Mumsnet's Justine Roberts talks community, the value of debate, and bursting the filter bubble

 
Elliott Haworth
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Justine Roberts, Mumsnet founder and chief executive (Source: Michael Vince Kim)

Time poverty is clearly an issue for Justine Roberts.

I have just 40 minutes on the phone with the Mumsnet founder and chief executive to disseminate a lifetime of achievement: PPE student at Oxford, a stint in the City, a journalist with a sports beat and, most recently, a recipient of a CBE for services to the economy in the New Year’s Honours list.

“It’s very nice to be recognised and to be on this list. I’ve recently been watching The Crown so have become much more of a royalist than I ever was,” she chuckles. But Roberts insists that the honour isn’t her achievement alone. “I feel very strongly that it’s an award for all the people who have worked and helped to create this fantastic community, and that includes the users and all the staff. It’s recognition of that really, it’s not a personal thing, it’s a collective thing. And you know, we should all feel proud – we do feel proud.”

The growth Mumsnet has achieved in the last 17 years may have been a collaborative effort, but before the 100-strong team now presiding over the site existed, Roberts had little but an idea, determination and guile. “If you have an idea, you’ve got to really believe in it,” she says. “It took about eight years for Mumsnet to really pay salaries to the people who were putting hours in.”

Value of experience

With such a diverse working repertoire before the inception of Mumsnet, you might think Roberts to be something of a job-hopper, but she believes that, although a City life – or a life in journalism – wasn’t for her, it was time well spent. “I think all experiences prepare you,” she says. “Every year that you’re working you’re learning something, even if it’s learning what you don’t want to do – and how to get out of it.”

If learning what she didn’t want to do was ample preparation, Roberts also thinks that parenthood, not only gave her the idea for Mumsnet, but prepared her to enter the world of business. “It just puts you under a lot of pressure; you learn negotiating skills, you get frustrated often and become less selfish – it makes you think about other things and other people. I think, in a multitude of ways, it helps you to multitask. You’ll probably never be so stretched, busy and exhausted as when you go through motherhood.”

Native evolution

Mumsnet today is a far cry from the parenting forum Roberts envisioned during a disastrous family holiday with her young twins in 2000. Today it’s a many-headed beast, a fabric woven into the digital furniture and more popular than ever, exceeding 10m users.

“I think we view it as an online community first and foremost, and what we’re trying to do is provide solutions which make that community’s life easier. That might mean managing a great forum, or it might mean producing engaging content, putting on an event, or writing a book. It’s really just about developing, producing and offering things that make parents’ lives easier.”

Over a decade and a half later, Mumsnet is a lucrative business, turning over some £7.2m last year. Most of its revenue comes from display and programmatic advertising, but more recently it has pioneered a method of native advertising that makes the most of the site’s user base.

“What works best on Mumsnet is talking ‘Mumsnet language,’” says Roberts. “And the best bits of native content we’ve done are where brands have really allowed the community to take the lead. So very often we’ll package up the best advice from our forums, rather than put a load of blurb written by an agency or parenting guru. The whole point is really that you’re no longer broadcasting, you’re in conversation. So we have a lot of control over the creative process.”

Community

Mumsnet was recently named as one of Grant Thonton’s Faces of a Vibrant Economy, which Roberts says she thinks is “because of the strength of the online community – that’s what Mumsnet is all about. It’s recognition for the daily kindness, time and attention that people all around the country are giving each other.”

She refers to the community often, but how have trends, and the user’s needs and requirements, changed over the years? She tells me that “it’s quite hard to keep up now. You used to be able to log on and look at a link called ‘last day’ and read it comfortably in an hour. But now, you can’t read the last five minutes in an hour! So it’s faster moving, a bit noisier, but broadly, people have the same set of dilemmas.”

Mumsnet has become a space beyond discussion about parenting, with pockets like “Pets Corner” and a chicken keepers’ forum. It’s probably best known for its occasional forays into politics. The 2010 election was dubbed the “Mumsnet Election” following a series of webchats with the leaders of the time. But the issues often run deeper than the pithy rhetorical whims of talking heads.

Deputy Prime Minister Takes Questions From Mumsnet Users
2010 was "The Mumsnet Election," harbouring more influence than this chap (Source: Getty)

Debate

The most poignant discussions occur “when users are presented with a story that they feel isn’t right; when they feel something should be done about it. We probably have the largest forum of parents with special needs children, for instance, and I think some of the issues they have to face are an education for others. In our daily lives we are fed stuff by people we know, but on Mumsnet, it’s a place where you can experience people living very different lives.”

Browsing the comment section below a controversial topic bears witness to the polarity – and occasional cruelty of the community. But Roberts is an advocate of free speech, for open discussion and inclusivity, however virulent, which is reflected in the laissez faire moderation on Mumsnet. “We’ve always had a commitment to open discussion and even disagreement, she says. “We’re not a site just for mothers of the right or left, we’re very much for all mothers. We believe that people have the right to say stuff. We ask people to refrain from personal attacks, and not to break the law. So you can disagree with someone, you can say when someone is talking rubbish, but you can’t really say someone’s… err, [laughing] I can’t really say that word, can I?”

Filter bubble

In the current climate, in which fake news, identity politics, and filter bubbles – the idea that social algorithms impair debate through reflection of self-affirming views – dominate the news agenda, I ask Roberts about the importance of debate. “Our view is there is something valuable in differing opinions,” she says. “And actually, in the last year we’ve become even more of that opinion. There are few places on the internet where you’re going to get diverse opinion because of a very calculated move on the behalf of the big tech companies to serve you stuff from the people that you know and who will say the sort of things you want to hear. Mumsnet sits outside of that.”

I ask whether Mumsnet is bursting the filter bubble: “I don’t know if I’d go that far! But we’re certainly committed to Mumsnet not being a filter bubble. We don’t doctor people’s feeds, we don’t disallow contrary opinion, we don’t overweigh opinion that isn’t contrary. We wouldn’t do that because we think in itself, discussion and debate is something healthy and worth preserving. Differing opinion often changes people’s minds, and how else can you learn to appreciate a different point of view if you don’t hear differing opinions?”

Price tag

Most tech companies grow with the intention of selling, so I ask Roberts if she would consider an offer. After a short pause, she tells me “it would be hard to because this isn’t just a business – it’s not a conventional one anyway. It’s a new type of business, and I would have to feel very comfortable, that the spirit of the site – putting purpose before profit – was going to be maintained.”

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