Social Media and the Environment

[first posted by Alice on 2/8/2011]

Recently, the people at Facebook told us that over the New Year’s weekend alone, its users uploaded 750 million photos. If you had any doubts about the importance of social media in people’s lives, this little statistic says a lot. But in its “unfriend coal” campaign Greenpeace continues to put pressure on Facebook to cut its dependence on coal-powered electricity for its data centers. This is in reaction to the social media giant’s decision to use electricity from PacificCorp, an energy company which makes 2/3 of its power from coal. Facebook says its data center is extremely energy-efficient and says it wants to focus on how much energy it uses rather than the way the energy is produced. But Greenpeace blogger Jodie Van Horn explained why this isn’t good enough for Greenpeace: “A highly efficient data center powered by coal destroys the planet, it just does so more slowly than one lacking in state-of-the-art efficiencies.”

Greenpeace’s Facebook campaign is a high-profile way of pointing to the fact that what’s on the web isn’t free of environmental impact, even if you can’t see digital media polluting the air or ripping down rainforests. Vast server farms do exist and use huge amounts of energy, most of it from nonrenewable sources.  In addition, Greenpeace says that by 2020, at current growth rates, data centers and telecommunication networks will consume as much energy as France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

Social media and the web are obviously here to stay, but Greenpeace reminds us that we must pay attention to the environmental consequences of the digital media technologies we use, particularly as they continue to grow.

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