Social networks - Green or not?

As we move into 2011 and look back on the past year, there is one website, perhaps more than any other, that has changed the way we communicate, express and portray ourselves: Facebook.

Though not the only social networking site around, Facebook is by far the biggest. According to data from Hitwise, which provides online competitive intelligence, 2010 saw Facebook top Google as the most visited website in the US for the first time, snapping up 8.93 per cent of all website views in the US between the months of January and November 2010.

Facebook- and social networking in general- allows users to reconnect and stay in touch with old friends and distant relatives, express themselves to a far larger audience and find like-minded people. Wide-reaching online platforms even enable individuals to forge a name for themselves in areas such as politics and charitable action through hard-hitting and imaginative viral campaigns.

Companies, too, have harnessed the power of social networking to build their brand, attract new business and communicate with their customers in ways they could never have done before.
However, most users don’t consider how such a service might impact the environment.

Indeed, they may even think that they are being ‘green’ by communicating and sharing online, rather than by paper. In addition, chatting online rather than face-to-face removes the costs and carbon emissions of travelling.

But this is not taking into account the effect of maintaining the service. In fact, information and communication technology contributes two per cent of global CO2 emissions – as much as the aviation industry.

Most social networks, including Facebook, use ‘cloud computing’, where your data is held in a ‘cloud’. Instead of being stored on your own computer, data is housed in, and shared from, giant server farms and data centres.

In the US alone, these data centres consume over $7 billion a year in electricity costs alone. By 2020, the ‘cloud’ that Facebook and other sites rely on could be eating up more electricity than France, Germany, Canada, and Brazil combined.

And it’s not just the amount of energy being used that matters, it’s the type of energy. Both of Facebook’s data centres currently source most of their power from the number one source of climate change: coal. Many other technology companies, including Microsoft and Apple, also run data centres that rely heavily on coal power.

While it is true that coal remains at the heart of energy production (half of all electricity generated in the US comes from coal-powered plants), the question that should be asked is this:
Shouldn’t these companies, at the pinnacle of modern technological development, be leading the pack towards greener, renewable energy?

If we are to tackle the technological and environmental challenges of the next decade, surely companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have an obligation to use their expertise, resources and knowledge to help society become sustainable.

Recycling Lives is amongst the growing number of companies using Facebook and Twitter to build our brand and engage people on environmental issues. However, we are concerned over the eco-credentials of these sites and hope they improve in the near future. If not, the millions of people who use these sites may well flock to greener alternatives before long. It may well be worth the social media sacrifice to make a difference to the environment.