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How to Start a Resource like BPN

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



About the Berkeley Parents Network

Most people find us via our website. However, the core of the Berkeley Parents Network is our email newsletters that go out to subscribers almost every day. The website is just an archive of discussions from the newsletters. Therefore, if you are looking for information about how to create a website like this one, you will want to read the information on this page about how to start a mailing list. For more information about how BPN works, also see What is the BPN? and How does it work?.


What it is and why we do it

The BPN is not a "service" for parents. There are no BPN employees who are paid to provide a service. It is all run by volunteers. None of us are trying to make money off the network, and no one wants to spin it into a business. We have built it to be a shared resource for the community. This resource is useful because thousands of busy parents have taken the time to enlighten and inform us with their suggestions, their wisdom, and their experience. It's a gift that we all benefit from. Please use it in this spirit.

The driving force behind the Berkeley Parents Network is an intense desire to make information available to people. We try to help parents be better parents and better people, by giving them an easy way to take advantage of, and contribute to, the great pool of knowledge we posses when we all put our heads together. That is the vision for the Berkeley Parents Network.


Technical Information

The Berkeley Parents Network is a series of email newsletters that members contribute to by posting a question or response using a web form. The web form checks for membership, formats the message, and emails it to the moderator for that newsletter. The moderator collects all the messages, and puts them together into a newsletter which is mailed to all members periodically. Some newsletters are mailed weekly, others less often. The BPN website consists of discussions that originally appeared in one of the newsletters. For more information about how this works, see the FAQ.

Technical details:

There are many ways to make a mailing list like the BPN without using the system we use. The easiest way to have a list where members can post anonymously is to designate a moderator who receives messages, edits them as needed, and then creates a newsletter for mailing out to members. This is how the BPN worked for the first 5 or 6 years.

The rest of this page goes into details about how it works, how it started, and how you can create a similar list.


How BPN Works

Berkeley Parents Network was started by one person, me, and I still manage the technical aspects of the mailing list and website on my UNIX computer at UC Berkeley, nicknamed "parents.berkeley.edu". All the subscriber lists and webpages are on parents.berkeley.edu, and all the newsletters are sent from this computer.

About me
It's probably relevant to give you some background about who I am. I have an MS in Computer Science (1994) from UC Berkeley. I started BPN back in 1993 when I was a middle-aged grad student in engineering with two school-aged kids. I am now a computer programmer for and technical manager of the Berkeley Digital Library Project, which is a five-year-old research project funded by the National Science Foundation. My area is web-based databases, and I write programs that let you search and browse large collections of text, images, maps, etc. over the web. I love my job, I get to work with smart people doing interesting things, and I have a flexible work environment that allows me to do work at home at 6am on Sunday morning when I have a good idea, or after dinner when it's quiet, or on Tuesday afternoon when I'm waiting for the plumber to show up. I am a person who spends every spare minute on the computer, and when I'm not doing it for pay, I'm doing it for fun. I started BPN because it was fun to start it, and it's still going because it is still fun to do it. It is not a part of my job with the Digital Library Project, and I am not paid by the University to do BPN. It is an "extracurricular" activity of mine and the other volunteers who put it together. But many of the tools that I use for my job, I also use for BPN, and vice versa. So, some amount of technical expertise has gone into BPN, and is still necessary to keep it going the way it is now.

About the volunteer moderators
After a few years of doing the mailing list myself, and watching the membership grow exponentially, it soon became obvious that I needed help! There are now seven volunteer parents who create the different newsletters by receiving email messages from subscribers and compiling them into digests. All of us together have developed the policies that we use for the newsletter and each moderator runs her own newsletter more or less autonomously. (I use "her" because up to this point, we moderators have all been moms.) The different parts of the newsletter, and the people who moderate each one, are on the FAQ at http://parents.berkeley.edu/FAQ/newletters.html. In addition to the BPN digests, there is a separate list for Parents of Teens and for Families in Academia.

Some of the moderators receive as many as 100 emails a day, so it's essential that a moderator be able to read email several times a day, every day. Some of our current moderators have jobs that require them to be at the computer most of the day. Some are very organized stay-at-home moms. All of us have young children.

Moderators need to be proficient at organizing large amounts of information, creating files, formatting and mailing the final digest. And they need to be familiar with the newsletter policies, be able to make judgements about questionable submissions. It helps if they are tactful too, and can handle correspondence with subscribers in a way that does not inspire reams of angry replies.

We have been very lucky to have a great group of volunteers who manage to do all these things, and keep doing them day after day. Every year or so, someone needs to go off and do other things, but we have always been able to find a new volunteer who could take on the demands of the moderator role. This is mostly because it's fun doing it - you get to know so many different kinds of moms and dads in our community, and see first-hand the wealth of information and the sincerity of the spirit of giving. But it does require work: moderators spend anywhere from 1 hour a day to several hours a day reading and replying to email and assembling the newsletter!

The mechanics of mailing the newsletters
The subscriber lists for BPN and Parents of Teens are two plain text files of email addresses that reside on parents.berkeley.edu. I do not keep names of subscribers or any other information about them, just their email addresses. Additions, deletions, and address changes are done via a web form, and some automated checking goes on (addresses are looked up for unsubscribes and address changes for example.) But these are otherwise done by hand (by me) so that we have control over the subscriber base. The only reason for doing this is that we get requests to join from all over the world, and our volunteers just cannot support the world of parents, so we limit membership to Bay Area parents and we ask for a city on the subscription form. Currently we get about 20 new subscribers a day for BPN and Parents of Teens. The subscriber lists are kept in a private partition so that they are not accessible by anyone but me.

We used to have subscribers email their messages to separate addresses for each newsletter, which would be received by that newsletter's moderator. However in 2002 we started a new system of posting messages using a webform. See http://parents.berkeley.edu/post.html. The webforms use Perl cgi scripts that I wrote to format the subscriber's message and mail it to the right moderator.

This new system helps the volunteers manage correspondence in many ways -- all postings can be checked against the subscriber list to make sure they are coming from a member (previously we had problems with non-subscribers looking for housing or wanting to sell household items in our newsletters). We can also make sure that required info is present on the posting, such as contact info on a childcare share, and regulate the length of messages automatically. Previously we had to return messages like this, creating extra work for the moderators. We can also regulate things that were previously very timeconsuming, such as the line length of the messages. Subscribers tell us they like the forms because the current topics (for Advice and Recommendations) are listed on the form, and it's easier to figure out which newsletter a posting should be sent to.

Each moderator receives incoming BPN mail from the webforms just as if it had been sent directly to her own email address. Most moderators have mail filters set up so that incoming BPN mail goes to a separate mail folder to be read as time permits. When the moderator is ready to send out a digest, usually every few days, she uses copy-and-paste to copy each email message into a digest template, grouped by topic. (Templates for the various newsletters are online at http://parents.berkeley.edu/utils/) Some moderators use NotePad or WordPad on their PC to create a .txt file, some use emacs on their UNIX machine, some use Word and convert the result to plain text.

When the moderator is ready to send out a digest, she emails it to me, either copy-and-pasting the entire newsletter into an email, or attaching it as a plain text file to an email. Our longer digests (Advice and Recommendations) tend to be around 1200-2400 lines of text. The shorter ones might be 800 lines or so. We try to send out each digest at least once a week, but not as often as every day, since more frequent newsletters seem to generate more email! I mail it out using the Unix sendmail program directly, so that I can make sure the "To" and "From" info in the heading reads the way we want. This allows me to receive all the undeliverable mail, vacation messages, etc. I get around 10 or 20 of these everytime I mail out a newsletter.


Discussion lists vs. school mailing lists

A parents' discussion list like BPN is the place for lively discussions, a place where parents can ask other parents for advice, find out where the cool parent hang-outs are, find out who the good dentists are, and bring up any other topics that you might raise if you were having a chat with another parent. A discussion list does not serve the same purpose as a school list. There may be announcements in a discussion list about school events, but it is not the primary place for parents to get info about a particular school - that's what the school list is for. The school list is the "official" avenue for school info, even though it is usually run by parents. It is equivalent to the papers the school sends home with your kid that you never see, except with school email lists, the important stuff doesn't get lost in your kid's backpack. School mailing lists are almost always one-way communications - a way for the school to disseminate info to the school community. (See How school mailing lists work).

Policies for Parents' Mailing Lists

BPN has developed policies over the years in response to problems as they have come up. Most likely you will want your own policies depending on your situation, and most likely those policies will change as your list grows and changes. When you are just startingout, I recommend that you not spend too much time thinking about policies. Start out with a few basic rules about what's allowed and what isn't, and then be ready to change them or add to them as the need arises.

Look at the FAQ for BPN policies about everything from politeness to politics. We think that we have been successful because of these policies and other decisions we've made, such as:

  • Our format is easy to read and also easy to *not* read. Now that we are bigger, there are separate newsletters for different areas. For example, parents who are not looking for childcare can delete the Childcare newsletter without reading it. But within the newsletter, we have always sorted messages by topic, and topics are summarized in a Table of Contents. 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.

  • We don't allow whining, venting, complaining, gossip-mongering, name-calling, criticising other parents, etc. and we try to apply this policy fairly. This means that the newsletter has a friendly tone, and provides 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.

  • We put our policies online, so everyone knows what the rules are. We try to follow widely-held netiquette practices, and we observe UC Berkeley's policies for email, mailing lists, and personal web sites.

  • 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. (In fact I sometimes omit names on topics like this even if people volunteered them.) 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. More public parent networking forums, such as PTA meetings and playgroups, cannot offer this feature. It has been very important to our network.
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    this page was last updated: Apr 18, 2008


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