The web has expanded the availability of knowledge. It is a tool which helps people use expert knowledge and lay knowledge to guide their actions and behaviour. User generated sites, such as Mumsnet, an increasingly popular UK site with a simple philosophy – to make parents' lives easier by pooling knowledge, experience and support – show the power of the web.
Mumsnet marked its tenth anniversary with a celebration at Google HQ in March 2010, and today is a force to be reckoned with. The numbers speak for themselves with 1.24 million unique users a month and 25 million page impressions.
The site is especially important in the way it examines risk. Risks to, say, health take the form of advice dispensed in user friendly ways and this is seen to trump official guidance in terms of popularity simply because it is written in language that means something to users and has the name of a real person attached. Through the blurring of public, political and personal, the unlocking and demystifying of risks is achieved democratically. Mumsnet appeals to lots of smart women who know the little intrigues of everything. Further evidence of the democracy Mumsnet claims comes from the decision not to edit posts and not to allow members to edit their own posts retrospectively. The rule is to stand by what you have said. Profanity or personal attacks are removed and their posters banned from the site.
Mumsnet is a phenomenon of our age. It seems to be delivering expert knowledge delivered in lay terms. Yet on another level Mumsnet fulfils a neutralising function. How its users interpret, reinterpret, and crucially reframe expert knowledge, and how it dilutes and offsets risks according to its users own personal values, is vital. Around half of Mumsnet members have an income of over £50,000; two-thirds are in full or part-time employment.
The key problem here for many is Mumsnet’s highly refined and indeed rarefied cultural base. The posh yummy mummies will decide what is risky. Participation in the Mumsnet forums heavily depends on crucially whether you’re one of what Janet Street-Porter called the “Mumsnet mafia”. Mumsnet appears to represent a very narrow group of women, middle-class and conservative in taste, with brands such as Boden and Cath Kidston appearing frequently as visual shorthand for cultural markers. Street-Porter said:
“The daily discussions are usually pretty childish, and there's a fair amount of bullying. There seems to be a received way of thinking, and woe betides anyone who disagrees. Which is ironic, when the whole point of the internet is freedom to express widely differing opinions?”
What we are seeing here is a rather narrow and dangerous knowledge base. Instead of merely reflecting risk, Mumsnet can be seen to be directing risk, actually offering benefits only to those ‘belonging’ to a narrow community. So in effect the use of Mumsnet proves risky for some and undemocratic for others, and is far removed from the ideals envisaged. What we have is what some would describe as an old-fashioned posh mother’s circle, advice oh yes... so long as you’re one of us.
Modern society is continually faced with the consequences of our obsession with modern developments – GM foods, nuclear power – and their associated set of risks. While we have always faced natural risks like flood and famine, current risks we have never previously experienced become problematic. Sociologist Ulrich Beck argues we are living in a world with global risks but we have few answers to them, apart from the old familiar remedies.
This strikes a chord with the increased numbers of websites and formats like Mumsnet, Netmums , and iVillage > as a form of delivering information and knowledge of risk.
One of Beck’s main arguments is the importance of the role of experts. They perform a crucial role in defining the risks we face. The trouble is this expert advice causes anxiety. This leaves many of us out in the cold. So what do we do? We turn to new mediums, such as online forums like Mumsnet and others.
In reality, only a few of us are really going to face risk from whatever it is that threatens us. Whether we change behaviours or not, most of us have to remember that to get access to sites like Mumsnet's rich source of advice, we have to first get past rather posh gatekeepers!
This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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