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March 18, 2021, 2:41 p.m.
Audience & Social

The New York Times is so done with its 77,000-member Facebook cooking group. What happens now?

“Food Only” turned out to be impossible.

“I blame people who fight over brands of mayonnaise.”

“How many goddamn posts do we need to see of people’s first Le Creuset? Seriously.”

“All the food shaped VOTE signs.”

“It was all the, my grocery order included 16lbs of heavy cream what should I make?”

“It’s gone downhill with people posting Cooking 101 questions and slop from instant pots.”

“Maybe it was the substitutions. All the ‘I made Alison Roman’s shallot pasta but I substituted scallions for shallots and it was terrible’ comments.”

“It was the open our fridge doors, guess where I’m at … wasn’t it?”1

Members are speculating: Why would The New York Times want to abandon its 77,000-member cooking Facebook group? The one whose demise I surely ensured by reporting, upon its launch two years ago, that it was a “happy corner of the internet”? A place where, as one Times social media editor put it at the time, “everyone’s so nice to each other, and so encouraging, it feels like one long episode of ‘The Great British Baking Show,’ 24 hours a day”?

A lot can change in two years. It is very, very hard to meaningfully moderate a big Facebook group, perhaps nearly impossible to moderate one the size of a small city. As it turns out, it’s a full-time job — likely more than one — and one the Times no longer wants to do.

“The interest in this group is about much more than recipes or The New York Times. As it continues to grow and change, it should be run by people who are an engaged and informed part of the community. And so it is time to hand this group over to you, its members,” the editors of NYT Cooking wrote in a Facebook post this week, adding that they are looking for “a group of 10 to 20 volunteers to take over as moderators for this community.”

Asked for comment, a Times spokesperson said they would let the post stand for itself. Sam Sifton, the editor of NYT Cooking, provided more context to Times media columnist Ben Smith:

Many group members came to the same conclusion that Sifton did. On Thursday, one member posted a poll asking others what they thought the real reason the Times was stepping away was. The most-selected choice was “It has almost nothing to do with NYT Cooking anymore” (279 votes). Among the other options that members added: “A change in NYT Cooking business priorities” (134 votes), “It’s bad for the brand — can’t control the content” (80 votes), “Nasty responses to simple questions” (62 votes), “Facebook’s increased demand for moderator involvement in groups like this” (59 votes), and “The Casually Racist Cooking Community” (41 votes).

The New York Times’ standalone cooking product, NYT Cooking, costs $40 per year and is an increasingly significant revenue driver. In 2020, revenue in the Times’ “other” digital subscription category, which includes Cooking as well as games and audio products, grew 59.4%, to $54 million for the year.

But the Facebook group, which never required a Times subscription as a prerequisite for membership, had come to feel increasingly separate from the NYT Cooking product. The Times has paywalled most of its recipes, and the group’s No. 3 rule is:

3. No copy/pasting or screenshots of full NYT recipes. It would be great to be able to give you recipes for free. We cannot. We test them relentlessly. The work we do is expensive, and we want to do more. We ask that you pay to access them.

Back in 2019, when the group was still relatively small (8,000 members), then–NYT Cooking social media editor Kiera Wright-Ruiz told me the group generally “self-regulated”: “Someone will ask, like, ‘Should I pay for a New York Times subscription?’ and people are such brand advocates for us, because it really is a group of people that loves cooking and loves The New York Times.” Group members even chipped in to buy NYT Cooking subscriptions for people who couldn’t afford them.

“I love the group. I love its members. I became friends with many of them,” Marwa Ali Alta’ee, a resident of Baghdad and a member from the start, told me via Facebook Messenger. “I learned so much from everyone. Learned about their traditions, celebrations, dishes…and I feel I managed to shed the light on my country, Iraq. So many people thought of Iraq as a war zone! I showed them the opposite!” Hearing that the Times was giving up on the group, she said, made her feel “like I was going to get fired from my job and won’t be able to be with my friends again.”

But the sense of cozy community often frayed as time went on and membership grew. The 2020 election and the pandemic created division and breaking points within communities (real-life and virtual) everywhere; NYT Cooking was no exception. Politics seeped in constantly, despite a group rule that there “are many places to express your political views; this is not one of them.” When posts supporting presidential candidates were deleted, people started sneaking “vote” messages into their food pictures.

Holidays added another round of conflict. For instance: Someone posts a picture of a Thanksgiving table that is clearly set for a gathering beyond immediate family, or asks for a good recipe for a “big group,” or posts a picture of themselves at a “socially distanced” gathering where nobody is masked and everybody is close together; judgment ensues. This happened repeatedly.

It was “non-food-related arguments” that caused the group to fall apart, Frances Caslin Rothstein, a group member from Jacksonville, told me on Messenger. “Some claim it is [money], that NYT didn’t get enough new subscriptions, but I believe moderators got exhausted and disgusted.” Still, she said, “the last thing I expected was the destruction of a great group.”

On the other hand, debates in recent months over food, race, and the cultural appropriation of recipes have shown that food and politics may not be separable after all. The group’s moderators certainly weren’t oblivious to this, and they tried to address it directly. Group moderator Kasia Pilat, the social media editor of NYT Cooking, wrote in June:

First, our “No political views” rule: “There are many places to express your political views; this is not one of them.”

There’s been some confusion about what this means. To put it plainly, a post that discusses ties between food and politics does not inherently break our group rules. That said, a post that discusses your political views (e.g. who you’re voting for) does.

We have another rule here, and I’m asking us all to stick to it: Food Only. There are countless groups on Facebook and other platforms to choose to be a part of, but you’re here because you love food. That means that maybe you want to discuss the connections between food and climate change: https://nyti.ms/2B0pd9W. Or what a day in the life of a New York food vendor looks like: https://nyti.ms/2XSTeBw. Or experimental grocery stores: https://nyti.ms/37noUSG. Sometimes, the discussion will look a little different from, say, what last night’s dinner was, or what to do with an abundance of herbs. I want to make it clear that all of the above is welcome.

But in this large of a group, nuance — and well-meaning posts from administrators — can disappear. Plus, a 77,000-member Facebook group with members worldwide needs to be moderated 24/7. Occasional announcements that the admins were taking a break — and thus shutting down all activity in the group until they got back — did not go over well.

(“Dear admins. What the actual hell happened over the holidays?” one group member wrote on January 4, adding, “Next year, recruit some other folks to cover whilst you read and relax or run off in the middle of June when no one will miss you. That was bad.”)

The future direction of the group is TBD: The Times said it would reach out to those interested in volunteer-moderating in the coming weeks. In the meantime, members are suggesting new names: “Not Your Typical (NYT) Cooking Community,” “New York Thymes Cooking Community,” “Timeless Cooking Community.”

I asked Alta’ee if she’d be signing up to be a volunteer moderator. “If I wasn’t expecting, I definitely would apply,” she said. “But I’m having a baby in 2 months. He’ll take up most of my time.”

“I joined for the elevated cooking and stayed for the family,” Victoria Hall, a group member in Portland, Oregon, told me over Messenger. “It would be my hope that the group carries on in the same fashion, with great recipes, advice, and the occasional #fridgedoorchallenge.”

A piece of burned toast by Like_the_Grand_Canyon used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. #FridgeDoorChallenge was a social media challenge that swept the group in February, inviting people to guess what states other members were from, using only pictures of their interior fridge doors. Some enjoyed identifying people’s locations by looking at their condiments, but the game turned mean when some members insulted others based on their fridges’ contents. []
POSTED     March 18, 2021, 2:41 p.m.
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