How Salon tamed the trolls and saved its online comments

Online comments sections are a double-edged sword for publishers. For those trying to increase loyalty and engagement with readers, comments should be an essential part of an audience strategy. But all too often, they becomes a haven for trolls and spam. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter are becoming the new comments sections as people shift their online conversations there. For those reasons, a host of sites including Reuters, Popular Science and Tumblr recently killed off comments entirely or never introduced them in the first place.

One site that has remained committed to comments is Salon. As its name suggests, the news and culture site has always had online debate at the core of its identity. Between its politics, sustainability and personal essays content, Salon gives its readers plenty to get riled up about, and had historically only lightly moderated the chatter on the site.

“I’ll be honest, too much of our comment section in the past was a little bit embarrassing, and I think it had a reputation among writers as being a really difficult and tough environment,” said David Daley, editor-in-chief. “It had become a little bit of a cesspool.”

Salon hired Annemarie Dooling as its community advisor in 2013 after stints at The Huffington Post and Yahoo. She’s led the effort to tighten up the process — demonstrating that online comments can be worth having, if the publisher puts the work in. Here’s what they did:

Use the right platform.
Using a commenting platform was critical to being able to keep on top of users. In Salon’s case, it went with Livefyre. Dooling said she liked Disqus’ ability to track user history and Discourse for its ability to segment commenters, but she liked Livefyre for its easy implementation and moderation tools. 

Tend the garden.
Keeping tabs on comments can be a full-time job, especially when a controversial post goes up, so Salon hired Nassir Isaf, a comment moderator at the Huff Post, as its full-time moderator. Isaf’s job is to moderate the comments, but he also communicates with commenters one on one. Trello, an organizer app, lets him keep profiles on commenters. “A lot of times, it’s a 24-hour job for him,” Dooling said.

Not all trolls are created equal.
Trolls can take different forms. By using word filters and analyzing people’s behavior over time and topic, Salon could see who was just coming to the site to bash favorite targets and not engage in civil discussion, as opposed to those who were only out of line when it came to certain topics. In the case of the former, Salon doesn’t hesitate to ban commenters. But if it’s the latter, it might just temporarily ban them from publicly commenting when there’s a heated discussion going on about their hot-button topic. “One guy was amazing in entertainment posts but a foul-mouthed sailor in politics,” Dooling said. “We put people on time-out. You can just cut out a lot of the trolling.”

Allow anonymity.
Salon has always favored what Dooling calls the pseudo-anonymity approach, where registered users have screen names but the publisher knows who they are. Dooling doesn’t share the view that making people use their real names ensures civility (she wrote at length about that in this column in Wired). “Look at Facebook,” she said. “They’re holding babies and kissing grandma and they’re just railing on each other. Real names don’t matter when people really believe in something.”

Reward top commenters.
You can measure engagement by raw number of comments or commenters. Using Google Analytics, Livefyre and Adobe, Salon looks at metrics like the number of replies they make as a share of overall comments, how frequently they share Salon articles, and how many pageviews they log per visit. (Users who log in, which is required if you want to comment, view seven pages per session on average, while non-registered users make it to only 1.7, according to Dooling.) After it identified these top commenters, Salon has solicited their feedback and invited them to lead discussions on posts and even help moderate threads.

Broaden the mix.
Cultivating the core commenters is key, but it’s also important to enliven the discussion by encouraging those who are new to the site. To that end, Salon tries to identify the newbies in a comment thread. They leave some clues: They may have just created an account or be unknown to Salon’s moderator. Salon also keeps an eye out for newbies when a post goes viral on social media or reddit, which tends to bring in new audiences. Atheism and feminism posts often go viral, so Salon makes a point to look out for new commenters after those posts go up.

Ultimately, Salon’s goal was to arrive at a core, engaged group of commenters. Dooling says the most recent numbers are a step in that direction: In the fourth quarter of 2014, it logged nearly 260,000 comments from 73,236 registered users. A year earlier, when there were fewer comments (243,000) spread out across more users (81,574). The takeaway for Dooling is that commenting isn’t for every site, but having moderation and goals helps.

“Comments aren’t awful,” she said. “It’s just the way we position them. The whole idea is not to give up on debate.”