Don’t kid yourself about Mumsnet

It is always wise to approach with caution the subject of Mumsnet. Journalists who fall foul of the collective wisdom of its members can find themselves roasted on a public spit, spiced with the sanctimony that tends to flavour the opinions of Mumsnetters. (Gosh, was that approaching it carefully?) One of the lessons painfully learned by every journalist over the past decade is how nasty the public space has become. When I was writing columns in the Times ten years ago, the worst you could expect was a condescending letter from Sir Bufton Tufton beginning, "Dear 'Ms' Miles, as I suppose you call yourself . . ."

That, and the odd stalker. I once had a man called John who used to write 20 pages of neatly handwritten A4, sometimes breaking into Capital Letters: "Am I Wasting My Time Doing these things. As usual, every second Thursday, I have to go through a green Plastic bin, To fish out anything that you have Done. I then stuff them into a Bureau that is kept in an outside Greenhouse extension. The drawers can hardly be opened now. Alice - am I Just Wasting My Time Doing this."

Primark suspect

At least John was polite. With the internet, everything has changed. Partly it is because readers are able to fire off missives at 1.30am: "you silly cow". Partly it is because newspapers encourage sillier and more extreme opinions in the hope of getting more "hits" on the website; all very well for advertising figures, not so much fun for the person being hit.

Mostly it is down to a decline in deference - online columns do not carry the authority of print versions. There is no authority online; everyone is equal. Some people seem to find that hard to deal with and respond by turning into children. If you reply to the rudest messages with polite responses, you almost invariably receive contrite apologies - "I never thought you would read it", "I'm sorry I was a bit angry", or even "Now I've read the column properly . . ." There is a disconnect between the intemperate message and the person who sent it. It is most odd.

The strange relationship people have with "online" is a challenge for adherents of “e-democracy" and undermines the fashionable theme of the "Mumsnet election". Will Mumsnet make such a difference on 6 May? It's a nice idea for the media, allying neatly with the fascination for leaders' wives - cue pictures of SamCam's handbags and Sarah Brown's shoes. You can see why it's taken off so well.

When I popped on to Mumsnet just now, there were a couple of fairly lively threads on the manifestos, but nowhere near as lively as the discussion about whether Primark ought to be offering padded bikinis for seven-year-olds. The day of the Liberal Democrat manifesto launch is admittedly not the most gripping of political moments, and the Primark story was pretty amazing. Although not as amazing as some of the comments on Mumsnet. "Stoppinattwo: Mrs Shu - I have been nothing but polite, if you intend to wind me up by implying that my daughter wants tits and is not normal then you arnt worth the discussion, you obviously always make the right choices and your children are all perfectly balanced."

Blog off

So what will make a difference to the election result? A survey conducted for the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts at the start of the campaign showed that 64 per cent of voters expect to learn about it from TV, 47 per cent from newspapers, 27 per cent from radio and 19 per cent from promotional materials. Compare these with the proportions expecting to get information from blogs (3 per cent) or social networking sites (2 per cent).

Some interesting ongoing research at Southampton and Manchester universities, led by Professor Graham Smith, has found a distinctly limited role for mature online political debate. Among thousands of people who offered to take part in an experiment to see whether online forums are effective at changing attitudes to policy, half did not even log in. Of those who did log in, well over two-thirds never accessed any of the easily digestible information offered. When people posted comments, they were simply assertions of opinion or references to personal experience.

And the only people whose minds were changed by the experiment were those few who actively contributed to the online discussion - and who were changing their views not due to better information, but due to other participants' largely uninformed opinions. Just because the medium has changed does not mean there is a world of difference between Sir Bufton Tufton, John and stoppinattwo.