Green Social Networks: It's Not Easy Being Green Alone

April 1, 2009

Environmentally conscious folks have been connecting online since the internet began. But in the last couple of years several green social networking sites (online communities, or sub-groups within broader social media services) have sprung up and focused efforts to connect. On these sites, conversation, coordination, resource-sharing, and collaboration are the main event. Some green social networks seem mainly to be marketing or educational campaigns — but they still involve collaborative and community elements.

But: Do green social networks actually increase coherence in the environmentalist community, or are they a distraction? Are they sincere or opportunistic? Can they be used for greenwashing?

All of the above. And because of this complexity, they're worth exploring — and even joining.

... Don't let the word "join" freak you out. Traditional journalists often are wary of "joining" a green social network because it might imply that you've personally adopted the ethos, agenda, or outlook of the community. But really, joining a social network is like showing up at a meeting to get to know people and hear what they have to say, or subscribing to a newsletter. It's not like becoming a paying member of Greenpeace. Joining a social network, like "friending" someone on Facebook or "following" someone on Twitter, merely means that you're choosing to pay attention to someone or engage them in conversation — and any good journalist cultivates effective connections with a variety of sources.

Over time, building a presence in the green social networks that are most relevant or complementary to your work can help you identify ahead-of-the-curve stories, angles, and sources; quickly identify resources; gain a richer sense of context; and expand the audience for and influence of your journalism.

The trick is to figure out which networks are most worth your time, and how to engage them. The best approach is to try them out gradually, and give them time. Don't expect an immediate payoff — social media is more like a garden than a vending machine.

First, invest 15 minutes for a cursory exploration and decide whether the general character of the community might be relevant or useful to you. Does it feel too substantial or shallow? Is the topical focus too broad or narrow? Is the user interface intuitive or confusing? Go with your gut — there are enough of these sites that you can afford to be intuitive. After you do a cursory exploration of a few, you'll start to get a feel for what might really suit you.

Then join just one or two of the most appealing green social networks to start. Sign up and create a basic profile for yourself — don't misrepresent yourself, but you don't necessarily have to reveal everything, either. For instance, if you fear being slammed with pitches, you need not immediately reveal that you are a journalist. Also, it's acceptable to use a "handle" (nickname) instead of your real name. Just expect that eventually it may come out who you are and who you work for — so keep that in mind and be willing to roll with that if it happens.

Bookmark the social networks you're trying out, and try to check in with them a couple of times daily. Get involved in discussions, try out their features and services. If you're unlikely to remember to visit them regularly, see if they offer any alert services (RSS feeds, e-mail, mobile applications) that might shift some of the burden for staying tuned in.

If you end up not liking a green social network, then either delete your account or simply stop visiting.

Here are a few examples of green social networks, showing a diversity of approaches and technologies:

  • Change.org: Focuses on helping people self-organize around a variety of progressive causes, including many environmental issues. This is one of the most popular green social networks, and it features a very active blog network. Incidentally, right now they're seeking to hire a new managing editor. Press.
  • Celsias: This site began as a blog, but recently expanded into a full-blown community site that helps its users organize around carbon-reducing projects.
  • ZeroFootprint: Focused mainly around carbon calculators and helping individuals or organizations track their carbon reductions. It offers a branded site for Toronto.
  • Carbonrally: This site focuses on engagement through competition. It's run by a startup company that is growing its youth-oriented community through partnerships with major brands such as Seventeen Magazine and eBay. It runs contests ("challenges") where participants join teams to compete to collectively reduce carbon emissions the most. Press: David Templeton, 203-483-7373.
  • Climate Culture: This site engages members through a gamelike immersive "virtual world" approach. Community members get avatars, weapons to shoot dastardly emissions molecules, and can interact Second Life-style. Like many social networking sites, it integrates with Facebook via the "Facebook Connect" service. Press.

Last April, Earth2tech offered a roundup of green social networks.

A fair amount of environment-oriented social networking also happens through green dating sites such as:

Not all environmentalists are enthused about green social networks. Eco-blogger Marguerite Manteau-Rao wrote: "Here is what I think is missing from all these sites. A lack of understanding of basic psychology, and of the way real people change their behaviors. I do not decide 'I want to be green', and ask for someone to whip me into shape. Actually, I may, but the truth is, that kind of intention is not sustainable. I do not need to add yet another thing on my already long to-do list. I want solutions to my everyday problems, as in more convenient, cheaper, smarter." Followup.