How to Start a Network like BPN
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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.
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:
- Don't reinvent the wheel!
Look for other groups in your area that may already be running a
mailing list, and investigate combining resources. Check parent resource centers,
childcare referral agencies, school mailing lists, and organized mothers' clubs.
Informal parent and neighborhood groups can often be found by looking on
craigslist, yahoo groups, and by googling. If you live in the SF Bay area, see
Parent Groups in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Start with people you know who have a common purpose, such
as your friends, neighbors, parents at your church or child's school, or other groups.
- Use available software. Try using yahoo groups or other mailing list
software. Look for options such as the
ability to moderate postings and restrict membership. Most parenting
networks currently use yahoo groups, including very large metropolitan
- Timing is all. To keep your subscribers interested and engaged,
you'll need to send out a digest at least
once a week with a minimum of 5 interesting discussions or
messages or announcements. If you don't have enough subscribers
yet for this level of participation, plan on creating the newsletter yourself
for a while until you can build up a bigger subscriber base.
Include local events of interest, reviews of family-friendly places and services,
news items of interest to parents, and the like.
- Make sure it's worth reading.
The newsletter needs to be worth the time it takes to read it. Some parents
get a lot of email, and they don't have a lot of time. Your newsletter needs
to contain information they can't get anywhere else or it may not gather
many subscribers. Examples of good content include:
reviews of local schools, child-friendly restaurants, nearby vacation
getaways, how to find a pediatrician in your area, etc. Especially
popular for BPN has been the Marketplace newsletter, where parents post
kids' items for sale or trade or wanted, and the Childcare newsletter,
where parents can connect with other parents sharing nannies, recommending
babysitters and etc.
- Start simple and let the list evolve.
When you are first starting out, make the list as simple as you
can, using available free software and not imposing too many rules.
When you get to 300 or so subscribers, you may find that
you need to start using a different approach that
works for your larger scale. You may need to bring in a programmer
or investigate software packages for managing mailing lists.
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 on the web, 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.
The Berkeley Parents Network is an email forum for
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?.
There are many ways to make a resource like the BPN without using
the system we use. However, BPN was started 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. So, the technical structure
of the BPN reflects this background. Ginger still maintains the website as
her main hobby and is
continually improving and tweaking the computer programs that run the list.
The BPN website and mailing lists use the following:
There are a lot of other ways to make a parenting network. Keep reading
this page to see some ideas.
- Apache webserver running on Unix/Linux
- 10-15 Perl scripts that manage the posting forms & membership lists
- 6,000+ Hand-constructed plain text html pages
- Sendmail for the list itself and for mailing newsletters
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
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.
Over the years,
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.
- It's all about the content
People really don't mind a homely-looking plain text newsletter as
long as it contains something of value. The BPN newsletters have
a value that is hard to find anywhere else: the collective wisdom
of a lot of smart parents who together can offer a range of
different approaches to almost any parenting question, no matter how obscure
or embarrassing. Subscribers know that if they can't find what they
need from their circle of friends and family, they can find it on the BPN.
- No commercial or institutional bias
The BPN is a grass-roots, community effort run entirely by volunteers.
We do not accept advertising, and we do not have any expenses that
require us to seek grants or funding from institutions. Therefore
there is no motivation other than to help parents support each other,
and our members contribute their advice altruistically, without
any expectation of profit.
We believe that the high rate of participation, and the unselfish
contributions of time that participation represents, are due to
the "nobody profits" basis of the Berkeley Parents network. This is
a big part of what motivates our members to respond to a stranger's
- Helpful and supportive tone
We don't allow whining, venting, preaching,
complaining, gossiping, name-calling, or
criticising other parents and we try to apply this policy fairly. This means that
newsletters have a friendly tone and provide a supportive environment for all
sorts of discussions. Of course we do see the full spectrum of opinions on most topics.
Our subscribers often have strong opinions and we have such a diverse group of parents
that opinions rarely converge.
But we aim to accept differences with tolerance rather than confrontation.
Most subscribers are surprised how much they learn about parenting from others
on the list who have a different approach. This is the value of BPN.
- Be flexible but stick to the goal
BPN has changed over the years in response to problems as
they have come up. What worked for BPN with 2,000 subscribers does not
work for 20,000 subscribers, and vice versa. We have tried to stick
to our original goal of giving parents an easy way to network with each
other, while accommodating an ever-growing list of subscribers. When
a problem comes up that creates extra work for moderators, or results
in complaints from subscribers, we make changes!
- Clear policies and rules
Policies are developed by the volunteers with input from the membership, and
we try our best to enforce them fairly.
All our policies are on the website in the Help/FAQ section.
Clearly stating the policies and making them available online has been essential
in making sure that the BPN stays helpful and supportive. It also saves time
for moderators. Sending the link to a web page is a lot faster than
typing an explanation to the questions that arrive daily from subscribers.
- Easy-to-read format
We've found that a "passive" delivery of information works best for
what we do. In other words, members don't need to visit a website
or type in a password to get the discussions. Instead, newsletters arrive
in their mailbox. We try to make the newsletters as fast and easy to read
Since we publish digests rather than post replies as they come in,
all the responses to each question appear grouped together.
Topics are summarized in a Table of Contents, so
parents can scan the Contents section first to see if the newsletter has any postings of interest, and easily delete newsletters that don't. This feature seems important for busy parents.
Entire newsletters are easy to read and also easy to *not* read.
For example, parents who are not looking for childcare can delete
the Childcare newsletter without reading it.
The BPN website is intentionally very simple in appearance,
with plain text, and without advertising or graphics. We believe that the
content on our website is where the value lies.
- Discussions are moderated by humans
Every posting that appears in a BPN newsletter has been reviewed by
one of the volunteer moderators. Every posting that appears on the website has
been reviewed a second time by the website administrator. This means we
can filter out flames, gossip, and rants, return inappropriate posts, and
weed out self-promoting postings that are mixed in with legitimate reviews.
- Parents can post anonymously
We allow anonymous postings on all of our newsletters, except where
contact info is essential, such as an item for sale or a nanny share.
Many parents who would not otherwise give advice will do it if they don't
have to give their names. Because our list is so large, nearly everyone
has neighbors and co-workers on the list, and there are often topics
parents want to discuss
that they'd just rather not share with the people they work with!
Sensitive topics come up - bedwetting, or teen depression, or marital discord,
and almost no one wants to be public about comments on these topics.
Some people are just naturally shy or private and don't ever want
to sign their names no matter what the topic. We've even had anonymous
recommendations for house paint.
Whatever the reason for wanting to be anonymous,
allowing people to post anonymously means that a much wider group
of people will participate in discussions, and it also means
that people are more willing to express minority opinions. More public
parent networking forums, such as PTA meetings and playgroups,
cannot offer these features. Anonymity has been very important to our
- A few bad apples
In a group as large as ours, there are going to be a few difficult
people who consume a disproportionate amount of the volunteers' time.
We have found this to be about 1% of the subscriber list, so currently
that's about 200 people for us.
There are subscribers who just don't get how email works, who need
a lot of hand-holding in order to post. There are business owners who want to know why
their great review wasn't immediatey added to the website. There are
people who don't agree with a policy and want to argue about it, or who
are angry with the moderator because they believe a policy has
not been enforced fairly. There
are people who misuse the list, soliciting free baby items from well-meaning
fellow subscribers so they can sell them at a profit someplace else. There
are people who pose as a client of their own business and post glowing reviews
of themselves. Moderators have to be somewhat suspicious so they can
watch out for these kinds of things, and they need to have a thick skin.
We do unsubscribe people who deliberately misuse the list, and we do have
to make decisions about how much time to spend engaging in drawn-out
discussions with people who need extra help, or those who want to argue
this page was last updated: Mar 14, 2012
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