Monday, December 21, 2009

Cleveland.com Food & Wine

I’m going to say it was about a year ago that I made the decision to stop posting on the Cleveland.com Food + Wine forum. While some of the topics, such as locating certain products around town, upcoming events, and reports of lesser known eateries, were helpful; I found that the overall tone of the forum was way too negative.

Personal attacks, childish banter, and the general belittlement of others who are not as well versed in all things food as others, are almost daily occurrences on this website. Those who eat at chain restaurants are treated like a card carrying member of al qaeda. Arguments prattle on line after line about something as simple as a restaurant having nitrates in their hot dogs. Believe me when I tell you – this is a nasty lot.

You would think something like this would be moderated by someone, wouldn’t you? Well, actually, it is (and it isn’t.) You see, Linda Griffith is technically the moderator, but she’s also an active participant in the disputes. Did you ever see referee Mills Lane team up with Mike Tyson to try and take out Evander Holyfield? That’s kind of what happens here – opinions are stated that seem to exacerbate the problem and then it becomes a no holds barred free-for-all.

On a couple of occasions I’ve actually heard out-of-towners stumble upon this forum and ask why the people on that forum are trying to tear down the image of their own city’s restaurant scene. What do you say to that? I don’t know; it really is embarrassing when you think about it. Our city, with all of its warts, can boast that it has a lot of good restaurants at many different price points. Why do so many on this forum feel so compelled to tear down the reputations of these restaurants and their chefs? I’m absolutely puzzled.

I think the single most damaging thing I’ve seen on that forum is people who go on there and complain about XYZ at such and such a restaurant and then give the play-by-play of everything that went wrong. So what’s the problem with that you might ask? Well, the problem is that you’re giving your own account of what happened. Right or wrong, you’re implicating the restaurant as a whole on a public forum and, intentionally or unintentionally, branding them as having poor service, unsanitary conditions, etc. Your hiding behind a screen name and making accusations that may, or may not, be true.

So the post goes up, what’s a restaurant owner supposed to do? Are they expected to apologize on the forum and make things right with the upset customer? Should they ignore the fact anything has been posted at all and just wait for the post to go to the next page? How do you prepare a rebuttal without drawing more attention to an already inflamed topic? The restaurant is in a no win situation. The fact is that the original poster is an asshole and shouldn’t be rewarded for their bad behavior. Often times you’ll see the owner or chef of the restaurant post a “call me, we want to make things right.” That’s total bullshit. If the food, service, or cleanliness was so bad, why didn’t they call over a manager right then and there and settle the issue?

So how would I improve what would/should be a really fun and interesting community?

Give the moderator the power to immediately delete material that violates posting etiquette. As it stands now, the moderator has no power to immediately delete anything, so it stays up for an inordinate period (measured in days) of time and perpetuates more nasty comments. One person says something snotty and then the snowball begins to roll.

The moderator should either moderate or be a contributor, but not both. They’re called moderators for a reason. I don’t see how someone who heads up the Slow Food Convivium here in Cleveland is going to see Joe Bag of Donut’s point of view on why Olive Garden is his favorite restaurant. There’s a fundamental conflict there – and it shows.

Adopt Chowhound's rules of etiquette. I can’t think of a more respectful place to read about food than at Chowhound. Their rules are pretty simple: Keep the site informative, friendly and hype-free. If a post violates any of these three expectations - it gets deleted. On the FF all of these expectations get violated routinely. I just don’t see the problem with someone having an opinion if it’s a positive one. So someone doesn’t buy organic vegetables, are you going to pay their grocery bill? Too often I see people marginalized because the vocal minority tells them about how wrong they are. Shut up and cook your own goddamn food, and let them cook theirs.

Delete the accounts of repeat etiquette offenders. It’s pretty simple. I know some would say that they’ll just re-register. Yeah. So? Do you not spray for roaches because they’ll just keep coming back? If their comments are being deleted in an appropriate time period it becomes too much of a hassle after a while. Maybe if they’re treated with respect in the first place they won’t make such nasty comments.

I think this forum could be a lot of fun, but in its current form it’s an absolute joke. There’s a good reason novice home cooks, restaurant owners, and chefs don’t contribute to this site – they get beat on. Until the negativity halts this problem is going to persist.

19 comments:

  1. Nice post. As a very regular reader of the forum and a bite-my-tongue-till-it-bleeds non-contributor, I agree with most of what you say. Maybe all of what you say.

    I am for honest criticism though, and think that’s really important to improve our restaurant scene. I’m not for people commenting on the weight of others or disparaging certain businesses because of personality conflicts. Or telling someone that she drinks sh#t, in whatever language. That stuff is just awful.

    As is often pointed out, there seem to be some restaurateurs who are beyond reproach by the mod, her doting sidekick, and some others. And some of those restaurants get away with what I think is some mediocre if not downright bad food. Not just get away with, but are praised for it. And I know it’s subjective, but some things, like temperature of foods that are supposed to be served hot (that consistently aren’t) or things being disingenuously labeled on menus seem pretty objective to me. But the most vocal posters seem to defend people, not their food, and ultimately I think that is bad for the local food scene. Saying something isn’t authentic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or saying, "hey, those things could have been hotter" (spicy or temp), only helps the place in the end, or at least helps someone figure out what to expect (if I’m out for a nice dinner with the lady friend, or anyone, if the soup’s not hot I really don’t give a crap, I'll eat it, but I’m not going to report it was the best soup experience of my life either—imho, talking to the manager/chef is overrated, the food should be good when it comes out, busy or not busy, whoever's working). Instead, places are often praised completely, when nothing is perfect, and I think an out-of-towner or someone who only eats out occasionally is being disserviced by reading many of the gushing reviews the forum, or certain blogs or columns.

    For me, the restaurant stuff should be just about getting, and helping others get, a good meal with nice service. It’s great if the owner is a kick-ass person, but if I’m limited in my opportunities dining out in our city, I’m more interested the dining experience itself. It's just not right with the chosen few who could never fall from grace, and some of the amazing places that never get their due.

    Anyway, sorry for hijacking this post and let’s not forget, very, very few people care about the FF. We are the odd ones.

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  2. The food forum is the second listing for the query "cleveland food" on Google. And it's the fourth listing, and first listing that isn't a specific restaurant, for the query "cleveland restaurant". It's the first listing for the query "cleveland restaurants". I'm sure that the food forum is the public face of Cleveland for a depressingly large number of people. Nobody cares a lot about the food forum, but lots of people care about it a little.

    Part of "getting, and helping others get, a good meal with nice service" is the freedom to be critical. Chowhound permits this, although I think you see it far less amongst Cleveland posters. The problem on the food forum isn't that criticism is permitted. Readers are intelligent and can trust posts or not based on the reputation of the author and whether the post seems credible, just as though they were talking to a friend of a friend at a party. The problem on the Cleveland.com food forum is that this rule is applied unevenly and that drives people nuts.

    I love chowhound, too. It's very polite. I'm also fond of a site called Metafilter (not food related). Moderators participate on both sites. Conversations at Metafilter can be adversarial and they can get snarky, but the moderators have consistent limits. The problem at cleveland.com isn't a general one related to the moderator's roles, rules and responsibilities. The problem is substantially this moderator, specifically. She won't tolerate reasonable criticism of chosen restaurants and "moderates" with personal attacks, exactly the sorts of posts she should be deleting. The long-distance moderators, the ones with the power to actually remove posts, may exacerbate the problem by acting so slowly. People pile on and other feel the need to push back. But many of the posts that should be delete are from the de jure moderator herself or posts which she obviously supports. Devolving power to her isn't going to solve the problem.

    The forum will never function as long as either of these problems remain. Unfortunately, this situation has persisted for years and one can only conclude that the-powers-that-be at cleveland.com believe Ms. Griffith is doing a good job and that internet forums are cesspools by their very nature. They just don't get the internet. They're never going to make the changes necessary to fix the forum.

    I wish it were different... I'm spending more and more time on Chowhound. And twitter. I track a twitter search for "cleveland restaurant" and a couple other similar queries and I frequently find someone looking for a recommendation. I've helped far more people that way than I ever did on the food forum. And I've also learned much more from twitter than I ever did on the food forum.

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  3. Good post -- I agree with your assessment and the elitism of the posts to the F&W Forum drove me away a long time ago.

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  4. Where is the "Like" button? The FF is absolutely ridiculous and I have no idea why I even bother reading it anymore.

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  5. @CFT - To say that there are establishments that are above reproach is quite an understatement (this goes for certain blogs, too.) The problem is that it does a huge disservice to both new customers and the restaurateur because the bar has been set so high by promises of "divine", "heavenly" and any other celestial adjective that can be invoked to describe the food, that the dinner can't possibly meet expectations, unless of course they're also drinking the Kool Aid.

    I've started trying to describe the essence of what a particular restaurant is, or isn't, so that people can decide for themselves whether that fits the bill for what they're looking for. If a particular dish stands out I'll mention it, but I no longer go blow by blow. In the end no one really gives a shit (about my food descriptions),they can look up and menu and read it themselves.

    @Stuart - Unfortunately I think your right. The culture won't change until she's replaced, and even then that isn't to say one of the lemmings won't take over. It's a shame because a lot of visitors to this city start their food search at that forum.

    I have really resisted Twitter, but like Facebook I might have to do the unthinkable and cave in.

    @everyone - The FF is like shopping at TJ Maxx, there's quite a bit of garbage, but if you look hard enough you eventually find some gems.


    I loved reading your comments.

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  6. Very nicely put criticism. I learned my leason the hard way on the ff. Every so often i just can't help myself and post something, and end up regretting it. Good luck to everyone. Try the ghetto gourmet website for another venue.

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  7. Ditto. I agree. The criticism is right on target. I also have posted a few times and regretted it as well. There is very little tolerance for varied opinions or for venues that are not the ones considered the "best" by the main clique. Too bad, really, because there are also useful posts. Best wishes!

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  8. as a long time (10+ years) reader and poster on the fwf, you and other commenters make some great points. However, I also feel that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Everyone should post more about other Cleveland area restaurants, even chain restaunts, on the fwf. There are a hundreds of great neighborhood places (I live in Lakewood and know what I'm talking about). We should take more contol of the forum and make more and better recommendations to people especially looking for a decent and not too expensive dinner and making it a better representation of what the Cleveland area has to offer foodwise.

    -Karen

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  9. The information provided by Stuart regarding Google searches is WRONG. Do the searches Stuart mentions and then click on the links. Some will take you to cleveland.com but NONE will take you to the Food and Wine Forum.

    CMHguy

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  10. I have tried posting about or asking about less talked about places, only to have my post disappear. Or to have the majority of responses cite my personality, perceived job and other non-relevant aspects of my life because I do not frequent the preferred restaurants.

    The only reason I still check the forum is to watch the train wreck happen. The insults and heated debates are far better than anything I can see on tv. I would love to see it turn into a less volatile place tho.

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  11. @Karen - I think I pretty much said what I thought would improve things. I absolutely agree that more needs to be done to put some of the smaller places in the spot light. I attempt to do that here - in the end there's only so much time.

    I actually think it would be a more pleasant place in general if the restaurant stuff was put on the other forum and the topics were focused on home cooking rather than dining out. I think the food stuff is where Linda shines. Restaurant commentary is where she typically gets in trouble with people.

    I can only hope that the forum improves as a result of this. I guess we'll take a wait and see approach. My experience is that everyone plays nice for a while and then it slides again. I hope for everyone's sake I'm wrong.

    @ Anonymous December 29 - If there's a better example of schadenfreude I'd like to know what it is (perhaps The Real Housewives of OC?)

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  12. @Dine O Mite, on The Real Housewives (any of the incarnations) people appear semi aware of how catty and petty they are. On the FF, people seem oblivious to their horrid behavior. And, I enjoy seeing how people can laugh at themselves after the hoopla blows over which does not happen with reality tv.

    Here is an example of what I mentioned above... There was a happy hour discussion awhile back where people were speculating about those who eat at chain restaurants and not the various happy hours in the city. I asked a question about happy hours convenient to people who do not live near downtown Cleveland and received only a few condescending responses telling me I was not trying hard enough and feigning shock that anyone would live in the suburbs.

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  13. Argh, the sentence above should read "how SOME people can laugh at themselves after the hoopla blows over". Such as bennyrae's post today or mdsymon after the lard incident. Not the people who constantly feign innocence and play the victim card when they act out.

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  14. AFTER they act out I mean. Time for bed before I make anymore silly typos :)

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  15. I have been reading the FWF for years- way back when a poster who went by "DJ Wayne" used to post frequently. Now, this guy was no epicurian, he was just a guy who enjoyed posting about his second-hand kitchen finds and simple, homemade recipes. I will never forget how badly he was treated by LG and her evil twin, "Irish K" it was really bad. Just an example of how those people think of themselves as so superior to everyone else. Linda Griffith's time is over. She is just a really nasty woman. I would love to know what she gets paid by Cleveland.com to spew her venom.

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  16. ah, DJ Wayne. Linda actually asked him for an interview when he first started posting for an article for the "magazine" she writes for. He was a hoot and I mean that in the best way. But boy did he get on the wrong side of IrishK and then BCee. Those were the days :)

    -Karen

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  17. Amen to your thoughts on the Cleveland Food + Wine Forum. The nasty banter drove me off long ago and I just happened to check it out recently, only to stumble into yet another toxic exchange. As an avid food blogger and reader of all things food-related, I will stick with Chowhound and your blog - of course! Thanks for saying what many had been thinking.

    - Jennifer

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  18. Great post...I like your blog!!!

    Please check out my new blog dedicated to reviewing good food, beer, wine, and overall resturant quality.
    http://clevelandfoodandbrews.blogspot.com/

    Also become a fan of Cleveland Food and Brews Reviews on Facebook!!!

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  19. I used to comment/participate in the F&W forum but was belittled for my opinions. If I thought a restaurant or particular dish at the restaurant was too pricey or poorly prepared, I was not afraid to day so. Usually I was roundly criticized by the moderator and some of the other regulars for having an opimion contrary to theirs. Not a pleasant feeling. I came to the Forum Events usually in Tremont and was treated with respect to my face, but on-line it was another story. I like good food as much as the next person, but not at the expense of my being belittled constantly.

    David Bunsey
    age 69

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