In Britain, Web Forum for Mothers Makes Politicians Sit Up
By BETH GARDINER
Published: October 10, 2012
LONDON — When an exhausted mother wrote on a Web forum last year that she planned to put her disabled daughter into foster care because local officials had declined her plea for support, Prime Minister David Cameron voiced his concern the next day at a news conference.
When mothers on the same site demanded that retailers place raunchy “lads’ mags” out of children’s view, big supermarket chains quickly announced plans to do so.
Such is the power of Mumsnet, a parenting site that has leveraged its sizable online presence into a voice loud enough to be heard on the national stage — and in the offices of Britain’s political leaders.
The British news media dubbed the 2010 parliamentary elections, the first of the social media era, “the Mumsnet election.” Both Mr. Cameron and Gordon Brown, who was prime minister at the time, sat down for Web chats with the site’s users, fielding questions on subjects as varied as taxes, bankers’ bonuses, breast-feeding and nursery schools.
One woman even asked Mr. Brown to help choose her new son’s name from a list of options. “All your names sound good!” he demurred. He praised the site’s users for asking smart, tough questions and said Mumsnet was “changing the way Britain lives.”
Mumsnet is an eclectic combination of the mundane, the intimate and the moneymaking, of the kind that only exists online. Users chat about potty training and the tooth fairy, bond over serious problems like depression and divorce, and make noise about big social issues like rape. Reviews of products like strollers and Q.& A.’s about vacuum cleaners and washing machines bring in revenue.
It is a mix that seems to attract the powerful and give the site — founded by two British professional women who are mothers, back in 2000 — a voice that is heeded more than that of similar sites in other countries.
Mumsnet “is real people talking to each other about real things that matter to them,” said Jo Phillips, who recently profiled the site for Total Politics, a political magazine. It gives politicians a way “to look in through the window, listen through the keyhole” to voters’ concerns.
When Alan Johnson, who was then the health secretary, did a Mumsnet Web chat in 2008, users questioned him about insensitive miscarriage care in the National Health Service.
“Mumsnet have informed me that I will not be allowed to forget this issue,” he said. Soon, his department was working on new miscarriage guidelines. Mr. Johnson says now that he had not been aware of the problem until Mumsnet users brought it up.
The site did not start out seeking political clout, said Justine Roberts, Mumsnet’s co-founder and chief executive.
She and Carrie Longton, friends from a prenatal class, introduced the site just as the dot-com bubble was bursting. After a disastrous vacation with young twins, Ms. Roberts thought there would be an audience for a site that gave parents a way to share child-rearing experiences and advice, she said.
The timing was terrible. Web advertising rates plummeted months after the site went live.
“All the business plans I’d written were essentially a waste of paper,” said Ms. Roberts, who had previously worked as an investment banker and a freelance sportswriter.
Money was tight, and the partners ran the company from their homes for years, only getting an office in 2008.
“We would get members writing in all the time and saying, ‘This saved my life, I was in a real state, I was breast-feeding, I would have left my husband, or it helped me leave my husband,”’ she recalled. “It felt like it was working in everything but a commercial sense.”
Mumsnet said it now has more than 5.7 million visits a month, including 2.7 million unique users. Revenues come from traditional advertising, as well as charging companies for access to users who give feedback about products or spread word of them. The company declined to give a figure for net income.
Ms. Roberts said Mumsnet members, who join by registering on the site, had veto power over all its big decisions.
For example, the site does not take ads from Nestlé because of concerns that its promotion of baby formula undermines breast-feeding. McDonald’s ads were also barred for three years, until users reversed course last year with a vote to allow them.
Users also drive the issue campaigns. The rape awareness effort “We Believe You” began with a post asking how many Mumsnet members had been raped or sexually assaulted. Shocked by the outpouring of emotional posts, the site conducted its own poll, and members soon began blogging and posting on Twitter about the issue.
“It was pages and pages of women who told their stories, some for the very first time,” said a blogger who uses the name Lynn Schreiber and who was part of the effort. She keeps her true identity private because of the personal nature of her writing.
Ms. Roberts said the site uses its voice carefully. Mumsnet makes no political endorsements and only campaigns on issues that have near unanimous support on its chat boards.
“The power is in the democracy of it,” she said.
“We didn’t set out to change the world, but once we had politicians knocking on our door, wanting to speak to our audience, it seemed remiss not to try.”
Mumsnet’s influence has come from its combination of size and savvy, said Christine Cheng, who lectures on women in politics at King’s College London.
“You have to have the critical mass, and you have to choose to use it in a political way,” she said, noting that most parenting sites do not jump into public debates. Mumsnet, she said, gives people a way to be heard in their role as parents.
She compared the site’s public role to that of AARP, the U.S. organization for the elderly and middle-aged, which has gained power by bringing voters together around concerns tied to their age.
“If you had some equivalent of that, drawing on people’s idea of what it means to be parents, maybe there would be better maternity leave in the U.S.,” she said.
Although parenting Web sites abound globally, there are few in other Western countries that match Mumsnet’s market dominance and political clout.
While sites like BabyCenter and Circle of Moms in the United States offer space for parents to chat and share ideas, neither has notable influence beyond the Web. The group MomsRising has jumped into the U.S. political debate, hosting video chats with senators and speaking on issues like health care and equal pay, but it does not command anything near the level of attention accorded to Mumsnet.
In Germany, the strength of traditional attitudes means that mothers do not see themselves as politically powerful, said Imke Henkel, London correspondent for the German news magazine Focus.
French women do not organize around their role as mothers because they are reluctant to be pigeonholed by that identity, said Franck Mathevon, a correspondent for Radio France. “You couldn’t imagine in France a group like Mumsnet,” he said.
Ms. Phillips, the Total Politics writer, said that bringing women together around their shared motherhood risked marginalizing those without children.
Nonetheless, she said, Mumsnet’s success carried a clear message for women in other countries.
“Women do traditionally suffer from that sense of ‘My voice isn’t going to be heard, my voice isn’t as loud as the men,”’ she said. “Don’t underestimate the number of people who feel like you do, and don’t underestimate the power of having that conversation together.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 11, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune.
AND, WHAT’S THIS ABOUT “Family Values”???????