Peer pressure. It's back, it's social, and it's being used to get you to go green.
That is, at least, the idea behind a new app for Facebook. Released by the company Opower, in cooperation with energy conservation advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the app intends to encourage users to use Facebook to share their energy use with their Friends. Right now the app works with 20 million households served by 16 utilities in California, New York, and elsewhere.
It's a new app but not a new idea, of course. Developers have been talking up the possible social benefits of "gamification" and the like for a couple of years now. In fact, the US Department of Energy announced its first ever Apps for Energy competition this week, offering a prize of $100,000 to be split among winners. As described on Energy.gov:
Apps for Energy leverages Green Button -- an open standard for sharing electricity usage information. For the competition, developers will mash-up Green Button data with other public data sources to create innovative, energy-focused apps (visit our developer page for a list of resources). Submissions can be any kind of software application broadly available to the public -- including apps for the web, personal computers, and mobile devices.
There's no denying that the technology we have available today, combined with the immense amount of data people are generating on a regular basis, can and should produce apps and solutions to help individuals make smarter choices when it comes to energy use. But overall, I think there's only so much weight developers, including those at Opower, should lend to social. The "power of social," as we love to call it, is often more myth than reality when it comes to stepping up for the betterment of society. (Conversely, the "power of social" is excellent when it comes to stepping up to send something like the "Ridiculously Photogenic Guy" meme viral. So it goes.)
Indeed, the success of the Opower app in particular will depend on a couple of factors:
The first factor is privacy. Yes, it's true that when we're talking about Facebook, it seems that most people know not what it is to "overshare" or want privacy at all. But spewing one's brain vomit and sharing one's energy use/consumption and spend on electricity are different things. Further, with everyone from insurance companies to employers scouring people's Facebook profiles (and, now, asking for direct access to their accounts) for incriminating information to use against them, perhaps individuals will begin to realize they don't want to load the social Web with information about their household energy use, and the like.
Second, for something like this to work, people have to care enough to bother to use it. They have to want to beat their Friends so badly that they're willing to change their energy use patterns. That seems more like a pipedream than reality. As someone said in a comment on NYTimes.com about the app: "Do they really think that getting an update that Rick pulled ahead of me this week in energy efficiency is going to encourage me to insulate the attic?"
For most people, probably not. Still, hurdles aside, this is, at least, a better effort than getting people to grow virtual farms on Facebook, green as those may be.
It's all about the implementation. Who knew Draw Something and Words with Friends would be such a hit. Maybe the creators. But all it takes is a little creativity nowadays and anything can go viral... fast. So if we put the same effort into figuring out the critical aspects of a movement and making it fun with a twist, it can succeed.. BIG TIME!
That's true, pcharles. I see people get very competitive over things like Words With Friends. If we could transfer that competitive spirit to apps that brought about real-world change that would be great. But that doesn't seem to happen.
I think more than monetary gain, the competitive edge among peers is always a big motivator. Look at the consumption of free games online and mobile phones. No one wins $$ but they get to brag about beating friends and colleagues at something.
@Nicole: That is a good question. I think all transactional data for apps actually belongs to fb. Atleast, in principle they hold onto it on their servers and the consumers can only access it on a need basis.
I am not sure what happens when a consumer terminates her account. Does all the data pertaining to apps associated with the userid go away with the account termination?
@mhhfive, That's just the thing though. You're absolutely right. If a green app could catch on the way one of these game apps tends to do -- whether Draw Something, WWF, or Angry Birds -- then we'd really be talking! Why is it, I wonder, that no developer has cracked the nut on connecting what it is that makes those apps so successful to a purpose that serves the world better?
If an energy conservation app can become as popular as playing Draw Something or Words with Friends... then I think there could be significant impact. The trick, of course, is getting energy conservation to be as fun as Draw Something... If random people can solve protein folding problems better than PhD biologists, it's not crazy to think that there might be some energy conservation solution out there that could be crowdsourced and created collaboratively via a mobile app....?
@syedzunair and Mary: I think you're both right. People are more likely to take some action if they feel the pressure brought by others, (or if it's mandatory to do so). To that first point, then, the idea behind this Facebook app is the right one. But whether that data belongs on Facebook is, I think, the question we should be considering.
I agree with you Mary. Sometimes, only a mandatory activity will change individual attitude. And I believe recycling or going green is one of those things.
Most often than not we compare ourselves with others. For example, our friends and our neighbours. In order to justify a purchase or an action we try to find a way out. Usually that way is provided by someone else who does a similar action or purchase.
Human nature is to compete and I think we can't help it. However, when it comes to the greater good people will usually require a law to act.
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