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‘Giving women a voice may be our most significant achievement’

By Justine Roberts / 24 April, 2013

Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts explains the site’s commitment to giving women access to free speech

Justine Roberts, co-founder and CEO of Mumsnet

Justine Roberts, co-founder and CEO of Mumsnet

When asked about Mumsnet’s mission statement I invariably respond, without missing a beat, that Mumsnet exists “to make parents’ lives easier”.

This is both true and necessarily broad; some parents’ lives are eased by practical advice about ways to wean a baby, while others find solace in vigorous debate about welfare policy or jokes about pelvic floors. But since the site’s inception over 13 years ago, I’ve strongly believed that the “mission” is most likely to be achieved if users are able to express themselves as freely as possible.

This commitment to free speech has produced some fascinating outcomes; to a large extent the site has been and continues to be shaped by its users, and re-tooled by them to serve purposes that were certainly not what I envisaged when I conceived a website to tap into other parents’ wisdom on anything from childbirth to sleep to mother-in-laws.

Most obviously, Mumsnet is a noisy mass of user-generated comment (UGC). Our forums receive around 35,000 posts every day, and our Bloggers Network comprises around 3000 bloggers writing about the issues of the day. New visitors to Mumsnet’s forums frequently express surprise at sheer scale of the place, as well as a certain relief at the unusual latitude afforded to posters.

The posting guidelines are as hands-off as possible, aiming to keep intervention to the minimum required to facilitate constructive conversation. The talkboard is post-moderated (our users often refer to it as ‘self-moderated’), meaning that mods only intervene if a post is reported. In other words, the community decides what behaviours it will tolerate.

Unlike some UGC behemoths, though, we do not believe that a total absence of rules necessarily produces an optimum level of freedom for all posters. Over the years multiple groups have collected on Mumsnet, often made up of those who find themselves marginalised and condescended to in “real life”; our incredibly busy and informative Special Needs forum is one example.

It’s unlikely these posters would feel as safe as they do on Mumsnet if we didn’t respond to their expressed desire for a relatively safe online space. Put simply, Mumsnetters are free to swear, but not to express disablist sentiments. Our few rules can roughly be distilled down to “no personal attacks and no hate speech”.

Over the years we have frequently found ourselves having to bat away attacks on our users’ freedom of expression from those keen to use England’s outdated defamation laws to suppress criticism; this has come worryingly close to home at times, threatening the existence of the website itself in the early days, and Mumsnet has been an active supporter of the Libel Reform Campaign for some years.

We also believe strongly that anonymous online posting offers enormous benefits, particularly to vulnerable people, and we try to make this point as loudly as we can whenever confronted by politicians who believe that anonymity is of use only to trolls.

Mumsnet users feel strong ownership of the site and are quick to express their disapproval if they feel conversations are being censored, or that we at MNHQ have made a bad call. This can be tough (being on the wrong side of a posse of outraged Mumsnetters, as several senior politicians have learned, is never a good place to be) but such a high level of engagement can also be hugely affirmative and constructive. For example; when debating how best to host the UK’s most active feminist forum, or responding to users’ calls for campaigns on rape myths and miscarriage.

There are still so few places where women’s voices are prioritised and respected, and where women of all backgrounds and ages feel they can express themselves, without activating the conversational filters that we so often employ in mixed company. Mumsnet didn’t set out necessarily to to give women a voice, but however it came about, it may turn out to be the site’s most significant achievement.

Justine Roberts is co-founder and CEO of Mumsnet, the UK’s busiest social network for parents

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