Environment 2.0

For the techies, technophobes and everyone in between, we’ve gathered a few shining examples of how Web 2.0 can enhance environmental discourse—from spreading awareness to inspiring action.

BY EMILY GERTZ

Joshua Levy, the online campaign manager for media reform group Free Press, describes himself as a “writer, editor, filmmaker and Web strategist exploring the intersections of technology, politics and activism.” A former boss describes him as “one of the most insightful thinkers on the topic of improving government and politics in an interconnected age.” During the 2008 presidential election, major mainstream news outlets referenced Levy’s commentaries, published at techPresident.com, on how the campaigns were using social networking. Levy answered his phone for this interview during his lakeside vacation in Vermont. When we expressed surprise that he’d picked up, he said, “We’re never completely disconnected, are we?”

What trends in social media are you seeing right now in the environmental field?

Two or three years ago, if you called in a social media strategist to advise your organization, they would say, “Well, try 10 of these services.” That got really annoying really quickly. What’s happening now is people are tending to focus in on Twitter and Facebook, and maybe MySpace in some cases, and some other sites depending on the organization. When it comes to environmental stuff, that’s definitely what I’ve been seeing. … They’re trying to build numbers on those communities. But more than that, they’re really drawing people in on the activism that’s going on, and getting people involved and engaged.

Why do you think certain social networking services are emerging as the leaders?

Social networking trends change so quickly and the landscape changes so quickly … so people have learned from the spaghetti-on-the-wall approach: They see that it’s a lot of investment of time and not a lot of return. They understand that to get the most bang for your buck, [you must] drill down with a couple of core services.

That suggests the human element is still key, that there needs to be someone who’s analyzing what works and what doesn’t.

Absolutely. The human element is the thing that makes all of these services tick. Without it, they don’t work. You can set up a Facebook fan page, and automate a feed into it, and not keep it up at all, and it’s going to grow very, very slowly, if at all.But if you have a human being there, selectively choosing which articles—either from their organization or outside the organization—to post and link to and highlight, that shows a curatorial nature that people are more interested in and more likely to follow.

Greenpeace floats really interesting stuff. It’s not just press releases; it’s stuff from around the Web that relates to the issues they’re working on. For that reason, it’s similar to reading someone’s blog: You read it for their particular editorial perspective. The more successful people are learning how to do that. And also, they’re learning how to engage with individuals as activists. One thing I’ve been doing at Free Press is reaching out to the most active people—members of our [Facebook] fan pages who comment the most, who “like” the most posts. I reach out to them to spread the word on our campaigns. So, people have learned to utilize the network, as the capital-N network has matured.

In some circles, there’s a belief that faceless communication is a problem. How do you respond to the social media cynics?

I think any environmental organization of any reasonable size has an e-mail list. Each organization is better or worse at cultivating names and generating action with those lists.But those e-mail lists, which are basically Web .05 as far as the technology is concerned, to me, are the most nameless, faceless aspect of online advocacy. It’s the dinosaur of online advocacy, and it’s the one most likely to be thrown out the window these days.People are not innovating with e-mail. They’re innovating elsewhere, in spaces that are much more personal, and that are full of unique, interesting and undiscovered ways to connect to individual activists—to figure out what those specific people are interested in and how they can use those specific skills to help.

What’s the take-home message, then?

I think the smartest advocacy groups across the board—not just in the environmental movement—are those who understand that Facebook is not a mass medium at all. It’s not a place where nameless, faceless people come to join your cause.It’s the opposite: It’s a place where individuals … are coming on board. The smart people are figuring out how to bring those people on in new ways. Rather than just engaging them in “clicktivism,” they’re finding out other ways to get those people to volunteer, or to get them to help crowdsource campaigns or engage in offline activities.It’s really encouraging that social media are being used this way. And I think we’re really at the tip of the iceberg.


EMILY GERTZ is a journalist, editor and professional blogger who lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has covered environment, technology and science issues for Dwell, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, Grist, Worldchanging and more.

Tracking Disease in Real-Time

Flu Trends

In late 2008, Google launched the Flu Trends Web site, a component of their Labs program. Available in English and Spanish, the site skims Google search data for patterns that indicate geographic concentrations of the flu-struck. The site displays what it finds in maps and graphs, which provide a snapshot of up-to-the-minute influenza activity around the world.

As Google notes on the site, “We’ve found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity.” So, if a high volume of people in Queensland, Australia or Queens, N.Y., suddenly begin performing searches on terms like “flu symptoms,” “vomiting” or “body aches,” Google can infer that a flu outbreak is occurring in those locations. Of course, not everyone who searches for “flu” has the bug, but taken together, Google search data on flu terms almost perfectly matches the data on actual incidents of flu from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While this methodology is solid enough to merit publication in the journal Nature, there is a hitch: This type of surveillance works well only if the particular disease hasn’t made it into the news. Once word got out about the H1N1 outbreak in Mexico in April 2009, people without any flu symptoms started to do flu-based Google queries, totally skewing the Flu Trends results.