From Mumsnet to mumfluencers - how mummy blogging got out of control

The founder of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts 
The founder of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts  Credit: Geoff Pugh

It might surprise you to know that Mumsnet will be 20 next year, which means we’ve gone through the difficult teen years, developed a taste for bargain-brand booze, and feel pleasingly grown-up in relation to younger cousins such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

When I decided to have a crack at this newfangled internet thing back in 2000, there was so much I didn’t foresee: that asking politicians to name their favourite biscuit would become our thing; that our audience would invent a lively new corpus of slang (not all of it obscene); and that some of the most impassioned conversations on Mumsnet would be nothing to do with parenting at all, but instead about all the aspects of women’s lives that they hadn’t felt able to talk about anywhere else.

Another thing I could never have foreseen was the phenomenon of professional Instagram mothers, but the evolution of Mumsnet gives a few clues as to how it has developed. 

To many of us, the trend for the careful curation of picture-perfect family life feels odd. Mumsnet users have always leaned towards the ‘benign neglect’ approach to parenting. They abide by the three-second rule (which states that food can still be eaten so long as it’s been scraped off the floor quickly enough), casually check their shoulders for baby vomit before leaving the house, and believe that ironing is seriously overrated. 

On the surface, then, most of our users have little in common with the highest-earning social media ‘mumfluencers’, who command audiences (and fees) of thousands for posts of their artfully styled lives in extraordinarily pristine homes with children who never seem to want to wear the same Frozen t-shirt four days on the trot. 

Even in the early days of what we used to call ‘mummy bloggers’, there was a tension between the unvarnished truth of family life, with all its unglamorous ups and downs, and the understandable tendency of individual influencers to put the best possible spin on things. Since Instagram took off and image-based posts have become so popular, the metaphorical (if not literal) airbrushing of daily life has gathered pace.

Clemmie Hooper Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley 

As we saw last week in the rather gob-smacking saga of Clemmie Hooper – the midwife whose every move as @motherofdaughters is followed by 650,000 people, but who also had a secret account under the pseudonym AliceinWunderlust on the gossip site ‘Tattle.Life’. 

For the past eight months, Hooper admitted trolling her fellow Instamum friends and even her own husband online, sparking outrage in the influencer community and simultaneously proving that being successful doesn’t mean Instamums develop thick skins – or, when at the end of their tethers, are immune to employing playground tactics..

In some ways, Mumsnet is the grandmother of the Instamum movement; certainly, Mumsnet users and mothers on Instagram recognise much in each others’ lives, including those breaking-point moments. One of the things our users do best is help each other through tricky situations, from bad parking and annoying co-workers to life-changingly traumatic bereavements or relationship break-ups. You don’t have to look far to see women on Instagram doing the same things. 

It’s interesting that the very few corners of the internet that truly belong to women are so centred around sharing support and advice. And it’s telling that so many of the issues that Mumsnet and Gransnet users have talked about for years, from miscarriage care to the menopause, are widely discussed in Instamum circles too.

Indeed, the entire Instamum industry was borne out of a dilemma that particularly affects women, whatever their income level and however on-trend they are; the central fact that too many mothers see their pre-baby careers crumbling into dust, leaving them desperately hunting for family-friendly work. 

Since Mumsnet started, our forums have resounded to the sound of women asking what job they can do that will be creative, decently-paid and satisfying, while allowing them to occasionally see their children. The success of our flex-friendly jobsite is a testament to the centrality of this issue in women’s lives, and the sustained lobbying of high-profile Instamums and ‘ordinary’ Mumsnetters alike has finally forced the Government and many employers to take flexible working seriously as a policy issue.

David Cameron meets Justine and her cofounder Carrie Longton in 2006 Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith 

Who knew that sharing your experiences on the internet in a well-written, relatable way turned out to be one of the answers? Last year, women were responsible for 85 per cent of sponsored posts on Instagram – and with those with more than 500,000 followers commanding up to £2,500 per post, it appears to be the ultimate parent-friendly job. 

Or is it, when supposedly relatable mums end up making a fortune from making other parents feel bad about their own lives? It can feel impossible to compete with an Instamum’s immaculate living room – not a toy out of place – but why should you? Motherhood can be divisive enough without turning it into a competitive event worthy of the Olympics. 

There is also another issue – genuine concerns about the ethics and practices of some Instagram influencers. These have been discussed at length by Mumsnet users, complaining that it was too difficult to tell which posts were unprompted product recommendations and which were paid for by brands themselves. 

Collectively, the industry took an age to properly get to grips with the ethics and transparency – the Advertising Standards Authority produced some updated guidelines last year, which brought some welcome clarity, but lost trust will take time to claw back. The Clemmie situation hasn’t helped. As one mum puts it: “It’s incredibly snide and hypocritical [to criticise your friends anonymously] particularly when your brand is built on authenticity.”

For a while now, I’ve been suggesting to pretty much anyone who will listen (although a few high profile politicians notably failed to – remember Gordon Brown’s Biscuitgate?) that when it comes to the internet, authenticity is everything. It’s a rule that holds whether you’re a politician doing a webchat, a brand looking for customers or someone setting up an Etsy shop from their front room.

In many respects, Mumsnet is and always has been very different from Instagram: our forums are text-based, our image-sharing functions are deliberately limited, and our users enjoy total anonymity. Even if users wanted to “build a personal brand” that could translate into advertiser pounds, they know that Mumsnet forums are not ideal for it. 

But many voices still shine through, and some individual posts have gone down in internet history (the infamous ‘penis beaker’ question almost crashed the site’s server in less than 24 hours) because they’re funny, or very honest, or lay out a position with devastating clarity.   

It’s the same with Instamums: talent, expertise, charisma and trust are what matters. Building an online revenue stream while maintaining your integrity isn’t easy; people want to see you listen, being your real self, and above all telling the truth, while brands are often pushing for disingenuity and cheesiness. The key is not to lose sight of your values. If you can pull that off, the internet motherhood will take you to its heart.