Tweeting to Save the Planet: The Role-And Limits-of Social Media in Environmental Solutions

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The Human Role
While using social media to request changes in commuting or consumption patterns can help, the consensus seems to be that this approach alone is unlikely to have significant impact. To Bruce Nordman, a researcher in the energy analysis department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. (http://eetd.lbl.gov/EAP), the concept's main limitation is that it relies too heavily on human intervention.

"I think this sort of thing needs to be done only occasionally, like a Spare the Air day," Nordman says. "For the other 99% of the time, we need things to be automatic. I really don't think people want to spend a lot of time worrying about or monitoring their energy use-they want to express preferences and have things work better. So my main work is on getting things to go to sleep or otherwise reduce power when being used lightly or not at all."

Others believe that individuals will, given the right circumstances, take a more active role but that the conditions allowing that to happen aren't yet in place. The first hurdle is getting enough participation to have an impact. BAAQMD started using Twitter in May 2009, and as of early December, it only had about 900 direct followers in a metropolitan area with a population of nearly 7 million. As for the EPA, the main EPA Twitter account (http://twitter.com/epagov) has nearly 5,200 followers nationwide, while the account associated with the agency's Greenversations blog (http://blog.epa.gov/blog) has about 7,500 followers. The population of the U.S. is more than 300 million.

Needless to say, it would take a huge increase in the number of participants for environment-related social networks to have much direct impact on, for example, tomorrow morning's commute. It's not surprising, then, that the emphasis of many people who are involved in shaping the existing initiatives has been on influencing behavior over the long term through community building rather than simply telling people what to do at key moments. The effort involves a range of tools, including social media, which are deployed as part of an overall strategy of engagement.

The EPA, for example, has a nine-person team devoted to websites, blogs, RSS feeds, and other related media, including the main Twitter account, which passes along notices of "town hall" discussions and information about environment-related research and policy. The organization's Greenversations blog, meanwhile, handles "general engagement: trying to get the public to talk to each other and talk to us," says Jeffrey Levy, director of web communications. "This week's question of the week is ‘What are you doing to use less energy this holiday season?'"

Other EPA blogs are defined by specific issues. "We use blogging as a platform to conduct online discussions with the public, where anybody can come in and leave their comments and thoughts," Levy says. "For example, our enforcement folks just ran a discussion where the public was invited to help choose enforcement priorities, and another where they were invited to answer specific questions related to an action plan for the Clean Water Act."

In assessing the utility of a given medium for a given purpose, Levy says, "You always start with your mission-what's your intent-and then pick the tools that are relevant to that. And you choose from all your tools, not just online tools or social media tools." If a new medium is right for the job, Levy says, "sometimes it's a matter of building a following. We don't have staff to cover all the social media sites, so we have to start somewhere. We pick a few that seem to be popular, and we try them for a while. We're trying one or so in each of the major categories, including things like YouTube for video sharing and Flicker for photo sharing."

A heterogeneous approach to media use is also the rule at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the mass transit system that spans much of the San Francisco metropolitan area. Website manager Timothy Moore describes BART's strategy as "be where your customers are." To make it easier for potential users to take advantage of mass transit, the agency makes open format data available for integration into company intranets and mobile device apps. Schedules, fares, and other data are provided in the Google Transit Feed Specification, while real-time arrival information is available as a continuously updated XML file from a BART URL. For service advisories and announcements, both RSS and Twitter are employed, as is a Facebook page with nearly 8,000 fans.

Moore's colleague, senior web producer Melissa Jordan, says Twitter is used not only for "service-oriented practical information" but also for "community-building fun." Users tweet about anything from snow on nearby peaks (a rare sight in the area) to needing a ride from their destination station, creating a kind of informal carpooling system. Tweets about amusing or interesting "seen and heard on BART" experiences are retweeted by Jordan. Even Spare the Air days are typically handled by retweeting customer advice rather than generating a BART advisory. "It's much more authentic when your customers speak on your behalf," Moore explains. Overall, the idea is to help keep the transit option "top of mind" by supporting riders' self-identification as part of the riding community.

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