Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet,
spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and
provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital
campaigning and organisational structures.
Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front
of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional
than first thought.
Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier
to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter
is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with
inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to
manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.
You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election
the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks
meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.
Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that
Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive
readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and
Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue
campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members
had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the
childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live
webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.
Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging
the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being
exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.
What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that
while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it
certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way
organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.
This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a
peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more
traditional news portal for even more. I couldn't help wondering about
the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.
Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet.
Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that
party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties.
Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to
infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right
While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational
hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as
reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within
the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece
for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”