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How to Start a Network like BPN

Berkeley Parents Network > Help & Frequently Asked Questions > How to Start a Network like BPN

We frequently get email from people asking how to start a resource like the Berkeley Parents Network. This page explains how BPN works, what we've learned along the way, and how to start a similar network.

Creating a mailing list like BPN's

Most parenting networks today use yahoo groups or something similar. BPN is different because we started before yahoo groups existed, so we had to write our own software, which we continue to use. If you are starting from scratch, there are many tools available nowadays. Here are some general guidelines:

Creating a website like BPN's

The BPN website is an archive of discussions from BPN email newsletters. We started archiving discussions in 1995, so the content on our website has grown over the years to include advice and reviews about more than 6,000 different topics from thousands of parents.

If you want to create a similar website for parents in your community, you'll first need a way for people to submit advice and reviews. One way to do this is to set up a website and then manually archive selected discussions from your mailing list, like BPN does.

An alternate approach would be to first create a website or blog using tools available such as WordPress, making sure that your site contains information that parents in your area can't easily get elsewhere. When parents visit your website, give them a way to sign up for a mailing list, and build up your list that way.

Or, just use the blog format, and accept online postings. WordPress is free and widely used, and doesn't require a lot of techical ability to set up.

Background: What is BPN?

The Berkeley Parents Network is an email forum for 33,258 parents in the Berkeley, California area. Volunteers compile submissions from subscribers and mail out digests nearly every day. Many of these discussions are later archived to our website. The gist of the BPN is actually the email newsletters, not the website. All of the information on the website appeared originally in the newsletters and was submitted by subscribers to the newsletters. This is not always apparent to people who come across our website first. So, if you are looking to start a website like BPN, you should also be thinking about how to start a mailing list, to get advice and reviews from other parents for your website. For more information about the purpose and day-to-day mechanics of BPN, see our Help pages What is the BPN? and How does it work?.

Technical Details about BPN

There are many ways to make a resource like the BPN without using the system we use. BPN was started in 1993 by a grad student mom in computer science at UC Berkeley, Ginger Ogle, who was studying database theory and writing code in a Unix environment. At the time, there was no user-friendly mailing list software like yahoo groups, or website/blogging software like WordPress, so Ginger wrote it herself, built on it over the years, and still maintains the website and mailing list, which use the following: There are a lot of other ways to make a parenting network. Keep reading this page to see some ideas.

How BPN got started and how we evolved

The beginning: "eecs-parents"
The BPN started in 1993 as a list of 14 email addresses of grad students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at UC Berkeley who had kids. The purpose of the list was to keep everyone informed about efforts going on at the time to get support for student parents in the EECS department. We also included the few faculty members at the time who had young children. Ginger Ogle was already running mailing lists for her research group and for WICSE, an organization for EECS women students. These lists used administrator-level Unix sendmail tools (basically like a yahoo group) to create an email address that would send email to a list of addresses. So she made a new list for "eecs-parents" in order to send out status reports to the group, and rally other parents when we needed to lobby the department for family-friendly policies. Anyone on the mailing list could send an email to the list, and everyone would get the email. There were few messages in the beginning - at most, one or two messages a week.

The eecs-parents list becomes moderated
Soon parents started using the list to ask their fellow parents about childcare and summer programs. Word got around, and staff members in EECS who had email (not everyone did, back then) began to join the list. Now, there were more messages more often, and more "mistakes" from email newbies too, such as accidentally replying to the entire list when a personal reply was intended. Some members (especially the busy faculty parents) asked to be removed from the list, complaining of too many emails. It was time to make a moderated list. So, Ginger made the email address of the list private, and told members to send her their messages, which she would compile and mail out to members every week or so.

Keeping the list going in the early years
Most subscribers want to read what someone else has posted, not post a message themselves. If there are only 50 subscribers or so, there may be only one or two among them who are willing to post a new message. Therefore, until the list reached a critical mass of around 300 subscribers, there were just not enough messages coming in to publish a weekly newsletter. Ginger thought that if the newsletter didn't come out at least once a week, people would forget about it and not post items that could benefit other parents. So, she wrote items herself about local family events and campus resources. She interviewed eecs-parents members and published short bios, and even made up "anonymous" questions herself, hoping to spark a discussion that would be interesting enough that members would respond. This is how the list operated for a couple of years as it grew from a handful of EECS students and faculty to several hundred parents all around campus.

Dealing with exponential growth
Soon we had the opposite problem. The growth of the list mirrored what was happening out in the world in the mid-1990s: everyone was starting to use email, not just students and faculty in EECS. The world wide web had come into existence, and non-technical people were starting to understand and enjoy the benefits of these new ways to communicate. As parents all around campus heard about the mailing list for parents, and signed up, they discovered that working parents now had a way to network with other parents besides the traditional over-the-fence chats and schoolyard banter that happened while they were at work. So, the list grew fast.

By 1997, the list was called "UCB Parents" and was open to the entire campus community. It had reached 500 subscribers, and was growing at a tremendous rate, doubling in size every year. We had finally reached the point where there was plenty of participation, so Ginger no longer had to write "filler" herself to keep subscribers active and interested. The types of postings became more varied - people no longer limited themselves to advice about parenting - there were "for sale" items, news about classes and activities, advice about a wider range of topics. The weekly digest was getting longer and longer, and had to be re-organized into separate sections to make it more readable.

In 1998 we opened up the list to the surrounding community, as part of a collaboration with a local parenting organization called Neighborhood Moms. Ginger could no longer manage the list by herself because of the volume of email coming in every week. Several members volunteered to help, and in 1999 we split the weekly digest into four different newsletters, each with its own volunteer, and we also added a new newsletter with a separate list of email addresses for parents of teenagers.

How we used to do it, and why that stopped working
Here is how the newsletter operated during the period 1997-2001: each newsletter, such as "Advice Line" or "Marketplace" or "Teens", had its own email address. Subscribers who wanted to post to the newsletter could either "Reply" back to the appropriate newsletter or send an email to the appropriate address. These addresses were set up to forward messages to the home email of the moderator. The moderator reviewed all the emails for her newsletter, copy-pasted each posting into the appropriate section of her newsletter, and then sent the digest to Ginger to be mailed out to the list. Some moderators would prepare a new digest once or twice a week, others would compile theirs every two weeks or so.

As the membership grew (we reached 2,000 members in the year 2000), some moderators were receiving as many as a hundred emails in a single day. Many of the messages required time-consuming correspondence -- the subscriber had sent their post to the wrong moderator, or they didn't give enough information, or they didn't specify whether they wanted to post anonymously. To make matters worse, the emails came in no particular order and could not be organized very quickly. For example, the Advice Line received dozens of responses to each of a dozen or more questions each week. The moderator had to read each email to figure out which topic they were replying to, so she could group all the responses together by topic. It became almost a full-time job to keep up with the more popular newsletters. Moderator burn-out reached an all-time high as the volunteers, most of them working moms with young children, struggled to keep up with the time committment.

How we do it now
The mechanism for posting needed to be automated. So, in 2002 Ginger wrote some programs that required subscribers to post messages via the web site instead of sending an email to the moderator. The programs automatically check for required information, such as a name and email for postings about daycare openings. They check to make sure the person posting is actually a subscriber. They format the messages and give the poster the opportunity to specify how they want to sign their messages, including "Anonymous". They present a list of topics to choose from so that replies can be standardized and easily sorted by topic. A draft of the next newsletter can be automatically prepared and emailed to the moderator, thus eliminating the time-consuming task of copy-pasting each message into the digest. The moderators continue to receive individual emails so that they can review them as they come in and return any that need to be returned. The time it takes to moderate a weekly newsletter has thus been reduced to less than an hour or so. When a newsletter becomes so popular that it's too long to be reasonable as a weekly mailing, we split it in two and find another moderator. In this way, we've been able to keep sending out moderated digests to nearly 20,000 subscribers.

Lessons learned: what works and what doesn't

Over the years, we've learned a lot about what can go wrong, how to forestall disasters, and what we can do to encourage and sustain a high rate of participation -- a membership survey from a few years ago showed that about 85% of our subscribers had posted at least once to a BPN newsletter, and we are proud that such a large percentage of our members want to participate. We know that not every member reads every newsletter, but once someone subscribes to BPN, they seem to stick around forever! We have a very low unsubscribe rate compared to the number of new subscribers we get every day. As of this writing (summer 2007) we get 15-20 new subscribers every day. So, it seems to be working.
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this page was last updated: Sep 5, 2013

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