TEN million people visit Mumsnet every month to talk parenting, pregnancy and politics.
From Universal Credit questions to infidelity fears and arguments over Scottish independence and Brexit, the site is so huge that, according to co-founder Justine Roberts, upwards of 45.5 million words are written on its talk boards every month.
The audience commanded by the UK’s biggest parenting site is so broad, dedicated and – crucially – female that politicians clicked onto it years ago, hosting live sessions in a bid to woo users over. More than 100 of these have been held since then-PM David Cameron took part in the first in 2006, with everyone from UKIP to the Women’s Equality Party logging on for their own.
Nicola Sturgeon’s been on, as have Jo Swinson, Mhairi Black and John McDonnell. None are given an easy ride. A session between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling before the 2014 indyref attracted more than 800 comments, while Gordon Brown was the subject of mockery in 2009 when he failed 12 times to name his favourite biscuit in an incident dubbed “Biscuitgate” by the press.
Such was the impact of that stooshie that every politician who now appears on the site must do so with a quip about shortbread up their sleeve.
But it’s also been the subject of sustained criticism for being too middle class and allowing debate about Gender Recognition Act reform that has been branded transphobic and sparked campaigns aimed at cutting off the advertising the free-to-use site relies on to survive. Margarine maker Flora withdrew last year as the transphobia row continued over debate on the site about the impact of potential law changes on women and children, an action which itself triggered boycott calls by some Mumsnetters and saw Roberts condemn both transphobia and censorship.
Advertisers have also been targeted in other ways by the site’s critics, with Marks & Spencer the subject of a naked protest by Fathers for Justice in 2012 and armed police were sent to arrest Roberts and her husband at their home thanks to a hoax call in a so-called “swatting attack” in the same week that a cyber attack overwhelmed the site.
Now Aberdeen academic Dr Sarah Pedersen examines the support and the stooshies in her new book The Politicisation of Mumsnet.
“It’s had a lot of mud slung at it,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s toxic – it has 10 million users a month and goes from strength to strength, but people who don’t go on it tend to make disparaging comments about it. It has been tarred with a brush that it doesn’t deserve.”
Mumsnet was founded by working mums Roberts and Carrie Longton in 2000 to “make parents’ lives easier by pooling knowledge and experience”. The pair, who met at antenatal classes, have been so successful that the site’s talk boards reached one billion page views last November.
Only 2-5% of users are male, according to estimates, but it’s hard to pin this down because the prevalence of often punny usernames means no-one knows who is typing unless they declare their sex.
Pedersen, a professor of communication and media at Robert Gordon University, compares the forums to the letters pages of Edwardian newspapers – a previous research topic. Women harnessed both, she says, to make political statements about marginalised issues – voting rights, pension rights, the gender pay gap – using pseudonyms to enter “a public sphere dominated by men”.
“I find it fascinating that men on Mumsnet are attempting not to bring attention to their sex,” Pedersen says, “when women often do the same on other parts of the internet.”
“Women often attempt what’s seen as masculine ways of writing in order to participate on other sites but on Mumsnet, men attempt what they see as female ways of writing.
“The irony is that Mumsnetters use these things that are seen as masculine – swearing and an aggressive tone.
“They express anger about the Government, their parents, the children and it’s a safe place for them to do that. They call a spade a spade or even a bloody shovel but they’ll give you advice and it’ll be valuable and useful advice.
“The arguments have to be well articulated and they’ll call out each of them if they’re not.
“There’s a lot of sharing of links and references and the insatiable desire to research has really come to the fore with the threads on Covid, whether that’s the sharing of really obscure medical research articles or items from an Iranian newspaper. There was one where the poster asked ‘does anybody read Farsi?’ Within an hour someone had translated it.”
Mumsnet is, according to the company itself, a “site for grown ups”. Moderation is limited and there’s a commitment to free speech, but there are also strict rules for users to adhere to. Those who don’t will have their content and even their membership removed.
Its active community of users has led to high profile campaigns about rape awareness, miscarriage care and the premature sexualisation of girls.
For all that, you’d think politicians would approach with care, but Pedersen says too many have expected to breeze through webchats on light and “family-friendly” policies without preparing for a forensic grilling.
— to www.thenational.scot