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Born in the Bay Area: The Original Social Network

Now 20 years old, Berkeley Parents Network is still the go-to online resource for Bay Area moms and dads.

It’s hard to imagine a world where you couldn’t just Google elementary schools in your neighborhood or pose a parenting question to friends on Facebook. But that was the reality 20 years ago in 1993 when Ginger Ogle, the creator of Berkeley Parents Network, was studying for her master’s degree in computer science at UC Berkeley.

Barely anyone had a home computer, let alone Internet access. So when she began a simple email list consisting of other graduate students in her department, she never envisioned the list morphing into an online resource for parents throughout the Bay Area with more than 32,000 subscribers.

“I started it because I was trying to connect with other parents in my department,” says Ogle, who at the time had two young sons.

The email list was originally used to create a maternity leave program to make sure graduate students wouldn’t lose their assistant teaching positions when they became pregnant, but shortly it was used to drum up support for adding changing tables in the restrooms in Soda Hall during a remodeling project.

From there the newsletter easily evolved into an information-sharing resource for Cal students with children. Before Ogle knew it, student parents were asking for advice on schools, breastfeeding, and potty training. The list was growing and Ogle used her skills as a programmer to build out the LISTSERV and website.

As demand grew and word spread on campus Ogle opened up the list to UC staff, then to all Cal students. It is now open to anyone in the East Bay with children (some members do live in San Francisco). While BPN (as it is known to locals) is still hosted by a UC server and was started by a Cal student, it is not affiliated with the university.

Twenty years since Ogle started her email list, which is still in its pre-Internet graphics format, Berkeley Parents Network distributes eight newsletters a week, each with its own focus from childcare to parenting advice to a general recommendations newsletter that offers user-
generated tips on best professionals to hire for everything from pediatrics to gardening. There are 10 volunteers who help moderate and distribute the newsletters, using a code written by Ogle that filters in postings into a newsletter format. It has even made it to a No. 2 ranking on Babble’s best LISTSERVs on the West Coast.

Along with the newsletter, there is a website with archived newsletters and hot topics that are a treasure trove of information for any parent.

“The advice newsletters tend to get the most replies and get the most interactions with readers,” Ogle says, adding that in the beginning she sometimes posed her parenting dilemmas to get a dialogue going. Ogle is certain that the anonymity of the postings also helps parents get over the embarrassment of asking for advice
on sensitive parenting topics and 
personal issues.

Has anything changed in 20 years?

 “We have a lot more dads on the list than we did have 10 to 15 years ago and their input is just great,” says Ogle.

Over the years there have been tons of hot topics, from breastfeeding to circumcision. But, oddly enough, the most popular topic is toenail fungus.

Currently Ogle and her volunteer staff are working on gaining nonprofit status, so the website and newsletters can be around for 20 more years. “We need a way to pay someone when I retire,” says Olge, who juggles maintaining BPN with her job as a database research programmer at UC Berkeley.  While someone one day might want to update the look of the website, the support and nonjudgmental nature of BPN will always remain the same,
Ogle says.

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