Mumsnet offers wise words from the frontline of parenting

PUBLISHED: 10:14 09 August 2011

Justine Roberts founder of Mumsnet

Justine Roberts founder of Mumsnet

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The Kentish Town internet power house has just published a new parenting bible. We talk to its co-founder

»The Mumsnet logo at the top of its new book The Mumsnet Rules is a funny take on the Charlie’s Angels silhouette. The women brandish bottles and babies rather than the pistols of Farah Fawcett’s 70s crimefighters.

Considering their achievements over the past 10 years, it seems the powerful logo was a wise choice.

Before Mumsnet, internet forums were un-coordinated bee hives, rambling strings of communication which stretched out into the ether endlessly and went largely unnoticed by the majority.

The site has reversed this: with 1.6 million unique users, it commands the attention of high-profile politicians, advertisers and publishers who see it as a place to promote to a large, vocal audience, while sometimes simultaneously being the targets of its campaigns against their practices.

Back at HQ, an office on the border of Highgate and Kentish Town, co-founder Justine Roberts, 43, puts the success down to a simple act of people power.

“Most of our campaigns come from a groundswell of consensus among the Mumsnetters,” she tells me. “The Mumsnetters are not one political party. There aren’t many things everyone can agree on so those things do tend to be pretty bleeding obvious. There are also things that get classed as ‘top-down’ Mumsnet campaigns that come completely from the bottom.”

The site’s success means that Roberts is regularly approached as a mouthpiece for parents nationwide, consulted by quote-hungry journalists about everything from vaccinations to boob jobs for seven-year-olds. “I’Il give a reasonable amount of quotes but I turn down a lot more,” she says. “I’m not an expert at all – I have to answer as Mumsnet and go along with the consensus.”

As a successful woman, I suggest, it must be difficult to express opinions that are not her own, or worse still, that she may not agree with. “I don’t find it that difficult. Am I a person without opinions? No. I have opinions. But I don’t answer as Mumsnet if I think it is me spouting my opinions,” she says.

An inspection of the site reveals the consensus to which she must ascribe. At the time of writing, the hot topics of the day are body bag photos on TV, the best way to potty train, the virtues of honorifics and where to find the perfect pashmina.

Roberts’ stance as a diplomat is not as clear cut as it first seems. The varied community she has created doesn’t always agree with her. “How dare Justine Roberts speak for me and others in saying in today’s Times that I, as a user of Mumsnet, will be glad that this 168-year-old paper has folded,” spits one user about the News of The World close-down. She’s ironically web named “complimentary”.

Discussion board

The discussion board, as Roberts says, casts a wide net. But the flavour of the catch is distinctly female – despite the efforts of Roberts and her team to make the site “a place where everyone can communicate.”

According to Roberts, four to six per cent of its users are men. The figure is so low, she says, because of the way dads view themselves in society. “Men don’t tend to use parenting sites too much, I do hope that this changes in the next 25 years.”

Roberts also happily highlights how many of the topics are not about parenting – even though the site was set up for that purpose. “Not surprisingly, parents don’t always want to talk about their kids” she says.

Still, the Mumsnet Rules is about parenting and, unlike Dr Spock and his ilk of parental scientists, the book is the wisdom of the crowd.

“I think the crowd is quite wise on the whole,” says Roberts. “When you have a problem, you want to turn to someone who has been there, done that and survived it.

‘‘I think it’s one of our strengths that we don’t have to live in this rose-tinted world of pregnancy magazines.”

The view of Mumsnet as a crowd-sourcing utopia is at odds with the way it is often portrayed.

The site is sometimes branded the online equivalent of suburbia, all bitchyness and Boden.

“Relatively to the rest of the population per head, Mumsnetters spend more on Boden,” jokes Roberts. “But it’s such a big group that to characterise it as such is very narrow.”

“They assume that, because we are mothers, we are slightly thick, very narrow in our interests and only concerned about ourselves and our kids. That is slightly misogynistic.”

“We were asked to send a blogger to the G20. She said that, whenever any of the mainstream media people talked to her, they started speaking very slowly.

‘‘It’s like they thought, ‘Oh you’re a mum, you don’t really understand do you?’ That I think sums up the way we are conceptualised by many people.”

How does she feel about this? “I don’t lose sleep over it,” she says. “But I do think it is a slightly stupid opinion.”

n The Mumsnet Rules is published by Bloomsbury priced £12.99.

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