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How an army of moms became one of Britain's most influential Web communities

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Combining the message board culture of Reddit with the question-and-answer format of Quora,  Mumsnet is Britain’s answer to “mommy blogging.”  It’s also one of the most influential Web communities in the country.

Originally created as a discussion forum for people to exchange parenting advice, Mumsnet has expanded into a site that includes political lobby groups, Reddit-style in-jokes, and product reviews—all within the same community. Most of the discussion threads focus on everyday life advice, and boil down to two types of questions: “What should I do?” and “Is this normal?”

Earlier this year, one infamous “Is this normal?” thread became such a cult hit that it doubled Mumsnet’s traffic overnight and almost caused the servers to crash, not to mention being covered in various national newspapers. The headline of this infamous discussion topic? 

Do you dunk your penis?” 

To wit:

“We have a dedicated post-sex cleanup area on the bedside table. A box of tissues, a small bin, and a beaker of clean water for temporary cleaning/dunking while the bathroom is occupied by me.

Apparently our penis beaker is strange and not the done thing.”

The “penis beaker” thread has already been immortalised on the Mumsnet Classics page, along with threads with titles like, “I pooed on my skirt at work today,” and “I think my neighbours have stolen my towel.” Internet forum esoterica at its finest. 

Fortunately (or unfortunately), Mumsnet is not all penis beakers and weird theft anecdotes. It’s actually a very useful parenting resource, featuring hundreds of articles and instructions for things like teaching your child to read. But as we found out, it’s not just the advice pages that caused it to become the biggest parenting site in the U.K. 

The Mumsnet Community

Like any online forum, Mumsnet has its slang. But since the site is mainly populated by moms, the abbreviations are not your usual WTFs and LOLs. Some commonly-used terms include DH (“darling husband”), NAK (“nursing at keyboard,” or breastfeeding), and BC (“before children”). It’s pretty adorable. Our favorite is probably “AF,” which stands for “Auntie Flo”: Old-fashioned slang for getting your period.

The community forums have the general feel of a Yahoo Answers page, but with slightly better grammar and a lot less trolling. It seems almost too obvious to point this out, but the overall tone is very “mom-ish.” On the site’s About Us page, Mumsnet explains that they don’t like to over-moderate discussions, adding sternly, “Mumsnet is a site for grown-ups,” as a reminder that you should be behaving yourself. 

OK, we get it. Mom

Controversies

Although Mumsnet markets itself as a parenting site rather than a “mothering” site, an estimated 5-10 percent of users are men. There is a Dadsnet forum on the site (a typical top subject line: “My wife thinks I’m having an affair...”), but Mumsnet has still received some pushback from Men’s Rights Activists. In 2012, British MRA group Fathers 4 Justice organised a protest at department store Marks & Spencer, where several men stripped naked to highlight the “naked truth” about the supposedly anti-male sentiments in the Mumsnet community.

According to the protesters, Mumsnet forums promote “gender apartheid.” Mumsnet itself was not particularly impressed by the criticism. In the official response, CEO Justine Roberts described the Fathers 4 Justice protest as, “a bit like having a particularly irritating toddler repeatedly prodding you with a stick to get some attention.”

So far, the most high-profile attack on Mumsnet has come from Gina Ford, a celebrity parenting guru who objected to some negative comments from the site’s users.

Not a parent herself, Ford is nicknamed the “Queen of Routine.” She’s famed for being an advocate of “tough love” parenting, with an emphasis on strict routines for babies and toddlers. Her methods were often discussed on Mumsnet forums, but one particular comment thread (a joking suggestion that Ford “straps babies to rockets and fires them into South Lebanon”) caused her to demand that the site be shut down.

This led to a bizarre clash between Mumsnet and Ford’s lawyers, who threatened to sue the site and it’s ISP for defamation. The offending comments were removed, but Mumsnet still ended up paying part of Ford’s legal costs to avoid further lawsuits. The whole situation inspired a lot of public debate about the relationship between old-fashioned defamation laws and the new culture of Internet forums, and sparked a campaign to reform British libel laws. 

Mumsnet and Politics

While Mumsnet is careful to point out that it doesn’t have a political agenda of its own, it’s still given birth to several independent lobby campaigns.

Rather than taking aim at any specific party or politician, the Mumsnet campaigns set out to tackle issues such as miscarriage care and rape culture awareness. One of their recent high-profile campaigns has been to remove “lads’ mags”—racy men’s magazines—from children’s view in supermarkets, as part of an ongoing effort to fight against the sexualisation of young girls. 

When Mumsnet users react to something en masse, politicians tend to stand up and listen. Although there’s no official “politics” section among the site’s main topics, it’s not unusual to see a Reddit AMA-style webchat with a politician on the front page. Ever since Mumsnet started running its own user surveys on topics like vaccination, body image and sex education, data from the community has even been used during parliamentary enquiries.

One of the most recent surveys focused on Mumsnet users’ views on feminism. It turns out that while only 47 percent of users identified as feminist before they started using the site, this number increased to 59 percent after they’d been on the site for a while. They also highlighted the fact that the site is predominantly used by women, saying that a mostly-female community was helpful when talking about issues like sexism in the workplace, parenting, and gender roles.

Only 6 percent of people responding to the survey said the site had any impact on the way they voted in elections, but Mumsnet’s political influence shows itself in other ways. During Britain’s general election in 2010, all three major party leaders personally requested a chance to speak with Mumsnet users, briefly inspiring the media nickname “the Mumsnet Election.”

In the 13 years since Mumsnet was first set up, the site has grown more influential than anyone could’ve expected. It may not be very well-known outside of the U.K., but the site’s co-founders share seventh place on the BBC’s list of most powerful women in the country.

Just like any other forum site, Mumsnet has had its fair share of flame wars and overblown controversy. But it’s also given voice to a demographic that is often ignored online. Rather than taking on the cheery, Pinterest-style tone of the most successful mommy blogs, Mumsnet is a place where people can get together and discuss the pragmatic and frustrating details of everyday family life. 

Or maybe just post about their husbands' penis beakers.

Illustration by Jason Reed