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)