When weighing the good and bad technology has brought us, here's one to add to the plus column: mommy blogs.
The cutesy name is deceptive. These online diaries reveal the messy reality of raising children American-style -- which has been relatively isolated in each family home. But these web writers chronicling the ups and downs of parenthood have fashioned community support for millions.
Starting small in the late 1990s, the mommy-blog phenomenon has exploded to about 4 million writers in North America, according to online marketers, and many times more readers. One of the most popular writers, Heather Armstrong of Dooce.com, has over a million followers on Twitter. Mommy blogs have multiplied so rapidly that parent website Babble.com expanded its annual Top 50 ranking last year to the Top 100 Mom Blogs. The 2012 list came out last week.
Of course, the profit motive being what it is, companies with products to sell began wooing the bloggers a half-dozen years ago. Disney, Walmart and Procter & Gamble, among others, recognized them as "influencers" of buying decisions. And lately, they've been attracting political attention as well.
In August, seeking re-election, President Barack Obama opened an annual female blogger conference in New York City live by videoconference. Last month, the premier of British Columbia, Canada, Christy Clark -- who is polling badly among female voters -- invited blogging moms to her Vancouver office for a chat.
Overtly courting women's votes dates back at least to the soccer moms -- married, middle-class suburban women with school-age children -- in the 1996 American presidential campaign. Women have cast between 4 million and 7 million more votes than men in recent elections, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. And this year, for the first time since the Gallup Organization began keeping this sort of record in 1952, the candidate that men overwhelmingly preferred lost.
So, are mom bloggers exercising political power? As it turns out, they don't blog about much that you'd call political. They're generally not endorsing candidates or advocating for legislation. Instead, their topics are often mundane -- recipes, shopping, cute things the kids did, pets, frustrations -- and also personal: depression, sex, drinking, rage, boredom, self-doubt.
Catherine Connors wrote on her top mommy blog, HerBadMother.com: "I am a bad mother according to many of the measurements established by the popular Western understanding of what constitutes a good mother. I use disposable diapers. I let my children watch more television than I'd ever publicly admit. I let them have cookies for breakfast. . . . I have thought that perhaps I am not at all cut out for this motherhood thing."
She goes on to reject the idea of a "community consensus" about what makes for a good mother. In the 50-plus years that child care experts have been judging whether mothers are good enough based on employment, sleeping arrangements, grocery choices, self-abnegation and 1,001 other criteria -- having mothers confess who they are and receive the acceptance of a vast online community may be among the more political acts of our time.
Perhaps if we can get past the artificial barriers of who's a good-enough mom -- call a cease-fire in the so-called Mommy Wars -- we could begin to act collectively and exercise some real political power. We could harness those millions of readers to advocate against cuts to child care subsidies and in favor of paid leave to care for infants.
The Internet has given mothers this platform. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.