A lot of stuff happened last week, just like it does every week, and one of those things that you might have missed was this: The New York Times gave up on a massive Facebook group.
The company decided that its Community Cooking Facebook group, complete with 77,000 members, was just too difficult for its employees to manage, so it dropped it off a cliff—the newspaper plans to give it to its members and remove its branded association with the group. Part of the reason that it became so difficult to manage? With that many members, it had partly lost its original mission, with BuzzFeed News reporting that the group had been “riddled with controversies and debates involving class, race, and privilege.”
As the newspaper wrote about its decision to drop the group:
One thing is clear: the interest in this group is about much more than recipes or the New York Times. As it continues to grow 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.
In the wake of the decision to spin off the group, Nieman Lab explained that keeping large groups on topic is basically an impossibility. But I wonder if the problem that the Times faced with staffing and moderating the group comes down to Facebook failing to offer efficient controls for properly managing a large group of people.
I say this from experience. As you may or may not be aware, I run a Facebook group called Newsletter Nerds, which is a community designed for people who write editorial newsletters to discuss the ins and outs of doing so. It’s a relatively tight-knit group of around 1,500 members, and is a mix of traditional journalists, marketers, writers, and startup operators that serve the newsletter community. It’s fairly rare that existing members create any drama, and the group has remained of a very high quality in its four years of existence, which I’m proud of.
But managing the process of letting people into the group? That’s a whole different story. I’ve set up a system for approvals, to ensure that folks coming into the group are not going to spam it. I set up rules, and have a set of membership questions that I expect people signing up to fill out. The questions are, essentially:
- What is your background in email?
- What is a link to your social profile or newsletter, so I can confirm that you are who you say you are?
- What do you hope to get out of the group?
And despite putting in multiple places that answering these questions are required, barely anyone does it! This would be fine if it was on Twitter, where I could send these members an at-message, or via email, where I could at least put something in their inbox. But my only way of contacting most of these people is Facebook Messenger, and Facebook Messenger has a convoluted system of message requests that ensure that few people actually see your simple requests that they answer your questions. About 80 percent of the time, I might as well be shouting into the void.
So my options are these: Don’t let in 80 percent of the people who sign up, or letting everyone in and letting the quality of the group decline, face spammers and trolls, and generally get off-topic. (I chose the former; based on its size, I’m sure the NYT chose the latter.)
This is a design problem of Facebook Groups that I cannot simply set these questions to be required with new signups, and that I can’t message people under the guise of the group in a way to ensure that these people signing up will see it. (After all, they were the ones who knocked on my door!)
And as a result, I have to spend an inordinate amount of time tracking people down just so I can reasonably ensure that I’m only letting in people who have a reason to be there.
This lack of ability to properly pre-screen means that Facebook is basically setting up its groups to be really big and really hard to moderate, which benefits nobody.
I am happy with what I’ve built with Newsletter Nerds, but if I were to do it all again, I would not use Facebook Groups. It sucks to manage because Facebook has not designed it correctly. It creates moderation problems that add unnecessary busywork to my week, time I could be using to make my group better for its intended audience.
And I can only imagine how that cruddy situation plays out at the scale of The New York Times.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: 5 minutes, 12 seconds