Last week, the New York Times announced that it would be handing over the 70,000-member New York Times Cooking Community Facebook group over to the members itself to moderate. Members of the group describe it as being a toxic place with rampant bullying.
The New York Times Cooking Community is no stranger to drama, much like any other big Facebook group. Last year, the group made the news because users were protesting the longstanding "no politics" rule in the group, resorting to spelling "vote" in their food pictures to remind others to go to the polls. Now, the Times has told members that it will no longer be in charge of the group, will be passing on control of the group, and will give moderation duties to the members. It will also change the name of the group.
"As [the group] continues to grow and change, it should be run by people who are an engaged and informed part of the community," a spokesperson for the Times wrote in the group. "And so it is time to hand the group over to you, its members."
A spokesperson for the Times told Motherboard that it made the decision to concede leadership of its cooking group because, "the interest in the group is about much more than recipes or The New York Times." Times assistant managing editor Sam Sifton told Times media columnist Ben Smith that "It's a lot of people who want to post pictures of their dogs next to their soufflé" and "not a place where we were going to March people toward NYT Cooking." He also said that it was "a Times employee moderating comments for fb rather than working for the Times." Smith tweeted: "Sorry, I was hoping it was about peas and guacamole too," referring to a 2015 NYTimes recipe controversy.
These answers, though, do not really pass muster. It makes sense that the Times might think an employee’s time could be better spent doing something other than moderating comments on Facebook. But it’s not true that the group was without controversy and that there’s Nothing to See Here. Internet communities are rarely "about" the thing they say they're about, and moderating (even small) communities can be incredibly time consuming, difficult, and psychologically taxing work. The Times is effectively washing its hands of the responsibility after its own community turned toxic.
Multiple former and current members of the New York Times cooking community told Motherboard that the group was particularly toxic. One described browsing the group as a "spectator sport."
"It had a lot of the same issues endemic to online food media we saw play out last year—'This is my food bible' people shouting over 'This is a cuisine from my culture'", a member of the Facebook Group who goes by Giltcomplex on Twitter said. "It's like if the Bon Appétit meltdown had involved a fan base that was less like people horny for Test Kitchen personalities and more moms."
Another former member said the group was not all that more toxic than other large Facebook groups, but toxic nonetheless.
"I belong to several large Facebook groups and the general political contentiousness that permeates society has carried over to some of them," Michele DeAngelo Carrera, who belongs to the New York Times Cooking Community, said. Carrera said that in a lot of cooking groups, fighting often originates along those political lines.
Finding evidence of past conflicts in the group is not difficult; vague tweets refer to something called "the McRib controversy;” others mention an argument about a maid who scratched a baking sheet. The New York Times Cooking Community even earned itself an extremely similarly named offshoot group, created in December 2019, called The NYT Cooking Community for People With Compassion. A Facebook user who goes by Jennifer, who asked to be quoted without her last name because she was worried about harassment, told Motherboard that she made the group because of the rampant bullying in the Times's group. Since the announcement, Jennifer said that they've had an influx of new members.
"We had roughly 750 members that accumulated from December 2019 through mid March 2021," Jennifer said. "In the past 4-5 days we've had roughly 150 new members and probably 175-200 requests."
The NYT Cooking Community for People with Compassion is a fraction of the size of the original group, and Jennifer said that as such, she does not do much moderation and has only had to remove one member. She still makes conscious choices about who can join the group.
"I weed out requests pretty stringently. I will admit that I don't allow Trumpians to join," she said. "Conservatives are fine, but if someone is a Trumpian, that automatically limits them from being a person with compassion. Having said that, I'm very aware that Democrats are often bullies (worse than Trumpians), so I have had to remind people that this is a compassionate group, but only a couple of times. "
Now that news of the changes to the original group has spread, members of the NYT Cooking Community for People with Compassion have started talking about the reasons why they left.
"In all honesty, I’m here fleeing the bad actors," one person wrote.
"I left the NYT group in October when the racism, baiting, and all-out screaming matches simply became too much," said another.
"Am glad NYT dumped the group. It was a very toxic group with tons of bullying and pulling race cards into any disagreement," said a third person. "So glad I left it."
Carrera said that in more than one of the other cooking groups she belongs to, people are bemoaning the new Stanley Tucci documentary series about Italy and its food simply because it's airing on CNN, and thus is "fake news."
"At least the Times group is mostly Times readers!" Carrera said. "There are so many posts on the Times group that I sometimes miss the drama. It’s not necessary to comment every time you see something that rankles. Sometimes it’s better to roll your eyes and keep scrolling."