The invasion of the 'Blogger Mums'
Parents on the internet
I am a grown-up with young children and a business. I can't possibly have time to 'socialise' or network online. So why is it I find myself interacting with people I have never met from all round the world, into the early hours, 'poking' on Facebook and 'nudging' on Twitter? God, I've even started my own blog and am in danger of transforming from a reasonably normal mother of three into a full-on geek!
We have all at least heard of internet dating sites and online chat rooms, and Which? reports tell us that 75% of UK internet shoppers who are women prefer buying online to going to the shops. Many of us use the internet for research and education, and for business networking. But what value can it possibly have for mothers of young children as a way to network socially?
US artist and avid social networker Susan Reynolds likens interacting on sites such as Facebook and Twitter to "an updated way of chatting over the fence while hanging clothes and getting personal insights which are better than search engine research". In order to research this article, I myself dived into my online social networks and put out a call for information and suggestions. Within hours I had some quality links from @Rosevibe, @Cbensen and @Loudmouthman ('Twitter' names) and, more importantly, a group of peers interested in seeing and enjoying the final result. When you are working from home with young children, finding other people online who share your interests and help you to develop your own ideas and knowledge is a resource that I never dreamed of discovering a year ago.
One of my Facebook friends, Ann Handley, posted: "The real value of social networking for women is that they can seek and find like-minded individuals at all stages of their lives. When I was a young mother - a breastfeeding, cloth-diaper-using, attachment-parenting mom who was working (freelance writing) from home - I often felt pretty isolated, without a 'network', wondering if I was outright loony some days... I would have loved a blog like dooce.com, or a mother's group on Facebook, to connect with other mothers like me."
Sharing knowledge and experience is important for parents who can so often feel isolated. I popped onto EveryClick.com (it's like Google, only they give money to charity every time you use them as your search engine) and typed in 'Mothers Blogs'. The first two natural listings were www.motherblogs.net and www.bloggingmommies.com. Both sites are guiding and encouraging mothers to share experiences and advice; but in the UK, www.netmums.com works on a more community level, with 130 local sites and growing. Netmums was started by three mothers and has won a technology award for the most promising voluntary sector internet project. Co-founder Sally Russell says their success is down to a balance between hard facts and being a community of support. Netmums provides not just information, but the opportunity to find local like-minded women and to connect up physically as well as online. The site has been a godsend to some mothers suffering with postnatal depression who needed help and to feel supported.
For the growing number of men who are becoming house-parents, online networking can help them to access and even create their own local support groups. It is this 'community' element that has created my current addiction with online networking and taken me past the 'fear' threshold of working with technology previously unfamiliar to me. To begin your own blog is simple enough to tempt even the most ardent technophobe, and if you go onto www.ning.com, you can create an entire personal social network, with blogs and forums and groups, for free. It's a fantastic way to extend the reach and increase the interactions within parenting support groups or just your own local school or community. No technical expertise required!
If I have an idea about something, need feedback, or just want to see what someone else is thinking about, I can go online and, through a selective build-up of Twitter buddies and Facebook friends, I can research information and get moral support from people who do not live in my locality, and I don't need to hire a babysitter first.
Wanting to share my own experiences of becoming involved with social networking and blogging and have some fun at the same time, I recently created Blogging for Blondes; but the key thing about a blog is not just what you write, it is the comments made by your readers which turn a solitary posting into a discussion within a community.
Deborah Fallows (*How Women and Men Use the Internet*) found that in the US "Men value the internet for the breadth of experience it offers; women value it for enriching their relationships, but are more concerned about its risks." Irrespective of the safety of online banking, online communication on a social level has many checks and measures. If someone wants to be my 'Friend' on Facebook, for example, it is entirely up to me whether I accept that offer, or even let them see my full profile online.
Ann Hadley believes that "women like to connect - not debate. So they may not comment on blogs, but they are nonetheless embracing social networks." However, women are increasingly finding their voice, and expressing it, via social networking online.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that blog creators in the US were more likely to be relatively well off financially and well educated, and 43% of all bloggers were women. Advertisers are taking note of the rise in educated and high-income women using social networking to take part in discussions and dialogues. The women's blogging site www.blogher.com publishes that 70% of the women subscribers are married, and 50% have children still living at home. 53% of BlogHer Parenting Network readers have their own blogs with which to publish and amplify their recommendations and referrals.
Glenda Stone, CEO at Aurora business networking group for women, says that many women entrepreneurs begin as mothers, working from home in a spare room, and the discussion forums on Aurora can provide "value added answers which they can trust - not only a quick answer to a question, but evaluations and recommendations into the bargain".
Access to information is key to advancing in the workplace, and having direct access to that information creates great opportunities for women in large corporations, especially if they are working part time from home or are on maternity leave. Tom Crawford, head of employer brand and diversity at professional services firm Deloitte, encourages the use of Facebook whilst providing advice and guidelines on its use, rather than just banning it from the workplace like many other employers have done.
Using a diverse range of networking resources, Deloitte employees can access mentors and buddies within their online women's, working parents' and carers' networks. It is the women employees who have tapped into this big time, and who have benefited the most from the sharing of information and networking with colleagues online. Why do Deloitte do this? Tom explains that they "want the broadest range of talent to fix the broadest range of client challenges", and to do that, you need to "talk to people in different ways and in different places, using a variety of online and offline tools".
My favourite recent example of social networking being used creatively is by the artist Susan Reynolds, who blogged in Case-Notes from the Artsy Asylum about her recent mild stroke. I had 'followed' her messages via Twitter during her hospital stay (at the same time as someone else had a kitten being taken to the vet and another was reporting on his wife being in labour), but Susan actively used her social networking as part of her rehabilitation: "through it all, a stream of social media has kept me connected and now it's helping me not just recover but document and test. Putting myself through my own battery of tests, Second Life and Facebook Scrabble have reassured me and helped test spatial, visual and language skills. Twitter, tumblr & facebook mobile photos have allowed me to document and track activities and developments. Who said Social Media serves no useful purpose? Working for me so far."
Suzy is a single mother of three and currently owns her own company CertainShops - professionals online, an interactive online directory of vetted professional service providers recently voted by the Independent newspaper as one of the "101 most useful websites that will change your life". Suzy has created a blog to help the technically nervous join in with social networking online at Blogging For Blondes.
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