpark.com, 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 oakpark.com 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.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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