I'm reading the comments again, after swearing them off 7 years ago

Like any publication, Salon has grappled over the years with the question of What to Do About the Comments

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 27, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)


"Pathetic that the staff is in here talking to the trolls. Don't you have anything better to do?" asked the troll. He wondered, in Groucho Marx-like fashion, why anybody would join a club that would have him as a member. I have wondered that myself. Seven long years after vowing — and sticking to that vow — of never reading the comments again, I find myself back in, of all places, the comments. Sorry, hater!

Like any publication, Salon has grappled over the years with the question of What to Do About the Comments. Let's be honest — anywhere that you read online, the space underneath a news story or personal essay is rarely where you're going to look for insightful repartee. On occasion an intellectual debate may break out in the comments of an especially highbrow site, and there was a publication known for its chummy posting community (the site has since closed), but those are the exceptions.

"Only widespread drug abuse can explain the de generate state of the Democrats," [sic] observed one commenter on a newspaper's site this week. "I bet her plastic surgeon is payed up," [sic] speculated a commenter on another site, under a story regarding a high profile woman. "It contradicts the prog logic of how any and all acusations [sic] of rape must be believed regardless of whether or not they are obvious lies," said another commenter, about a story on "To Kill a Mockingbird," on — wait, that was here on Salon. "The writer's an obnoxious, condescending jackass who probably has very few friends who don't savage him behind his back," noted another commenter on, oh, I see that was us too.

So notorious have our commenters been over the years that they've been featured in New York Times features on "online cruelty" and HuffPo essay on "a blogospheric feeding frenzy." They helped inspire Kim Brooks' 2018 parenting memoir "Small Animals," after responses to a Salon story about the day she left her son in the car exploded in the comments.

As someone who launched her career in online community moderating and spent many years doing it right here, I am not at all shy about saying I have at times made the case for eliminating our commenting option entirely. It is tiresome and discouraging, for writers and editors alike, to publish work you care about and have it greeted with spambots, racists, misogynists and random arguments that have nothing to do with the content of the story. I recently wandered into the comments of one of my stories to find an active discussion of my physical appearance. I am often reminded of why I said, way back in 2012, that reading the comments is a masochistic experience.

Yet, here I am. Several months ago, not long after I jubilantly deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts, I began having conversations with colleagues about the current state of the world, and what we want to do to make it better. I kept coming back to the word: salon. A gathering. A conversation. Not preaching from the pulpit but opening up a discussion. Talking to each other, even as we disagree. That was the mission when this scrappy organization was founded. That's what we desperately need right now. 

So we started making some changes. Our commenting platform is not what it was seven years ago, which helps. Unlike in the past, users now can, if they wish, create a more personalized identity. We also decided a few months ago to allow for guest commenting. Maybe you don't want to commit yet to becoming a regular but you feel strongly about a particular story or issue. Or maybe the topic is sensitive and you prefer a deeper level of anonymity. We got you, no registration required. Users can also upvote, downvote, or report each comments. They can add gifs and photos. For those so inclined, it's just more fun. 

On the admin end, we have stronger tools to combat spam and offensive content. Posts can be designated with a toxicity level and approved or rejected. We started posting community questions that we hope spark conversation, and every week we highlight some of our favorite comments. There are more features coming that we hope will make it easier and more engaging for users who wish to build something of their own here. A 2016 FiveThirtyEight study of 8,500 internet commenters found that 18 percent say they comment to "contribute to the discussion." If you're in that 18 percent, please, come on in.

It would never be in my nature to ask anyone to invest time and effort in something I didn't have a personal stake in. So I'm there in the comments. I'm reading. I'm talking. I'm replying. It's not always great. I often struggle to find a way in on an already heated thread that seems more an excuse for finger pointing than an actual expansion of the article posted above it. I also don't necessarily want to engage with someone who triumphantly nitpicks someone else's grammar. And it didn't take long for me to come to recognize a handful of individuals who seem to be devoted full time to yelling at strangers. I am very aware that if I'm struggling to find a way in to a conversation or to be heard, what's it like for an overwhelmed newcomer?

But I have also, despite my skepticism, found myself growing fond of the regulars I know will show up when a Digby column goes up or a new story on the anti-vaxxers appears. I've shared movie and restaurant recommendations. The freedom of not having to manually remove spammers and epithet-spewers allows for greater opportunity to converse and get to know people's stories. And I like them.

It's still true that nobody's ever regretted not reading the comments, anywhere. As a work in progress, however, I believe in the evolving potential of community and communication. I believe it does no good to stay shut in our silos. I believe that social networking can be more meaningful when it goes smaller.  I've developed a growing respect for the people who choose not just to spend their time here, with us, but who sincerely and curiously engage with each other as well. I'm trying to be one of those people myself. I'm trying to listen as often as I speak. I'm trying to learn. And if you want to talk, you know where to find me. Right here, below.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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