"There's more to the web than internet trolls"
When Louise Mensch joined Twitter, she alarmed Conservative Party HQ with her candid tweets and her no-holds-barred approach. Now the Tory MP is launching her own social media site, Menshn. To celebrate Mumsnet Bloggers' first birthday, we asked Louise to reveal how she juggles motherhood and politics, how Twitter works in women's favour and why she's not put off by internet trolls.
I've always loved social media. And I've always loved politics. Some say they are two sides of the same bear-pit, a lot of undeveloped male egos yelling at each other in a crowded room. What could either world have to offer a well-rounded woman?
I think it's vital that women reject the sexist idea that because a world is male-dominated, we shouldn't challenge it. When I decided to stand for the Conservative party, the odds were stacked against me, or any woman. Even though we'd had the only woman PM, our parliamentary party was 91% white and male. David Cameron promised to do something about it, and I believed him. I also believed that, with his own family including a wife with a high-profile career, he meant what he said about flexible working and he’d enable me to stand for office while looking after three children. In all honesty, I have felt it very challenging, despite the rewards, because my children do come first. There are no Saturday morning fête openings for me. But each woman is different, and the new parliamentary intake is full of bright women who’re making a mark in previously male and pale party.
For me, some of that mark has been made through social media. I love it, live it, and believe in it. I turned 41 last week and I’ve been talking the hind legs off the internet donkey since the days of dial-up and the old AOL chat rooms. Trolls on the net get all the attention - particularly in my case - but we often forget that most people on Facebook, Twitter, Mumsnet and others are interesting and engaging. Where else can you interact with hundreds of new people per day?
Social media is a great leveller. You can challenge the famous, the powerful and the controversial directly. Twitter has been a revelation to me; I'm only a new backbencher but am hitting 60,000 followers there now. It challenges journalism's filter. I might not like the way I’m portrayed in an interview, but on Twitter, nobody shades what I say. For politicians, you can campaign or make headline news on an issue solely through the net. I did so through Twitter on the issue of the BBC's non-coverage of the massacre of the Fogel family in Israel, where a four year old had his throat slit as he read in bed and a three month old baby girl was decapitated in her cot.
Indeed, where women congregate on the net, the quality of the discourse is often very high. Pinterest is an explosively growing female-dominated network. Mumsnet is so powerful that it’s feared by male politicians of all parties. I dropped blogging, on Conservative Home and elsewhere, in favour of Twitter, as I love the conversation. I tend not to moderate what I say, which causes some disquiet at party HQ, but I think inauthenticity in politicians - the pretence that we’re sanitised robots not like everyone else- is one reason we are no longer trusted.
I started writing novels because I loved retro-eighties blockbusters, and I started Menshn because I love social media. Twenty years ago my husband Peter said to me, "Do what you love, and you'll be good at it." This is something I've always tried to live up to. Luke and I thought there was a niche, not to compete with Twitter, but to complement the idea of chat around a given topic. On Twitter you follow anything your friends say; on menshn you talk about a favourite topic (and you can create your own rooms). We are a small community but with strong chat in our rooms and I love the conversation. Luke says, "if Twitter is microblogging, Menshn is microforuming" and I think that’s right. It was a thrill beyond measure for me when Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, joined up to menshn.
Ah, I hear you say, but how can you found a microforum site when you once advocated Twitter should be shut down in riots? Well, there's the peril of social media: everything stays in stone forever. Although I retracted that quote a year ago and have eaten humble pie, it will still haunt me forever. I was wrong. I love Twitter.
Women should love tech and not fear getting involved. Women who’re trying to balance careers around kids often found small businesses; take up writing; start websites. Martha Lane Fox of lastminute.com is a heroine to a lot of us. I think any woman can make it online. Social networks are a blank piece of paper where the currency is words - and women are often far more verbal than men.
So why not? I hope to see you on menshn in our women's room. Mumsnet let me file this blog late, because it was Sports Day and I had to clear the calendar. That’s a prime example of social media fitting in around women's lives. Never mind the trolls - this is a tool we can all use.