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

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Decisions, Decisions
Ideally, helping people to feel like they belong to a community will cause them to factor that community's interests into their daily decisions. But other considerations limit what this approach can accomplish. "When you look at where the environment ranks among reasons people take BART," Moore says, "it's not near the top. They choose BART because it's convenient, or it's cheaper than parking, or it fits with their schedule. Or they choose not to take it when it doesn't serve them at the times or places they need. These are things that we typically can't surmount, so a simple ‘take BART because of X' message is not really going to be effective."

As Moore points out, our lives are full of decisions in which environmental factors are outweighed by other concerns. In some cases, this balance can be readjusted simply by providing encouragement and better information; in others, the scale can be tipped with incentives. The study of how people make these calculations is a growing field with its own national conference: the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference (BECC), which just celebrated its third year (www.aceee.org/conf/09becc/09beccindex.htm). Sponsors include heavyweights from government, academia, and the utility industry, which is responsible for more than 40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The goal of researchers is to determine how energy consumption decisions are made and to encourage the development of programs that demonstrably influence demand. Drawing on such efforts, energy software company Efficiency 2.0 (www.efficiency20.com) identifies four main elements of an effective strategy to motivate behavioral change: personalization (suggested actions tailored to the user's specific situation), commitment (pledging to a specific goal), social pressure (knowing that others are also taking action), and feedback (telling people how they are doing). Research cited by the company indicates that effective behavior-based programs can achieve sustained consumption reductions in the range of 15%.

Efficiency 2.0 is part of an emerging sector in enviro-tech that is devoted to providing energy users with actionable information. Some are marketing user-facing "energy dashboard" hardware such as TED from Energy, Inc. (www.theenergydetective.com). Others, including Efficiency 2.0 as well as OPOWER (www.opower.com) and Google, take information gathered by utility-installed "smart meters" and hand it back to customers in a user-friendly form.

Several such systems are or will be designed to incorporate social media for feedback and social pressure. Referring to Google PowerMeter (www.google.org/ powermeter), which is currently being tested by 10 utilities around the world, Google spokesperson Jamie Yood says, "We've seen that making the product more social will drive people to save more energy and money. People are driven to save more when comparing their usage with others who have similar-sized homes."

Social media such as blogs and Facebook are well-suited as platforms through which to harness this competitive streak. "Our social media tools help utility customers put their energy use in context-how they compare to their neighbors, to people with similar homes, or to their own past usage," says Andy Frank, Efficiency 2.0's executive VP of business development. "These tools work primarily through networks and groups that customers are assigned to or join. You can create competitions and showcase them with online leader boards, so neighborhoods or cities or companies can compete to see who can save the most energy."

While comparing and competing can help motivate behavioral change, sealing the deal typically means offering incentives that align self-interest with the greater good. In energy, for example, off-peak usage can be rewarded by lower off-peak rates. But that's only possible where smart-meter and smart-grid technologies are already deployed. And to fully exploit the advantages of social media for user feedback and social pressure, utilities will have to expend a lot of resources convincing customers to opt-in to electronic communication.

For now, Frank says, electronic interaction between utilities and users is "not even close to reaching a significant portion of the customer base. Where we need to go in the future is being able to communicate dynamically to people how they will benefit by taking an action such as turning off the air conditioner at a certain time. Once utilities can actually show their customers a real benefit, they will care a lot more about communicating better with those customers." Until then, social media's potential for influencing environmental choices will remain largely unrealized.


Companies Featured in This Article

Efficiency 2.0
www.efficiency20.com

Energy, Inc.
www.theenergydetective.com

Facebook
www.facebook.com

Google
www.google.com

OPOWER
www.opower.com

Twitter
www.twitter.com

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