Net Activists: How Social Media Can Create Social Change

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Joining an energy conservation Facebook group and then smugly dusting off your hands—Well, that's settled!—is not social activism. Social media makes it increasingly easy to look environmentally responsible, for both individuals and companies, but a panel convened last night at the Green:Net conference to discuss how Internet sites can actually galvanize us to get out and do something.

Overall, the spirit on the Green Web Effect panel was bullish that we're not just push-button activists. "It all comes down to the right info in the right form at the right moment," says Dara O'Rourke, CEO of GoodGuide, a Web service that rates products based on the sustainability and safety of their ingredients. "We have to give people information that resonates." In the future, O'Rourke says, GoodGuide will use cell phone GPS systems to track the stores you frequent (with your consent, natch). O'Rourke says that you will be able to walk into the supermarket and get instant shopping advice based on the contents of the store. Information can't resonate much more than that.

But information isn't enough to motivate the masses. "People need to know, 'What's in it for me?'," says Erin Carlson, director of Yahoo! for Good. That means focusing on money and time-saving endeavors and optimistic innovations. No one, Carlson says, responds well to doom and gloom.

It's also important to emphasize long-term solutions. Ron Dembo, founder and CEO of Zerofootprint points out that this Saturday's Earth Hour is a great example of getting millions of people together for an instant—but nothing more. "There's no sticking power," he says. 

There were no magic bullets about how the Internet can instigate social change, but all the panelists hammered home the idea that social networks and Websites have to focus on relevant, positive, local solutions. Because all of us respond best when we know what's in it for us.

Related: Green:Net 2009 coverage; Toxic Yogurt? GoodGuide Rechannels Your Food Rage

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