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A social media creator stands in the basket of a hot air balloon representing their content and social media presence. A fire made from symbols representing hate comments raises the balloon to new heights while threatening to blaze uncontrolled as well.

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Lean In or Log Off?

When it comes to navigating online hate, food creators face a tough choice: Should they do what’s best for business or for themselves?

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When describing the reasons she’s received hate online, “the list is honestly endless,” says Erin Clarkson, the recipe developer and baking blogger also known as Cloudy Kitchen. It’s the fact that she posts recipes in grams instead of cups. It’s her use of a laughing emoji. It’s because she uses a mold to round off her cookies, or that her nails are manicured and polished (against code, people comment) — never mind that Clarkson bakes just for herself to eat and for the internet to observe.

That’s a lot of eyes: Clarkson’s biggest TikTok hit to date, with more than 11.3 million plays, is a video of her piping butter down the center of a loaf cake, a hack that ensures a perfect cracked top when the cake is baked. That viral success, however, then prompted comments about the authenticity of Clarkson’s bright-yellow butter. “No butter is that yellow,” one person wrote. “That’s not butter,” wrote another. Of course, that’s wrong; Clarkson lives in New Zealand, where cows are generally grass-fed, resulting in beta carotene-rich butter. In her experience, though, virality is when “all the rude people show up, basically,” she says.

The one constant on the internet is haters. From there, the double-edged sword of virality means that algorithms may, at any moment, thrust a creator’s work onto the feeds of huge numbers of users, turning small names into overnight success stories. But algorithms can just as easily throw that work onto “the wrong side” of a platform, typically populated by viewers who might not be interested or knowledgable about what’s in a piece of content, or just those trolls who want to interact acrimoniously. What’s a fed-up baker to do?

Stoking the flames, Clarkson made four more videos responding to and poking fun at the butter comments. Some of these videos employed the common TikTok strategy of pinning a rude, hateful, or downright troll-y comment to a new video, thus using it as a springboard for more content. Whereas some creators choose not to acknowledge or respond in this way, “I think it’s funny to engage,” Clarkson says. “Then people keep coming back and replying, which then feeds the algorithm, so then the video seems to get more reach.” Indeed, one of those follow-up butter videos earned her 3 million more views, igniting yet another round of commentary. This approach can be further polarizing: It’s come up in Reddit snark threads as a reason some viewers don’t like Clarkson, and she’s received messages to a similar effect.

Where it once took more effort to tell, say, your most disliked food TV star exactly what it is you loathe about them, social media’s rapid evolution has changed the game. Haters, trolls, and even passing dislikers can flood a cook’s comments and notifications in an instant. If “any press is good press,” then the modern social media sphere offers a new aphorism: Any engagement from viewers is engagement all the same; it boosts the algorithm, ultimately in favor of a creator. Thus, a tenuous push-pull dynamic grows between food stars and their haters: They don’t want them, but might also… need them to an extent?

A baker sifts flour and social media icons representing the positive and negative comments they receive. The illustration conveys food creators acceptance that engaging with negative commenters and critical feedback isn’t always worth the stress and anxiety that often comes with it.

At the height of her cookbook promotion last year, Modern Asian Baking author and Subtle Asian Baking founder Kat Lieu employed a strategy similar to Clarkson’s. When people called her pandan, ube, or black sesame-infused creations “moldy” or “gross” — insults that increased as she posted more — Lieu would feature the comments in new videos, a way of both egging viewers on and proving that Lieu wasn’t backing down.

She highlighted double standards in how viewers saw Asian foods — for example, why was gray food off-putting to viewers when it came to black sesame but not in the form of cookies and cream? Underlying these videos was the implication of racism; one video summarizing rude things viewers said about her bread (“looks like dryer lint,” for example) carried the caption #stopasianhate. Lieu has been told that her vocal commentary is unnecessary or driving division. And indeed, one might wonder: For all the positive support, why dwell on the fraction of negative comments?

At times, what Lieu highlights is more overt; marginalized creators of all kinds experience more hate online. “Last year when I was doing this, I literally lost 10 pounds from the immense amount of trolling and bullying that I was facing,” she says. A small portion of that slush pile worked its way into Lieu’s videos. In one, the pinned comment says, “No. woc POC are gross.” In another, a comment reads: “let’s support normal shit instead of this ‘I’m extra so pay me more than other people bullshit,’” with “normal” seeming to stand in for white. “As a content creator who’s in the BIPOC community, Asian female, it’s tough — we get this a lot,” she says. “If it’s so overtly racist then, yeah, I’m okay with showing it off.”

Rachel Karten, a social media consultant and author of the popular newsletter Link in Bio, sees this approach primarily existing in one of two ways. The pinned comment strategy in particular can be “a way [for a creator] to say I saw this without responding to it directly,” Karten says. Instead of letting the comment sink to the bottom of a comment section, “it elevates it to the point that their followers come in as defense, without the creator needing to address it head-on.” This pattern of follower behavior explains why Lieu will more likely highlight a hateful comment on TikTok than on Instagram: The latter is stricter about deleting videos for promoting retaliation, Lieu says.

And then there’s the more infamous approach: rage-baiting or rage-farming. “I’ve seen a good amount of creators come across my feed that seem to intentionally do things that get hate,” Karten says. A particularly messy TikTok cook comes to mind for her, she explains; the cook’s clutter inevitably rakes in comments of horror, frustration, or confusion. Similarly, consider the rise of stunt food, which isn’t meant to be re-created but exists to be shared and remarked upon. “It’s an engagement tactic: taking the heat that they’re getting in the comments and then using that sort of hate engagement to fuel their content,” Karten says. In both ways that Karten points out, feeding the trolls becomes a bona fide strategy.

Indeed, when it comes to her callouts, Lieu is aware that “90 percent of the time, those kinds of videos will do well,” she says. That type of content plays on the way people tend to interact on social media: “All you need to do to get views is to first elicit some emotion, and then you drive people to activate and they’re upset like, What the heck, why would they say something like that?” The cycle of comments begins, nudging the algorithm to amplify the content. In general, that’s how hate works on social media, Karten explains, noting how TikTok and Twitter’s algorithms specifically seem to “favor outrage,” she says. “The algorithm isn’t like, Oh, this is receiving a lot of hate; let’s slow it down. It’s like, No, let’s keep feeding it.

If it’s as though the algorithm rewards content with a bit of controversy, “I figure that I might as well benefit from it,” Clarkson says, nodding to how she uses social media primarily to drive traffic to her blog, which is her main job. “For every bad comment I get, the video might get shown to other people who end up following me or visiting my website,” she says. In January, after that loaf cake video went viral in mid-December, Cloudy Kitchen saw its highest traffic ever. Her blog is typically “really slow” in January, Clarkson notes, which she attributes to diet culture-rooted resolutions.

A food content creator pipes colorful icing onto gingerbread houses and cookies in the shapes of social media platforms’ like and upvote buttons, ignoring the negative feedback and criticism behind her.

As with Clarkson’s choice to feed her trolls, Lieu’s engagement with haters can work to her benefit in a way. Supportive comments roll in; the racist comments go from hate to something that rallies people around Lieu’s work and ultimately makes a case for its existence. Many of the aforementioned videos were opportunities for Lieu to show off her book, telling viewers how to preorder it. For Lieu, however, that approach no longer seems worth the trade-offs — particularly the emotional toll of reading and responding to hate. As enticing as going viral can seem, “it’s not worth it for your mental health,” she says. “It’s better to just not take it personal and block and ignore.”

With her first cookbook on shelves and her second in the works, Lieu is rethinking engagement on social media. “Now I only engage with positivity,” she says. Now that her platform has grown to more than 155,000 followers on Instagram and 157,000 members on Facebook, Lieu would like to move toward being more neutral-to-positive online, akin to King Arthur Baking or Food52. For Lieu, that would look like “building the love of Asian culture and Asian food” through her recipes and stories instead of getting hung up on every negative comment and minor controversy that people send her way; specific things, she notes, will certainly still warrant amplification through her platforms.

“You get very viral when you push out that kind of content — when you draw on people’s emotions and empathy and you make them feel something or feel for you — but I feel like that’s very short-lived,” Lieu explains. Virality is unreliable, and from her perspective, feeding negativity isn’t necessarily building a long-lasting follower base, just hype and clout. Similarly, Karten says, “I think that’s not a sustainable strategy and also almost rewards these algorithms that do favor outrage and hate. Ideally, we get to a place where these algorithms aren’t favoring those things.”

Ultimately, for Lieu, the goal is to “build the community,” she says. “I don’t want a lot of anger.”

Janie Hao is a fun-loving, media-playing, idea-generating illustrator based in Toronto.


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