the death of discussion

Guess What Ruined the Only Smart Parenting Group on Facebook

Surfing the web
Surfing the web Photo: Kate Ballis/Corbis

Any parent with a decent internet connection will tell you to stay offline: Parenting websites and groups, wherever they are found, are notoriously toxic. You think you won’t fall prey to an argument about breast-feeding or sleep training but then one day, after lurking quietly, you do.

Parenting is tough, after all, and being a parent isn’t exactly the broad unifier that we might first imagine it to be. Many times, our career choices, our ethnic backgrounds, where we grew up, our political mind-sets — they all inform the people we’re likely to get along with, just as they did before we had a child.

For about two years, though, the Longest Shortest Time Mamas Facebook group managed to defy the odds, remaining a space where people from all over the world gathered to talk about parenting without conversations immediately devolving into territorial wars or offensive remarks. People have thrown around the words “utopia,” “special,” and “sacred” to describe the group — and remember, this is Facebook we’re talking about. But this winter, after the group had ballooned to over 18,000 members, cracks started to emerge, and last week, group owner Hillary Frank — who started it to promote her Longest Shortest Time podcast — surprised members by shutting the entire thing down.

In the end, it wasn’t the “mommy wars” that shuttered the group — it was more general concerns, like race and social-justice issues. In its rise and fall, Longest Shortest Time Mamas was a reminder of how hard it is to find smart, nontoxic parenting communities online, and how crucial it is that those communities exist.

People felt strongly about Longest Shortest Time Mamas. One member, Kathleen (her name has been changed), wrote in an email about the support she received when her baby was very young and her mother had died suddenly of cancer: It was “just a beautiful village of moms,” she said. But as the group ballooned in size over the winter from 10,000 to nearly 20,000 members, many of the issues that divide people in the less safe corners of the internet — namely racism and sexism — ate away at its fragile ecosystem. These issues didn’t simply appear out of nowhere, of course: They’d always come up, one member told me, but as the makeup of the group changed and grew in size, the discussions became less respectful, and less manageable.

As a Facebook group that grew out of a podcast, LST Mamas started out with a public-radio-listener kind of vibe, but the new members were different. “Before the flood of new members, you didn’t really need moderation per se,” said a member named Anette. “Everybody was fairly chill and could follow the rule not to judge or attack someone personally and so people shared very raw, intimate details of their lives.”

Anette says she noticed a big increase in new people between December 2015 and January 2016. She recalled a specific conversation “where a mom posted about being offended that someone asked her if she was her child’s nanny because the child had a lighter skin tone and there were about a half dozen responses from moms telling her it was meant as a compliment, etc.” She goes on, “That topic is literally covered in one of the podcasts and it’s made clear that no, it isn’t a compliment and it’s rooted in racism.”  

Serious discussions, with all the new members, became much more difficult than before. On December 28, a grand jury decided not to indict the police in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. One mom posted a call for sympathy for Rice’s mother, and almost immediately, others began responding in troubling ways, including a poster who called Rice’s death “a message about irresponsible parents letting their child play with a pellet gun in an uncontrolled atmosphere.”

The group’s few moderators (who, granted, were vastly overworked volunteers) barely stepped in. By the end of a heated debate, some posters decided to form a splinter group dedicated to intersectional feminism. There were many of these splinter groups — for working moms, for frugal moms — but this one eventually prompted Hillary Frank to assert that it was “not an official subgroup” of the podcast, which only seems to have further flared tempers. In some cases, members left the main group entirely.

Then, on December 30, Frank made a rare post herself, asking for comments “especially” from women of color for an upcoming podcast on C-sections. Another member soon pointed out that the thread had been “taken over” by “non WoC.” In a series of comments, she laid out a case for why some women of color were unhappy with the group. “It just gets frustrating that we can’t have something for us, so that non WoC can read and learn about situations from OUR perspective,” she wrote. Reading the follow-up comments, it seems many members agreed with her, and another member said that “one of the key issues was the silencing and subjugation of minority and alternative voices.”

On January 1, Frank announced a hiatus, writing, “In the last week, the personal attacks and negative vibe have been more than I and the moderators can manage — including some personal attacks lobbed at us … today this sacred space is not feeling safe.” She announced later in the post that making new posts would be disabled for two weeks, and that it would return on January 13.

Behind the scenes, Frank contacted several members about becoming moderators, suggesting that changes were coming and that women of color would have their concerns heard. Abigail Keel, the podcast’s newly ordained producer and the Facebook group’s newest moderator, immediately posted on January 13 what she described as a “town hall-style” discussion on helping “racial relations and building community in this regard.”

A lot of people engaged in this thread, asking overwhelmingly for more knowledge, more moderators. But the tone seems to have almost permanently shifted, with Keel noting in an unrelated thread to keep things “positive” on January 13 and on February 4 alluding to “an uptick in tensions.”

On the February 11, a woman posted a photo of a sexist onesie she’d found at Target that said “Lucky with the Ladies.” This thread devolved into arguments about “P.C.” culture and moderators again had to remind people to keep things “positive” as members tagged them frantically, hoping for interventions as some got aggressive. “It’s a babies shirt, it’s not a big deal. It’s adorable,” one member wrote. Though it’s unclear what finally caused Frank to pull the plug, at least one of the newly contacted moderators-to-be whom I spoke with said that the group shutdown announcement, which came on February 19, was a surprise to her. She never became a moderator, and didn’t know the group was shutting down until the announcement.

Hillary Frank declined to comment for this story, but Kathleen, the member who turned to the group after her mother died, said that Frank didn’t seem comfortable with any hint of controversy “despite starting a podcast about the tough parts of parenthood.” Comfortable with it or not, it’s also very clear that Frank and two or three volunteer moderators were also simply unable to deal with the volume of content the group was now generating. Anette and other members suggested that finding more involved and engaged moderators — especially some people of color — would have gone a long way, though it’s unclear where a podcast would have found the resources to pay them. One person suggested there were multiple people who messaged Frank volunteering to help, but that they didn’t hear back.

Some members, in the run-up to the shutdown, hoped that Frank would change the ownership and name of the group so that it could stay alive without being affiliated with her brand. But it’s hard to say if she ever considered that possibility. It’s not easy to change the name of a group with a membership above 5,000, but one can do it by working directly with Facebook.

What’s incredible about Longest Shortest Time Mamas, though, is that despite all the hurt and anger in the comments, even the people I spoke with who felt neglected or whose concerns went ignored said that it was a special place. Some members were perceptive enough to understand that the end of the group was brought on by discussions of race and gender; others seem to have glossed over exactly how the ending came, but no one seems pleased that the group has gone away.

Because where will they turn now? BabyCenter, Yahoo groups, other Facebook communities — they’re all places where a new mom can get flamed for admitting that she wishes her kid would occasionally stop crying. Even most editorials and columns written about parenting seem almost designed to bring toxic responses.

The story of the Longest Shortest Time group suggests a few things: Moderating enormous groups is tough work, work that requires expertise and ideally compensation. Moms are a huge demographic, not a monolith, and the issues that are important to them go way beyond organic baby food and sleep-training methods. And there are far too few healthy online communities for new moms, who, ironically, are exactly the sort of people who could use them: often isolated, looking to compare experiences, seeking virtual companionship at 4 a.m.  

Many members I spoke with have joined various subgroups, most of which have set ground rules for behavior, and some of which cap their membership size at a much smaller number than the LST group. I hope they flourish. Spaces like Longest Shortest Time Mamas, in its best incarnation, should be abundant, not rare. All we need to do, of course, is get out there and create them.

Guess What Ruined Facebook’s Best Mom Group