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Article
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The internet

Watching our words and spaces disappear: the death of the Essential Baby Forum

In late October 2020, towards the end of Victoria’s second lockdown, I logged into the discussion forum on essentialbaby.com.au. During the stress of coronavirus, it was a place to browse discussions about politics, parenting, feminism, or just favourite jaffle fillings. To distract myself from doomscrolling. To escape the grind of working and schooling from our dining table, clearing the papers off to serve dinner, and then doing it all again tomorrow.

That day, a short post appeared in the forum from editor Letitia Rowlands informing members that the forum would close on 30 October. Essential Baby, along with the millions of posts, mostly by Australian women, on myriad topics, would be deleted just over a week later.

The forum wasn’t a relic being put out of its misery: it had thousands of active users and it had been upgraded only months earlier. Now Nine Entertainment Co., its owner, had apparently decided to kill it as a result of a ‘business decision’. Nobody knew quite why: perhaps members didn’t click the ads often enough. Or someone finally got sick of our obvious contempt for the broader Essential Baby website, a morass of chirpy clickbait and recycled content.

So, one more precious thing was being lost to the shitty quagmire of 2020. But who really cares about the fate of a parenting forum, no matter how beloved by its members? Its disappearance went almost entirely unnoticed outside the forum itself. Yet what’s been lost is breathtaking.

Conceived as a website for Australian mums, Essential Baby was founded by Kylie Little and Deirdre Walker in 1999. The forum followed a year or so later. The business thrived: Little bought out her partner in 2005 and sold the site to Fairfax Media in early 2007 for $4 million. The role of Little and Walker is now missing from the official history.

EB – as its members universally called it – was foremost a forum about parenting. Most members, including myself, joined when they were TTC (trying to conceive), became pregnant, or had a baby and were navigating their strange new lives. We sought advice about pregnancy symptoms, hospitals and breastfeeding. Many – overwhelmingly mums, but also a few dads – stayed on for years or decades.

What was its appeal? A poster described EB as ‘the modern version of taking your washing up to the village fountain and chatting with other women’. Parenting can be lonely: lacking a literal village, we looked online for companionship and advice. Social media is often performative – flattering photos and pithy posts presenting a carefully curated version of our lives. But behind a username, on EB you could admit that parenting was sometimes boring. That you doubted yourself. That you weren’t doing so well.

Paradoxically, the anonymity helped create a community. I felt part of something, among friends who I didn’t know IRL. There were in-jokes stretching back years, about the tradie who pooed in a bag or the debate on the nutritional value of sultanas. But EB was also a safe space for many. Somehow it was largely free of trolls and the abuse that women often receive online. The inexplicable daggy yellow duck logo, along with diligent monitoring, helped us hide in plain sight. Who would bother trolling a bunch of mums? So we were largely free to vent, joke, rage, stir. I loved that EB’s wasn’t an echo chamber of my own views. The perspectives and life experiences were far more varied than in my own sheltered sphere.

It wasn’t perfect: there was the occasional pile-on or storm of judgement. But members typically looked out for each other, checked in when people were struggling. Users shared devastating stories of losing babies or loved ones, and received only sympathy and kindness. One poster recalled ‘feeling in a very dark unsafe place’, and reaching out to find someone who stayed online with her overnight. ‘It gave me a safe place just to be for a few moments, sunshine to the dark.’

After an outcry from shocked and grieving members, EB was given a month’s stay of execution. But that was it. The twenty years of content wasn’t even being archived. The site recorded the evolving perspectives of thousands of people on parenting and social issues, dated and timestamped and against unique usernames. Preserved, it would have incredible historical value. It was rumoured that the National Archives of Australia had saved the COVID threads but didn’t have file space for all of it. And Nine didn’t care enough to preserve the rest.

But why should Nine have cared? As a private company, its aim is to produce profits. When we share content online, particularly in places that feel like communities, it’s easy to forget that we don’t ultimately control that content.

Like so much in 2020, EB’s demise was just a precursor to much bigger events. When Twitter blocked Trump in January 2021, followed by Facebook and other sites, we rejoiced – but then Facebook abruptly barred Australian news websites purely to protect its own interests, blocking countless community sites as collateral damage. Tech companies won’t hesitate to safeguard their profits, whatever the cost to users. They have no obligations to retain content. And so yet again, women’s voices and perspectives are lost to history.

The actual closure went unmarked by Essential Baby the website. But frankly, nothing at all was better than reading again the mealy-mouthed message about being ‘honoured to have played a part’ in creating relationships it was now destroying with such indifference. ‘One-time strangers have become lifelong friends whose support of each other has stretched well beyond the trenches of parenthood and into every part of each other’s lives’, it trilled. We knew that already. They were our lives, our friendships, our words.

EB is dead; long live EB. Members scrambled to create a new site, and it was a relief to log onto the successor, EveryBump, and see usernames I recognised. It felt like moving house and seeing your pictures hanging on different walls: familiarity combined with the feeling that still everything has changed.

Will EveryBump, a site without an owner and moderated by volunteers, survive to provide a rare non-commercialised online space? As I write this, on a Monday evening, there are seventy-nine users online. What’s missing though are the two decades of history, posts from Australian women reaching out online as we found our way through parenting and through the world. Not every word we wrote was profound. Not every topic was significant. But it mattered. It belonged to us.

 

Image: Louise Bourgeois. À l’Infini (2008)

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Kathryn James is a writer living in Melbourne. She works in international development and is studying Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University. She writes about places, parenting, society, and the little moments that change us.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Kathryn . It is so nice for someone to acknowledge the years and wealth of wisdom that channel 9 threw gleefully away , supposedly to save money, although they had just spent money upgrading the site. I don’t think that was the reason. A lot of us have given up on everybump as it is overmoderated, and run by a man who appears to be trying to monetise it. We have moved to https://motherboard-forum

  2. Great article, right up until the part about nuEB.

    The site is owned by a man who took over when it was supposed to be a community run forum. It has advertisements and paid subscriptions so I wouldn’t call it uncommercial.

    A heap of long term well-loved 9EB users have been banned for talking about subjects that were sources of debate over on 9EB but have somehow become controversial (banned) on nuEB. The rules change on a whim, the moderation unprofessional and heavy- handed.

    A breakaway group have formed a new forum recently where debate is welcome, moderation is sensible and transparent, and everyone is welcome.

    https://motherboard-forum.com/

  3. A lovely article. Captures the importance of women supporting women through the shock and awe of parenthood. Minor correction: the new forum mentioned, Everybump, does have an owner – a male one, interesting given the overwhelmingly female user base. The Motherboard is the other forum established after the demise of Essential Baby. Unlike everybump, it’s owned and run by women.

  4. This is a great article – it explains exactly the support, love and comfort that EB provided.
    Yes the new eb is smaller & staffed completely by volunteers, but definitely worth a look. There are still the robust political and feminism threads, the advice threads, the WDYT threads, the venting threads, as well as still a safe space for reaching out and being vulnerable, as quoted (I paraphrase) “providing a few moments of sunshine in the dark”.
    Kathryn’s depiction of the roller coaster of emotion that we went through on that awful day in October 2020 – from complete despair and disbelief that something we all valued so much was just being discarded without apparent care or thought, to the excitement of hearing about options to carry on, which ultimately led to everybump.com.au – well, her writing took me back to those emotions, as well as reminding me how grateful I, and many other posters are, that we still have somewhere like our old EB. Even better, no horrible ads!!
    Thanks Kathryn for your article and of course to the site admins and moderators on the new eb!

    • A “safe space”, now that is up for debate with the new EB. Depends on your idea of safe space.

      • While I am here mentioning the comment that was misattributed to me………
        I consider a safe space to be one for all, not just those who shout the loudest. Many EB and everybump users are less extroverted irl so don’t need abrasive, strident views being touted over topics that are sensitive subjects.
        I won’t respond again just to say thank you again to Kathryn for such a well-written and descriptive piece.

  5. Lovely piece of writing. It’s so strange… something that made such an impact on my parenting and really made me feel connected and it was all so fragile and gone on a whim.

  6. Thank you for writing about essential baby, and helping keep the memory alive. It was a wonderful support group and it’s devastating that so much advice from women has been wiped from the internet, made worse when so many are feeling isolated due to COVID.

    Unfortunately, the replacement forum hasn’t lived up to its promise – when news first broke of eb closing down, some women were discussing setting up a new forum, when a male member jumped in to take over, and 100% controls the new site.

    Women are being banned instantly and silenced, for reasons that would never have occurred on essential baby.

    A group of ex-essentialbaby members have since started up a new forum called motherboard-forum.com, where a group of women are running it, as it should have been in the first place.

  7. The woman who was quoted in this lovely article was banned from nu eb – she is however over at motherboard forums along with other banned users. The things that have gone on behind the scenes on nuEB are horrific. Motherboard is a welcoming safe place for all

  8. I agree on the fragility. The internet can be deceptive that way. Sites that seem like they’ll always be around can vanish overnight. Forums like Essential Baby – big and fast-moving – aren’t often archived effectively so once they’re gone it’s like they were never there.

    Essential Baby had a robust commenting and moderation policy which is easy to overlook. Thin skinned moderation is a disaster for forums. A real shame that Everybump has banned so many posters and then banned the remaining posters from discussing the ones that have disappeared or even from contacting each other. It shows how tough good forum management is. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

  9. Richard Parker was banned from EveryBump. Any mention of her being banned is deleted on the thread today. I can pass on a message to her if you like. Oops now the whole thread is gone!

    • I know! They did say that the neEB was supposed to be less moderated aswell over on the old boards. Miss the old boards, even though I was more a lurker.

      • Nueb is more, ban happy and opinion phobic

        Motherboard much more open, friendly and inclusive of ALL opinions

      • Me too I really miss old EB more than I thought I would. One of the concerns brought up on old EB about the new version was that EB was run by paid admin that were neutral. The new one was just regular users with sudden power. Thisnwas a recipe for disaster and well predicted. When it was mentioned, their moderators tore shreds off people and the owner private messaged users threatening them and abusing them for stating the obvious.
        That was a red flag itself but it then played out exactly like that. It’s a playground for those with ordinary lives without anything better to do (like take care of kids or work or something productive) that enjoy having the power of this lame online forum. It will be their greatest achievement in life and that’s sad that it’s all they have… I’m sure it won’t last. Then they might have to, I don’t know, get jobs or something??!!

  10. Hurrah, you quoted me! Thanks for writing this- I remember you posting on 9EB about wanting to write an article- good on you for getting it done and published. Closing 9EB really was a huge loss for so many women. I’m not allowed on the new EB anymore, because I invited posters from the new EB to participate in an additional forum that some wonderful women (also from 9EB) started. But I’m not too sad to go because I felt that the old spirit of robust debate had been lost…for a few reasons, and it’s all fine, really- just shows how much of a support that forum was. For some women, it was their only source of interaction with other mothers. I don’t think we can underestimate how important it is for women to be able to talk to one another.

    • Thanks Richard Parker! Yes there’s obviously been a lot of stuff going on on new EB in the last little while. I’m glad to find out about the new new forum.

    • Are you joking? Seriously there is something wrong with nuEB. You can feel it. Behind closed doors people are struggling with power.

      • Oh I don’t think they’re struggling as such more revelling in their new found power trips and loving every minute of it. Hitting the good old ban button at will and editing or removing posts for fun topped off with perusing through members private messages to each other….

        They’d be having a wonderful time. If only they were as successful in real life where it counts instead of a privately owned forum situation which can disappear as fast as it appeared taking their authority with it. Then what, for some of them I think their life would be over what else would they have to do if not overlording a bunch of randoms on the internet like it counts….

  11. Hi Kathryn, I’m so sorry your thread was removed from the other website. If you would like to post a new thread linking your wonderful article to the motherboard website I’m sure it will be warmly received.

  12. Lovely article, EB closing was a huge loss to so many of us, such a shame to lose over 20 years(!) worth of posts. I’m really disappointed in the direction EveryBump has gone – treating longstanding valuable members like trolls and shutting down debate. Thankful there is an alternative at Motherboard forum which is looking promising!

  13. Thanks for your lovely tribute to EB. I still miss it. I couldn’t handle the over moderation of nu EB though, as any questioning of a moderator decision was deleted, many whole threads were deleted, and members were banned for single supposed infractions without warning. It started to feel like 1984.
    I want to remember our history and am glad you do too.

    • You forgot the part where they edit posts so that they convey a different meaning but there is no “edited by mod” message in the post.
      So the posts show no sign of having been edited but those of us who saw them when they were posted know they were changed.

      • The above comment about editing posts was not posted by me – maybe a weird cyber glitch?
        I have never had a post edited on everybump and I still very much find it an interesting, informative and supportive place to be.
        Vicky (this is actually me, unlike the above comment that was misattributed to me)

        • Not a misattribution at our end – just another commenter who signed themselves Vicky, linked to a different email address. We don’t have the ability to establish the veracity of Vickies, as it were.

    • Incredibly interesting to read that some of the predictions made by members on old EB about new EB came true….and some people were really berated for saying so back then…
      I never bothered to join the new site after seeing the way the new team projected their power trip on old eb before it even officially closed. I have had a look and shocked to see people are actually paying for that drivel and some who are paying see some who had concerns over it… Funny how times changed seeing those who defended it to begin with leaving in droves and those against the idea for reasons that played out are now paying for the privilege…. It’s a strange world. Hate to be one of the ones to say I told you so but……

  14. This was really interesting. I love community forums. I’m really sorry to hear that this got shut down. More articles like this please Overland.

  15. From a historical perspective, EB is a significant social and cultural artifact, I can’t think of a better candidate for total archive by nla.gov.au (Australian Web Archive).

    Can i kindly ask people email the suggestion, EB forum should be considered for acquisition, to: select at nla.gov.au

    nla.gov.au/building-our-collections

  16. I second the suggestion that EB should be properly archived and will email a request also.

    Great article.

  17. Thank you for writing this article. I joined 9EB when I was pregnant with my first child- when the boards were still new and there were less than 1000 members. I watched society change through the eyes of women over the course of almost 20 years. The community of 9EB was my saviour when my marriage ended. Without that support, I don’t know how I would have survived. It was my sounding board, my place to vent, my access to the world, and the only place I found any sort of joy for a very long time. The humour, kindness and support this community of women had the ability to share wholeheartedly still warms my heart. 9EB members released me from being ‘stuck in limbo’ and I will always be grateful.

    I miss EB and probably always will. I am also grateful for the friendships I made that carried over into real life and I am grateful to have been part of the wonderful community that was.

    It’s a travesty that the boards weren’t archived. They were a valuable look into Australian society, world events and the changes that occurred through the eyes of women and that in itself should be important enough to preserve for posterity.

  18. Speaking of safe spaces disappearing… Thank you for this wonderful article. I’m even more grateful to have found out a few things and hope for the future in finding motherboard.

  19. Oh wow, I havent been active on EB for ages and just tried to log on- googled “what happened to the EB forums” and this came up.

    I was in the assisted conception groups for a few years and got some great advice from other members while undergoing IVF. The anonymity was comforting at a difficult time. It also helps me to reset my expectations that not everyone has a happy ending.

    I occasionally think of the the members Froyo’s story brought me to tears and I hope that she is doing well

  20. How just how can they justify deleting 20 years worth of history? There are posts I have referred back to for years & I hoped for many more. What the actual f? Who do I write to about this heinous crime?

  21. Bakesgirl I remember you and when your marriage broke up, i feel sad that EB single parents section of the forum especially closed down. It was a huge support to me when my marriage broke up too! You did not feel alone!

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