By Dan Nienaber
MANKATO — A virtual coffee shop, which allowed Free Press Web site visitors to weigh in on topics ranging from daily devotions to Democrats owning firearms, was shut down Thursday.
Some who were regulars on Hey Martha, The Free Press online community forum, say she went down a victim of a contentious election season.
Readers are still able to comment on individual stories posted on The Free Press Web site, but those comments are reviewed before being added.
For those who aren’t familiar with the forum, it was a place where readers were able to debate issues in live time. Comments were posted immediately and responses could follow just as quickly. As of 1 a.m. Thursday, there were 3,396 live topics on the forum that had gathered 67,313 comments.
Almost everyone who used the forum did so anonymously and, in the end, a few went too far, said Jim Santori, Free Press publisher.
In a written statement, Santori said he has always seen the forum as an experiment that allowed individuals to educate each other by discussing opinions.
“In particular, I was hopeful we would have a civil discourse on matters where we disagreed,” he said. “Unfortunately, allowing anonymous posts on the forum opened up the opportunity for people to attack others with impunity. It got so bad that, in some cases, I found people fearful to engage in dialogue because of the actions of others.”
People were warned several times and a few were kicked off the forum, which seemed to go downhill rapidly the past three months, Santori said. They were able to return, likely by using different computers. So Santori is looking for an online application that will allow the newspaper to require authentic registrations and block users who violate the forum’s rules.
The decision will cost the newspaper revenue from online advertisements, Santori said. He ultimately decided what the forum had become was not a service he wanted to provide to the community.
Steve Vatndal, also known as Caveman, said he used the forum to share ideas that crossed his mind throughout the day. The last “really good” exchange was about the country’s economic crisis, he said.
But many topics dissolved into bickering, Vatndal said.
“There were some people I looked for because I knew, if they posted, they had something interesting to say,” he said. “I hope they felt the same way about me.”
Mike Lagerquist, a Mankato resident who was a regular on the forum, was one of a few people who used his real name while making posts. He admitted he also made posts with a fake name to avoid having others attack him personally for his opinions.
“The things I posted under that name are the same things I would have posted with my own name,” Lagerquist said.
He said the forum could be an asset for the community, but he also noticed some regular posters with good opinions had disappeared. They had been likely chased off by what forum regulars referred to as “trolls,” or people more interested in picking fights than exchanging ideas.
Lagerquist said it would be a good idea for forum users to use their real names.
But Mike Laven, a Mankato city councilman who also used his real name on the forum, said he could see why some people wanted to be anonymous. He knew two people in particular who had valuable things to say but would have kept their comments to themselves instead of using their names on the forum.
Laven used the forum to give people facts about city policies and projects. His latest posts dispelled rumors about the distribution center that has had its construction delayed, not canceled, by Wal-Mart.
“I hope the newspaper will consider bringing back the forum in the future,” he said.
Lagerquist pointed out there were likely several forum regulars who wanted to complain about the shutdown Thursday but had no place to do so.
Santori said he didn’t want to quell free speech. He was just looking for a way to make forum users more responsible for what they say.
“I don’t want to tell people they don’t have a right to swear — they do,” he said. “Just not at my party.”