When UrbanTurf spoke to Jeff Steele, his website was down. That’s a problem.
“At times like this my job monitoring the site is 24/7,” Steele said while sitting in front of his computer, rebooting the site. “I’m not getting up until this is done.”
His urgency came courtesy of the wild popularity of DC Urban Moms and Dads (DCUM), a forum that many parents in DC (and beyond) visit obsessively for advice on everything from stroller brands to retirement plans. Steele’s wife Maria Sokurashvili and her friend Sharon Winick started DC Urban Moms and Dads as an informal new moms support group after meeting at a Sibley Hospital birthing class in 2001. Since then, DCUM has been through multiple evolutions, first as a mailing list and eventually as the anonymous forum it is today. Along the way, the site has become well-known, and at times notorious, for putting on display the best and worst qualities of a certain type of DC parent. We spoke to Steele about how far the site has come, what it takes to run it and whether the site’s users reflect DC’s parenting culture.
UrbanTurf: What was the intention behind creating DC Urban Moms and Dads, and how has it evolved?
Jeff Steele: Sharon and Maria were trying to arrange get-togethers for new moms. Originally they were just using regular email to arrange these things, and as the group grew that became more and more difficult. I helped build a mailing list for the group, and once people were on it they were using it for everything. It wasn’t just controversial topics that flooded peoples’ inboxes. The most problematic thing for us was that people were posting ads for their nannies. These nanny posts started to be 25 percent or more of the traffic, and we needed to find a way to control traffic on the lists, so we built the site.
No one expected it to grow like it did. We kind of woke up one day and realized the forums were really active. Everything that’s happened with the website is a surprise to me.
UrbanTurf: What’s the traffic to the site like?
Steele: In the last month we’ve had about a million unique visitors and 9 million page views.
UrbanTurf: And you’re in charge of all of it?
Steele: I’m the site’s only moderator. On December 31 of last year, I quit the last full-time job that I hope I ever have. Since then I’ve been doing the website full time. What that means is sometimes there are extremely busy times like today where the site’s down. Other times everything’s running and I just spend my time moderating spammers, inappropriate messages and moving messages posted in the wrong forum. That doesn’t take as much time.
UrbanTurf: Do you make money off the site?
Steele: I make my living off Google Ads.
UrbanTurf: Why is the site anonymous, and how do you think it affects what people talk about?
Steele: The forum initially required a login, but people didn’t like it and thought it was a roadblock to posting. We said, “Fine, we’ll remove that and let you post anonymously.” We didn’t start having anonymous posting because of some philosophical belief that it was better, but once we had it I became a real fan. It does take moderation. I would have a lot fewer headaches if the site weren’t anonymous. But there’s a huge advantage when you’re talking about personal issues, because people don’t want their names to be associated with details of their family life. They don’t want to be able to Google that forever.
As a consequence of the anonymity, the site is easy to troll and spam, and I uncover fake threads all the time. We have different ways of dealing with it, but the best way is the users; they report spammers and it’s much easier to moderate the site thanks to them.
UrbanTurf: The site has a great deal of useful conversations surrounding everything from pregnancy to education, but what would you say are the most-often discussed topics these days?
Steele: In terms of which specific thread, they tend to be kind of an oddball thing, not a general category. Users come with different interests — some are really interested in politics and they don’t care about parenting. Then you have somebody who might be interested in real estate and schools but they’ll never go to general parenting. We kind of have this transition where a lot of people find the site when they are pregnant and post in expectant moms, then migrate to general parenting once they have their child. The users who have been around since the mailing list — their kids, like mine, are old. My youngest is in high school now. The schools, real estate and relationship forums are really popular.
UrbanTurf: Earlier this year, there was a thread on DC Urban Moms from a couple that asked if they should be saving for retirement even though they would likely be getting a piece of a $50 million inheritance down the line. Do you think posts like this represent the type of city that DC has become?
Steele: I don’t remember that post specifically, and I can’t say I really know whether it’s reflective. I’m kind of in the school that still rolls their eyes when someone says making $250,000 a year is middle class; when I left graduate school, my first job paid $18,000 a year. I am routinely shocked by the amount of wealth that I see people talk about on the website. But I haven’t seen any trend showing it increasing.
UrbanTurf: DCUM isn’t the only site of its kind; New York City has its own infamous forum, UrbanBaby. What differentiates DCUM? Does it have any qualities that are particular to DC?
Steele: All these sites take on some kind of culture, some kind of personality. Ours reflects the original members, who continue to make up a bulk of our active members. They’re people from northwest DC and the close-in suburbs. They’re professional, well-educated, upper middle class and affluent people. Well-educated is key; the users tend to have this in common. There are people with great humors on the site, real good writers, people who know what they’re talking about when they write about a topic. It’s full of quality posts. Sure, we have plenty of lousy posts, but I think the quality posts outweigh the others by quite a bit, and this is a reflection of our user base.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/an_interview_with_the_owner_of_dc_urban_moms_and_dads/9248
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