Friday, December 3, 2010

Los Angeles Online Mom Communities: Popular, But Post At Your Own Risk

By Guest Blogger, Jenny Heitz

Post: Wanted to know going rate for legal nanny who drives and for an illegal nanny who doesn’t drive.

This was a real post from a real person. It was posted, in all seriousness, on a members-only, referral based Yahoo group of L.A. moms (there are some dads on it, but it’s mostly moms). Let’s call it Stuff Moms Like (SML). Frequented by very educated, probably upper-middle class Eastside parents (east of West Hollywood) , SML should be merely an online referral board. But, it’s also the showcase for other posts, the deeply personal, the profoundly subjective, and, like the one above, the severe lapses in judgment. The West LA equivalent is “Apple Bottom”; it boasts more than 13,000 members and is hugely popular.

If the person who wrote the above post on SML had been at a small dinner party with ten or so of her “peers,” it’s highly unlikely she would have broached the going rates for hiring illegal help. However, give her access to an online “community” of her peers and suddenly this question is simply a given. Yet, what this clueless poster doesn’t quite understand is that she has just published this query, online, to a possibly infinite number of readers. Ouch.

Indeed, posts on SML venture into the even more bizarre, like a woman writing about how her Salvadoran nanny needs friends, and do any of “us” have nannies who might want to be friends with her. Absurd? It’s just as absurd as assuming that all women who are mothers and live in a large city automatically share the same “values” and sense of  “community,” one which leads to consensus on all these sticky issues.

What consensus, though?  There are very vocal cabals on SML and Apple Bottom, that practice a fairly tight grip over content and conversation. And all of this is done in the name of “community,” “privacy,” and “non-judgment”. These “Queen Bees” of the groups respond to every query. No topic is left unanswered, from the best movers to where (or whether to) vaccinate your child. But if you differ, the “discussion” can quickly deteriorate into a shouting match, causing the moderator to ask the dueling mommies to take it offline.

Perhaps the problem here is confusing an online “community” with actual community. Sometimes it seems that online mommy groups have taken the place of real face-to-face interactions among moms. Many of these moms are raising young children, and craving a group of friends or “community” is natural. Whether SML or Apple Bottom serve that need is another story entirely.

Privacy, for instance, on these community forums is an afterthought. In this case, posters assume there’s privacy regarding the post, but that’s not so. Once you post something, it’s pretty much out in the online world forever.

Obvious? Maybe. People should know better than to post private information, or information which might incriminate them in any way. Yet, they don’t really know better. They “trust” that the often many thousands of members of the group, the majority of whom they wouldn’t know from Adam in aisle 14 of Gelson’s, are trustworthy “community” members.  Really, they’d be better off posting these things on Facebook, a place where you can pick your friends and privacy settings up front.

This post turned up on SML:

Subject: Seeking Personal Waiter

Hi guys. I’ve grown tired of the iffy and indifferent service offered by L.A. wait staffs, as well as the inconvenience of having to speak into the drive thru speaker myself. I’m currently seeking a Personal Waiter, someone with lots of food service experience who can travel with me, both in and out of town, to serve just my family and myself. I need someone who understands the workings of professional kitchens and can adjust quickly to new environments. A good, clear speaking voice is mandatory (English only, please). The ability to communicate special dietary requests is also paramount; I have a severe pickle allergy and need to be constantly on my guard, so my Personal Waiter would act as a gatekeeper in that regard.

I will supply the uniform and apron. As I have a small vehicle, the Personal Waiter should be of smaller stature. Although I would prefer they be legal, I would consider an illegal for a lower wage.

If you know of anyone who fits this Personal Waiter description, please contact me

I wrote this post (I also posted it on my blog, with an explanatory rant and the actual name of the Yahoo group). It was a joke. It was also a social experiment. Which people would laugh, and which people would take offense? I didn’t have to wait very long for responses.

Sure, there were people who “got it.” They laughed and sent emails saying how hilarious the whole thing was. Here are the emails I didn’t get: from some of the 750 members who were “offended.” No, cowards that the offended parties were, they tattled on me like a group of 3rd graders to the group’s moderator, who then reprimanded me. I was not banned from the group, although I was informed that, as I mentioned SML by name on my blog, I had violated the “safe, members-only community trust.”

On some level, perhaps the offended have been lulled into some sort of false sense of security, simply due to online dynamics. The vocal and particularly active members are pretty consistent, rendering the majority of the members to “lurker” status. Lurkers read but don’t post, are perhaps offended but don’t report; they view SML or Apple Bottom as either a source of amusement or as a cost-free Angie’s List. Still, there may be another possibility, another example of how human dynamics are eternal, whether in a classroom or online.

There is a heartfelt plea buried in all this online mess for a sense of community. But there is no “tribe” here. Better to face the ugly truth: SML and Apple Bottom are really just sororities gone middle-aged. While they preach “non-judgment” (the alleged reason for the outcry over my satiric post), there is intense hostility to different points of view. A few women feel completely entitled to judge the content of their online group, but I’m expected to reserve judgment regarding classism, and overall obnoxiousness. Community, my foot, this is a sorority (albeit with some male members). And if the arbiters of subject and taste at SML had been able to meet me, as opposed to just having an already acceptable member recommend me, somehow I doubt I would’ve been invited to pledge.

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad. Jenny’s op-eds on education have been published recently in the Los Angeles Daily News.  Jenny's also writes for the Los Angeles private elementary schools blog, Beyond The Brochure. She is a graduate of Crossroads School and has a BA in Journalism from UC Santa Cruz and an MS in Mass Communications from San Jose State University. Jenny has a nine-year old daughter and teaches Pilates. She lives in Hancock Park, Los Angeles.
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Anonymous said...

What a relief to know I'm not the only mom who reads these message boards and thinks there is something really off about some of the content and postings. I've often thought it was just me. Great to know others think it too. Great piece. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ew. I'm surprised this kind of piece would be posted on The Twin Coach. It seems out of character with the other posts that I always consider to be thoughtful, caring, reflective and overall fantastic posts. Jenny Heitz seems to be outraged by "classism and overall obnoxiousness" that she feels is exhibited on "SML." Why? Because mothers either work full time and need to hire a nanny to care for their children or even if they don't work, because it's nice to have a little help with what is a very hard job? I notice Jenny Heitz went to Crossroads High School, which is a high school predominantly attended by children from the same socioeconomic class that she seems angry toward. She raises a good point about the care one should take when posting information online, but the intensity of her mockery and class resentment is unnecessary. I like to believe that we are all just trying to be people and to be human. Jenny Heitz feels that if she were met in person, she perhaps would not have been invited to join "SML," but perhaps it is also true that if Jenny Heitz met some of the "SML" members she is ranting about, then she would actually like them and be less inclined to rant. I am a "SML" member and while I found Jenny Heitz's post on "SML" tasteless, I did not "complain like a 3rd grader" because I have no interest in engaging in the criticism of strangers. There are other posts on this yahoo group that I steer clear of as well.. Maybe I'm more of a "lurker" but I do find "SML" useful as a resource. And no, I'm not a "coward" for posting this anonymously. I still have no interest in engaging in crazy discourse. This comment instead is an expression of my surprise that such discourse would find it's way onto The Twin Coach.

Anonymous said...

Cheers! Jenny's piece belongs on the Twin Coach because it is truthful. Let's be honest here: we all know what Jenny is talking about! The issues Jenny brings up about mom communities online are happening every day on these sites. Many of my friends and I have stopped reading a few of these fake communities online. God forbid, I post something I think is a good idea or a great resource. It gets attacked. Some of the people seem crazy, the kind you'd avoid at your preschool. It's not pleasant and not worth my time, for sure. I'd much rather deal with my real-life friends (yes, I have them, unlike many of the moms Jenny is talking about).

Excellent piece! THANK YOU for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Two thumbs up...way up! Those sites make me cringe and want to run for cover. Their waste of time factor is high and their usefulness fading fast.

Anonymous said...

some of these mom communities need to kick off the moms who are unkind, racist and offensive. Clean it up and get rid of the drama.

Amy Vuckovich said...

I love the Mommy groups because I have a sick curiosity with what "normal" is. It also feels like what I read is like slowing down and looking carefully at a car accident. There is a saying, "you cant put a bunch of hens together with out a bunch of squawking!" History has shown this behavior in church's ,woman's groups,,and I am sure caves where woman gather.
It does make you wonder how we could have been organized enough to become liberated,integrated, least in public.
Jenny,does this mean we need a safe place to be complex jerks?

Anonymous said...

These yahoo groups have a usefulness that this guest writer, Ms. Heitz, does not even acknowledge. Being a parent can be very isolating, and it raises many new questions about yourself, your child, and your city's resources for children. I am on several yahoo groups though I'm not terrible active on them, so I post very occasionally. I feel especially compelled to reach out to a struggling parent or share a wonderful resource. Yes, on one yahoo group in particular ("Apple Bottom"), I keep my posts less personal if only because it has such a large membership and the guidelines set forth don't enforce courtesy and respect. On the other hand, on a strictly mothers yahoo group, I have posted very personal questions and received wonderful caring and thoughtful answers so I am very grateful that these resources exist. Some people may have thought that my post was too personal, but it may have also helped other women realize that they are not alone in this experience.
What I fail to understand is why the post bothers Ms. Heitz so much. If there is a silly or rude post, Ms. Heitz should simply ignore it. Perhaps the posted question was not well thought through but if the poster really needed to know the information, the yahoo group is as good a place as any to try to find out. It isn't a dinner party and that is exactly what makes it a good place to ask questions that they wouldn't be comfortable asking otherwise. Conversely, it shouldn't give people free reign to be disrespectful but it is possible to be equally disrespected in less anonymous contexts too. To devote an entire article to criticizing someone's post makes Ms. Heitz sound like the "Queen Bee" she refers to. If her problem is a privacy issue, it is the posters problem and not hers. Further, I understood her joke/social experiment but I didn't think it was especially clever. Like many people who post negative responses on yahoo groups or answer every post, Ms. Heitz's subsequent post leads me to believe that she would do well to tend to the other more important aspects of her life. People come in all sorts, in real life and on yahoo groups, it's how you deal with them and how you respond, (or don't), that shows your true character. Normally, I never would have responded to Ms Heitz's piece except for the fact that l wanted to tell The Twin Coach that you are an amazing, insightful, thoughtful, compassionate mother and writer and that in the future you may want to reconsider having Ms. Heitz as a guest writer.

Anonymous said...

To the person above at 3:32 p.m. I agree that motherhood can be isolating. But, do you really think these Yahoo Groups provide any real connection or community? Sad if you do.

I loved Jenny's post. Thank you Gina for sharing her opinion. Yes, she is entitled to her opinion. That's what it is. Take it. Leave it. We all have that right.

Anonymous said...

I thought I'd share a few of the recent posts from "Apple Bottom" questions about where to take a new puppy, tons of garage sales, need beanie baby, what to get for new puppy, etc. Is this really what the biggest online mom message board has become about? Other kid related stuff included baby with dry skin, kid with sore throat, etc. Who has the time to sort through this dull stuff daily? Oh and the very scary Hepatitis A problem at Jerry's Deli had to be posted about.

Anonymous said...

I saw this on City Mommy and what I'd like to say is, let's agree to disagree. That's what this is really about. It shouldn't be about censoring Jenny or moms on these Yahoo Groups. That's just as bad as the moms who attack other moms for the sport of it. I belong to both the groups mentioned in the article. They have a purpose, when I'm in the mood. When I'm not, I hit DELETE button and they're gone!

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