Social media & sustainability - a great natural fit

CALL me new-fashioned, a slave to techno-popularism. In the space of a few weeks I’ve had my eyes opened to how social media - spearheaded by the relentless networking immediacy of Twitter, the mass market likeability of Facebook, and the picture-show power of You Tube – will be an absolute game-changer for sustainability.

(NOTE: This column was first published at WME Environmental Mangement News, an online service http://www.environmentalmanagementnews.net)

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ABOUT a month ago I started to tweet. Hello social media, goodbye sleep. Sure I stumble around LinkedIn, and most of my family does the Facebook thing, but Twitter is a social network made for an info-junkie. Now books are Himalayas, even paragraphs are long compared to a tweet, yet it’s amazing how much quality information can be packed into a sliver of opinion or news and a web-link. A full day’s tweet in-box is a virtual archipelago of leads, ideas, insights, wit, sarcasm, bias, counter-views, revelations and hard data. Across all social media sites, it’s now estimated there are 1.5 billion-plus visits a day globally. In Australia, the trend is propelling numbers, time spent and sheer volume of data traffic on the Internet, making the case for the NBN stronger by the day.

When they write the history of how we transformed to the new sustainable economy, I reckon the rapid rise of social media will be a big fat e-book. Social networks, communities online, have an amazing ability to begin life in the realm of trivia, then gather complexity and profundity as they evolve at pace. That’s happening before our eyes. People with big issues like the future of the planet are populating social networks with serious content, connecting up locally and globally, as businesses and brands vie with celebrities and public figures in the most dynamic forums on earth. Here, I believe, smart social change movements will prosper, intractable industries with ‘bad’ products or attitudes will struggle, and new brands genuinely helping a sustainable future will become much loved. I’m anticipating a myriad of productive social sub-networks of energy saving, biodiversity preservation, landscape restoration, greenwash exposure, eco-entrepreneurism, consumption reduction, community action, and much more - and many are happening already.

Yet when I told old journalist friends over dinner that I’d begun tweeting, they laughed derisorily. Who’d care about bite-sized insights into the mindless monotony of my life? All non-tweeps say much the same thing about the 140-characters max per message, micro-blogging format. I know because I was one of them. Nearly 15 million people like that horrible Canadian teen boy pop idol Justin Bieber on Facebook, and over 3 million follow vacuous ‘it girl’ Paris Hilton on Twitter. But it’s the many thousands following many hundreds of sustainability opinion-shapers and doers that I find more compelling. I try to tell my sceptical friends how I’ve seen a content-rich world that I can tap with my own tailored news feed 24/7, and narrowcast into whenever I want. There’s more information than I can ever keep up with on any given day, which is OK because when I miss stuff, I know the next day will bring a whole new overload.

When I was a cadet reporter on a country newspaper 30 years ago there was an old telex machine in the corner of the news room spewing out pre-selected text from around the country and the world, everything from the Dapto dogs racing results to the progressive amputation and slow death of Yugoslavian strongman General Tito. Now I design and select my own feed and get it on my laptop and my smart phone, and my iPad too if I give in to temptation and get one of those. With a sustainability commentator’s cap on, what I see is a vast communications realm where morals and money collide, where corporations, governments and civil society contest on a differently-tilted playing field, and where little if anything can be hidden. In short, I find it surprising, exciting, and rich with emerging opportunities, even if at last count I only have 215 followers.

While still a 1.0 new user in a 5.0 operating environment, more slow-adopter than geek, I’ve actually got some form on making bold predictions about transformative technologies. In 1994-95, I reported a documentary for ABC-TV current affairs flagship Four Corners arguing that this strange emerging thing called the Internet was going to be more important than the big new deal of that time, Pay-TV! Though only 16 years ago, that provoked some laughter too, because in Australia the obscure Internet ran ponderously on early dial-ups and the argument about commerce being allowed on the World Wide Web was just heating up internationally. Though I believe tech-savvy Malcolm Turnbull was already invested in early-mover Ozemail and on his way to making a fortune, the heights of the dot.com boom, bust, and boom again were all still years off. No-one had heard of Google because it didn’t exist, and social media was frequent journalists’ boozing sessions.

There’s nothing like new converts to immerse themselves, and that’s been my early social networking experience. My Twitter identity, @The_Wattwatcher, is meant to stay focused on the smart grid, and especially home and business networking of real time electricity data and consumer-side demand management solutions. Through lack of discipline, plus a severe case of information over-fascination, I haven’t been able to resist tapping into my broader sustainability interests and even my old passions for political chat and journalistic gossip. I already follow over 660 fellow tweeps around the world, including old friends and new contacts. I’ve begun exploring potential Twitter enabled collaborations. My micro-blogging output is hooked up automatically to my LinkedIn site. I’m in rising awe of some super users I’ve observed. And because I am still such a wide-eyed rank amateur in this social media domain, I’ve booked in as a freelancer for Media Alliance training courses to learn more.
That’s nice for Murray, you say, but what about his grand claim that social media is a game-changer for sustainability? One of the first tweeps I met is @FabianPattberg, a German sustainability commentator currently living in Greater London, who among other prolific social media output blogs for the new Guardian Sustainable Business site. We’ve emailed, even chatted by telephone, and I want to quote him: ‘Social media is now the key to the future if you as a business are talking about engaging your stakeholders, and for you as individuals to get your CSR/sustainability voice heard. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. are now a must for every organisation and individual. If your organisation has not really thought about using social media then you need to start now. Full stop!’
My own early observations only amplify Pattberg’s views. Social media has been credited with dramatically fanning BP’s public relations woes from this year’s Gulf of Mexico oil-spill nightmare, so ‘outrage magnification’ is a crucial business issue. News and views swirl around the world via social networks, bypassing traditional media filtering and mainstream advertising channels and side-stepping the best efforts of spin-doctors, so ‘issues management’ control in traditional terms is being lost. Social media is beguilingly open, yet can go rabidly viral. Business careers get cut short, like sacked Virgin Atlantic flight staff who’d bagged out passengers on social networking sites, or the PG&E executive who resigned this month, apparently after being caught out using a false identity to infiltrate an online group of consumers opposing the giant Californian power utility’s Smart Meter roll-out. Being tricky or contemptuous will be lethal for careers and companies, and how a business responds in real time is critical, as the informative recent case of Nestle and KitKats v Greenpeace and the orangutan’s mocked-up severed finger showed.

This unpredictable playing field is tilting towards activists and communities, and away from mega companies and governments. For starters, the combination of social networks and the proliferation of smart phones – roving transmitting devices with text, audio and pictures – and other gadgetry is a major security headache. Companies doing the heavy-lifting from the traditional economy like mining giants and big banks definitely struggle (I know, shock me). None of them come remotely close to Greenpeace International with about 680,000 liking it on Facebook, or Earth Hour with nearly 450,000. More ‘fun’ and ‘cool’ brands can do a lot better than more serious ones. Coca Cola has nearly 17 million liking it, Starbucks a similar number, Skittles candy 12.5 million, and Facebook itself 25.5 million out of over 500 million on its global network. Some consumer-facing heavy industry gets a look in, for example in the auto sector BMW has over 3 million liking it, but Holden only 104,000-odd and Toyota Australia around 52,000. As a broad observation, Australian businesses and social change groups alike have a long way to go to catch up with US leaders on social networking. Expect things to move quickly, however. There is much talk of brand-followers leaving old-paradigm company websites, and it’s a safe bet that vibrant social media is where they are headed.

There can be a very positive side for business. Businesses doing great stuff with their staff and customers can tap into serious ‘word of mouth’ approval spreading far and wide. Reporting can be constant and contemporaneous, as it must become anyway. They can also run their own market research and focus groups through direct engagement with customers, and build unique stakeholder and supporter followings, with ‘stickiness’ depending on the quality of offerings and execution. Clever marketing opportunities abound; like a Toyota Prius campaign in the US to find their biggest fan and award them by holding the breakthrough hybrid’s 10th anniversary celebration in their home community. While it seems that many people are lured to brand communities by promotional opportunities to get stuff for free (69.6%), its learning (78.6%) and advance notice on new products (76.1%) that are the biggest draw-cards. The numbers come from global advertising group Universal McCann and its defining social media tracking study, the Wave series. Starting in 2006 when social networking was in its infancy, they’ve just published Wave.5 headlined ‘The Socialisation of Brands’. Universal McCann says that ‘… social networking is causing the most fundamental shift in social behaviour seen since the invention of email’. The massive, rapid take-up of mobile phone-enabled social networking options is fanning the frequency and volume of traffic, also pushing the risks and opportunities for business ever higher.

The writing is on the screen. Causes, products and brands that will shape and build the new sustainable economy can do very well in this scenario, and replacing physically-consumptive experiences and activities with virtual ones is part of arriving at a low-footprint future. The conversation that will drive this transformation already is building strongly on the social networks, where quality of content is rising as well as quantity. Businesses without morals, or those that are faking them through disingenuous corporate social responsibility window-dressing, will be found out. Exposure will be brutally fast, or will build inexorably, but either way will end in tears. The capitalistic pursuit of profit will deliver change because being ‘bad’ will be priced out of the fishbowl market place. I better go tweet about it … but how do I say all that in 140 characters?

FOOTNOTE: My personal favourite among my own tweets thus far: Inspiring Indian women’s rights and climate action campaigner Dr. Vandana Shiva at the Sydney Opera House, saying ‘The war against the Earth begins in the minds of men, and I mean MEN’. I mucked up sending it live from my iPhone – clumsy fingers in the dark - and had to resend later. I’m learning all the time. And yes, I’ve seen the movie The Social Network.

Murray Hogarth is principal of sustainability strategy and communications consultancy the 3rd degree, advising mainly corporate and non-profit community group clients. As Senior Adviser to the Total Environment Centre’s business sustainability program Green Capital, he is currently working on a forum series called Money vs Morals: Can corporate social responsibility deliver sustainability? (Sydney November 23rd and Melbourne December 6th)