Basics: Online Communities – It Takes a Village

I’d be remiss if I don’t give major credit to the various online communities that have sprung up around parenthood. There is no way it is humanly possible for me to list every single message board on every topic here, but I can at least provide you a general overview of the major clearinghouses of information out there.  I’ll stick with U.S. based websites, although there are definitely major websites based in other English speaking countries.

Baby Center

BabyCenter has it all. Weekly pregnancy emails and later, emails about the development of your child. Message boards covering every topic imaginable. Blogs. Videos on parenting. Articles and expert advice.  An online birthing class. iPhone, iPad, and Android apps.

BabyCenter is a member of the Johnson and Johnson family of companies – so keep in mind that ultimately, their goal is to advertise J&J products.

Babycenter has a worldwide presence, including BabyCenter UK and BabyCenter India.

Other parenting compendiums have the same tools as BabyCenter, including theBump and the What To Expect boards.

The Bump is a spinoff of the popular wedding site TheKnot.com. In addition to pregnancy trackers, message boards, and advice, the company publishes a pocket-sized magazine featuring pregnancy-related content and local pregnancy &baby resources, distributed through OBGYN offices in 14 US markets.

The What to Expect site is a spinoff of Heidi Murkoff’s bestselling What to Expect series (starting with the well-known “What to Expect When Expecting”.) The book itself has garnered some negative reviews for being overly negative and covering worst-case scenarios, and for being written by someone with no medical training herself.  (A 2005 New York Times article branded it “The Book They Love to Hate”, stating one of the major issues is that previous editions get handed down from woman to woman, factual missteps and all).

Want more message boards? There’s Baby and Bump, the message board for the Momstastic website. Opinions from across the pond? Hop over to netmums.com.  Want a fresher, hipper look at parenting? Check out the aptly named iVillage Parenting Site/Forums, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal with a partnership with BlogHer. (more on BlogHer in another post) Want to only discuss holistic motherhood? Mothering.com is your best bet, you hippie. (I kid, I kid).

There’s also CafeMom,  which has some more liberal terms of use in their private groups than some of the other major sites, and is a profit-making (ad supported) company that uses parents as testers for various products – they then write posts reviewing the products, which are supplied by sponsors.

Finally, there is Circle of Moms, which is for moms only, and is connected to your Facebook account so there is an actual personal connection.

As for me? Personally, I love BabyCenter. When I’m nursing a sleeping baby and have nothing else to hold my attention, the information, catfighting, and photo threads provide me with everything I need. If it weren’t for BabyCenter, I wouldn’t know what terms such as Baby-Led Weaning, or MSPI, or AIOs, or stripping the membranes meant. (Whether I actually needed to know any of that is up for debate – but the origin of this site is the immense amount of random parenting trivia wasting space in my brain).  And, as much as I want this site to be a clearinghouse of information, for a direct competitor, head over to their specialized community boards – at the top of many of the forums will be a moderator’s note with a wealth of information and links on that particular topic.

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Voices: Ruminations on the Village

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“My mama taught me GREAT manners!”

Obviously there are a multitude of communities on the web, for every niche and cranny. How do users navigate the often conflicting zeitgeists of each board?

I referred to “What to Expect When Expecting” in a previous post.  The same 2005 NYT article detailing the book’s shortcomings mentioned its ultimate flaw – it’s a book. “What began as an upstart operation…”, reads the article, “must now somehow provide advice that fits all American women – those who don’t know what a placenta is as well as the obsessives who could draw one blindfolded.”   “Hypereducated” women instead turn to the internet for a “peer-to-peer approach more varied and responsive than any book’s”.

Balkanization – Otto von Bismark would be proud

The question is, which is more prevalent? A wholesale crowdsourcing that provides a variety of opinions coming from people with different biases? Or a balkanization effect that self-segregates those with similar parenting philosophies and therefore reinforce their beliefs?

The data overwhelmingly show that in general, users gravitate to like-minded communities. Those communities have a radicalizing effect on the population. Political websites are a big example (I plan to contrast the political online community and the parenting online community in the near future).
I hypothesize that unlike with politics, where users already self-identify with a party or ideology and therefore gravitate immediately to like-minded communities, many parents come into the wide world of online parenthood without having a set ideology in mind, and therefore the balkanization effect is not as strong. However, if they do end up in a particular community, then they are exposed to ideas more radical than those they may have originally had.

Mothering.com is an example of balkanization. The magazine started in print form in 1976 and focused on ‘natural mothering practices’. It ceased to exist as a print publication in 2011 and became a solely web-based presence.  Mothering has stringent rules for its message boards, not allowing posts that are “pro-spanking or discuss the abortion debate, and harsh sleep training, including “crying it out”. “

Crowdsourcing: Like crowdsurfing but nerdier
The evolution of Mothering also highlights a common theme of the digital age – falling revenues for print publications leading to companies choosing to move to web-only content. Mothering’s editor-in-chief Peggy O’Mara highlights the ‘mother of all storms’ in publishing which led to her company’s decision. “First,” she writes in an article explaining the company’s shift, “since 2008, our community has moved increasingly to the Web. Forty-two percent of people now check Facebook before they check their e-mail. When we asked our subscribers why they did not renew, 35 percent said they are too busy to read. The second perfect storm is the decline of the industrial model of production. Printing is a complex and costly process that requires expensive equipment and specialized knowledge. The cost of printing one issue of Mothering is approximately $100,000. Even to produce a digital edition, the cost is approximately $60,000.”

Whether or not the magazine industry as a whole is suffering a long, slow, death is a debatable topic, beyond the scope of this overview, and something I am wholly unqualified to discuss. However, certainly, Parenting magazine and its subsidiaries continue to exist, including its online component, which mirrors much of its content as well as takes it cues from BabyCenter and has weekly pregnancy emails, customizable online tools, and surveys.

However, Omara’s observation that women want instant answers to their questions in a searchable format fits in with the decline of What to Expect When Expecting; women who don’t have a need to know about complete placenta previa don’t want to be confronted with it while flipping through a book, but when the diagnosis comes in from the ultrasound, they immediately desire information on what they are facing, a supportive community, and second and third opinions on treatment. In the example of Mothering (affectionately referred to as MDC and Mothering.commune), users know they can ask questions of a like-minded community — no asking about Baby Led Weaning of a conventional pediatrician only to be told to start with mushy rice cereal instead.

A  study in Radical Psychology addressed these points.  Authors Samantha Mungham and Lisa Lazard acknowledge that mothers still rely on the opinion of ‘experts’ (although, which experts they listen to and which ones they ignore is a fascinating subject I plan to explore in detail). However, the participants in the study began engaging in online discussions when faced with unique or difficult parenting challenges: “There was a clear sense within accounts that such information, advice and support were either unavailable in their off-line lives or somehow fell short of what mothers’ needed to manage specific difficulties experienced (e.g. Wodehouse and McGill, 2009).”  In some cases, the mothers started becoming resistant to expert advice out of a belief that the practitioners were “misunderstanding the nature of the problem”. In other cases, the mothers were pleased with the support of professionals but still sought the advice of those with similar experience.

A few other studies they cite include:

Madge, C. & O’Connor, H. (2005). Mothers in the making: Exploring liminality in cyber/space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 30(1), 83-97.

Madge, C. & O’Connor, H. (2006). Parenting gone wired: Empowerment of new mothers on the internet. Social & Cultural Geography, 7(2), 199-120.

Crowdsourcing is one of those overused internet buzz-words at this point (as bad as web 2.0). But it’s still a valid tool – just look at the success of Wikipedia and the authority we assign its entries (including the information about crowdsourcing I hyperlinked).  Marissa Meyer, Yahoo CEO, made headlines when she sent an email to friends and families crowdsourcing her new baby boy’s name.  WiserPregnancy is an online crowdsourcing tool that allows women to make decisions regarding their pregnancy given what others before them chose. WeeSpring is a new service that crowdsources product reviews by your own Facebook friends – so you can be at the intersection of online immediacy and personal intimacy.

Yeah, and every village has an idiot

So, are these women hypereducated? Perhaps in 2005 they were.  But as a 2009 literature review indicates, class differences have diminished on these fora, although “First time middle class mothers aged 30–35 are most active in looking up health and parent information on the internet.”

On an anecdotal level, I can tell you that the women on BabyCenter and similar sites encompass a range – some may be hypereducated, sure, but for the most part I run into less educated younger individuals.  A common source of ‘drama’ on many forums is textspeak versus writing in a clear matter – the retort often being, “This isn’t English class!”

My instinct is that the general large parenting sites have a diverse population of users, but the more specific well-known ‘mommy blogs’ have more educated readers, as the writers themselves are as a whole more educated and well-spoken than the typical message-board commentator.  Specialized sites such as Mothering may also have a more educated user-base as their parenting choices go against the grain of the mainstream.  (A full review of  the studies done regarding the demographics of attachment parenting and similar philosophies is in order. One such study is: Green, K. & Groves, M. (2008). Attachment parenting: An exploration of demographics and practices. Early Childhood Development & Care).

Edit: According to a BabyCenter poll, their user demographics were a bit above the national average, but it seems as though it was a poll that didn’t hit every user and therefore suffered from self selection.

Supportive coven or judgmental witches?

There are definitely positives to this ‘online parenting’ trend.  However, the negatives are the feeling of failure, stress, and anxiety mothers feel when confronted with seemingly perfect parents-failure, stress, anxiety.  Without a real-life physical community, there are fewer checks on this perception of needing to be perfect. With those perceptions, we need posts like “Why You’re Never Failing As a Mother” by Amy Morrison, pointing out how much more work we do now as mothers compared to the laissez-faire attitude of a few generations ago.  While she provides only anecdotes, the concept is backed up by research cited by economist Bryan Caplan in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids . Morrison would know about data-driven fears – she is the curator of popular website Pregnant Chicken, which seeks to dispel common myths and fears about pregnancy.