And so, this week, I’m once again thinking about nature. Human nature, this time (as opposed to hydrozoan) about which I ponder a LOT.

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago, while searching for ways to dissuade a local tomcat from terrorizing our kitties, I stumbled upon the virtual behemoth that is Mumsnet. In the event, the advice proved unnecessary, because the tom has disappeared from our garden. Oh, but Mumsnet itself was a garden of delights.

I’m too old for Mumsnet to be useful to me, obviously. Back when my children were small, the concept of an interactive website was still very much in its infancy. Not to everyone, perhaps, but certainly to me, isolated as I was in my little work-cubby under the stairs. I can report with complete accuracy that I got online as late as 1999, and can do so because one of the first lines of my second novel was the (not) timeless “my story starts with a modem”. How quaint is that? Even the word sounds old-fashioned now.

Anyway, the main point is that I am not a mother of that vintage. If I had a maternal/family/relationship problem that needed solving, I would tend to discuss it at the school gate. Or, better still, at any one of a number of fellow mums’ kitchens – over tea or wine, dependent upon hour and/or degree of stress. And if I had an issue that required something more learned or academic, I simply reached for Miriam Stoppard. As one did.

For me, then, the whole Mumsnet-subscriber-as-advice-dispenser concept feels novel. But while I wait to be inducted into the Gransnet fraternity, it is one thing at least – a guilty pleasure.

Have you dabbled? Proceed with caution. It’s terribly distracting. Specially (I know, I should have paid more attention) if you inadvertently sign up for their daily email newsletter. But what psychological riches are to be found therein!

And chief among the gems is an almost Jeremy-Kylesque forum, which goes by the handle ‘AIBU’. (Mumsnet loves shorthand for words common to most of us – DD, DS, DP, and so on, are the Mumsnet equivalent of picking up a poem by Donne, say, or Tennyson, and finding yourself in a linguistically different universe.)

AIBU, if you haven’t already guessed it, is shorthand for ‘Am I Being Unreasonable?’, a question we must all ask ourselves repeatedly over a lifetime, with the peak period, I reckon, given the thread’s popularity, being the one in which motherhood combines with work combines with fractious wider family relationships, and needs various and multitudinous have to be reconciled. (As opposed to the bit I’m in now, where the wisdom of decades has made ‘whatever makes you happy’ my blood-pressure-friendly family go-to.)

Anyway, back to the business of AIBU?, which, when followed by ‘to….’, is the digital portal to a densely populated and excitable community. Here, the poser of such thorny questions can access the fabled ‘wisdom of crowds’. And I do mean crowds, recorded views often topping five figures, and, often, several hundred responses. Some are short, as you’d expect. Just as simple YABU or YANBU. Ah, but others – and here the joy lies – do vicarious fury with all the commitment of – well, hmmm, let me see. Oh yes. Of stuck-at-home with little ones, often on-the-laptop mothers, presumably re-channeling all the energies they’d have once applied to arranging a PTA bring and buy sale.

And, since these tend to be issues of the multi-viewpoint, emotionally complex, walk a mile-in-my-shoes variety (AIBU to be absolutely furious with my MIL vis-à-vis my wedding guest list? AIBU to expect my teacher sister to ask for time of in term time for my wedding in Crete? ) the responses, though invariably as diverse as the posters, seem to share some basic attributes – Impassioned. Indignant. Highly emotional. Verbose.

And what strikes me, as I scroll, sipping tea, taking a work-break, is how the wisdom of crowds so often doesn’t confer wisdom, just muddies the already murky, fast-flowing waters of problems that, if you don’t know the wider emotional landscape, aren’t readily identifiable as black or white.

And time. So much time. So many people, spending time. Sitting at their keyboards. Busy pontificating. Alone.

And I wonder. Is this time really well spent? Wouldn’t all of us, when life throws up complex personal problems, be best served by the wisdom of a Bel Mooney? A Mariella Frostrup? The late, great Claire Rayner? Or by actually sitting down and TALKING to the people involved?

Or AIBU about human nature?


First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine, 14th May 2016

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