Thoughts on online social networking, its carbon footprint and sustainability

Sebastian Greger

Always interested in discovering new motives for non-standard forms of technology use (or its non-use), I recently ran into an interesting argumentation that online communication may be harmful to the environment due to its use of electricity.

It all started when a friend of mine posted an update on Facebook, announcing that she would “take out the trash” from her GMail account in order to save energy:

Just realized that pointless emails stored in my Gmail (and Facebook etc.) account might have a carbon footprint too… Time for a clean up!

The message was linked to an article from the Guardian, quoting some French research on the topic. Indeed, and this doesn’t come as a surprise, using computers consumes energy - using them less uses less energy. This triggers the thought whether using energy for online social networking is ecologically sustainable behaviour? Are we slowly destroying the planet by pressing “Like” buttons on Facebook, one may wonder?

The complexity of calculating energy consumption

But as the discussion on the Guardian’s article - and on a related article on the sustainablity blog Treehugger - shows, this topic is very complex. The energy savings from not sending messages through physical mail, from not driving to the library to look up an article just one Google search away and from not having fax machines print received documents on paper are to be taken into account when estimating the net carbon footprint of an e-mail, a web search - or a Facebook status for that matter.

In a recent NYT article on Google’s first-time ever disclosure of their energy statistics, the company is quoted with the same arguments: Using Google’s services not only consumes but also helps to save energy. And, in their argumentation, the electricity used per user is very small when put in perspective:

Google says that people conduct over a billion searches a day and numerous other downloads and queries. But when it calculates that average energy consumption on the level of a typical user the amount is small, about 180 watt-hours a month, or the equivalent of running a 60-watt light bulb for three hours.

Then again, above calculation does not yet include the energy used by the computer, the modem, the ISP’s infrastructure etc. There is no easy way to reliably calculate the amount of energy used for a Google search or a Facebook post.

Why the topic is relevant for designers

In this context, I cannot leave unlinked an inspiring keynote by John Thackara, delievered in August 2011 to the new masters students at the design department of the Aalto University School of Art and Design in Helsinki.

In his talk, Thackara highlights that designers are in charge of coming up with solutions that really make a change for the better - of “creating design interventions that have an impact”. Also the energy consumption of computing is mentioned: All systems of modern life depend on large amounts of condensed energy and already today, the internet accounts for 5-10% of energy consumption worldwide.

I’m not qualified nor interested to make up a calculation about the energy impact of online social networking. But I do consider this an interesting topic from a designer’s perspective:

Regardless of the answer to the question whether deleting unnecessary e-mail or refraining from sending a pointless status update on Facebook really has a significant impact or not, this discussion shows that

  • there are users who may assess the value of a design based on its ecological impact, and that
  • the trade-off between the value of online interactions and their energy consumption might be worth considering, especially at global scale (one user’s deleted e-mails vs. 260 million GMail users).

Apart from my fascination with discovering what motivates people to use technology in ways that no designer had thought about, I totally admire my friend for being the only person I know who would be concerned about her inbox archive’s carbon footprint! And undeniably, even if online actions may not always have a worse footprint than their corresponding offline activity, if using computers uses energy, using them more efficiently uses less energy. _What do you think? Do you feel guilty about the energy used for that totally pointless tweet you sent out last night?_

PS: This blog has been hosted at an energy-efficient CO2-neutral data center, powered purely by renewable energy, since 2008!