Thumbs Up: Dissecting the Unfriend Coal Campaign

Thumbs Up: Dissecting the Unfriend Coal Campaign

It’s all—or at least a real whole lot—about awareness. Up until Greenpeace International launched its innovative “Unfriend Coal” campaign 20 months ago, Facebook, while feeling green for its laudable efforts to make its buildings energy efficient, had never really paid attention to the source of the energy used to power its data centers. Today, the social media giant is not only quite well aware of the issue, but is committed to promoting environmentally friendly energy and making the public aware of the energy impact of their online lives. We asked Tzeporah Berman, co-director of Greenpeace’s international climate and energy program (and a member of Climate Access), to explain the campaign’s winning strategy.

“One of the problems with working on climate change is that it’s invisible, something that’s far away—‘it doesn’t have anything to do with me other than whether I walk to work or drive.’—People have a hard time connecting to the issue,” explains Berman “The Facebook campaign was the beginning of people starting to realize that when they change their status or they upload a video, it actually has real-world consequences—not just about what happens when you plug in your computer, but how the cloud itself is powered.”

In fact, if the “cloud-computing” data centers were a country it would be fifth-biggest energy consumer in the world, according to Berman. And the majority of the electricity that powers Facebook—as well as most other data centers—currently comes from coal-fired power plants. The agreement announced last week between Facebook and Greenpeace commits the social media leader to making renewable energy a priority when developing future centers and using its clout as a huge energy consumer to try to convince the utilities powering their current centers to move away from coal and toward renewables. Also part of the agreement is a promise by Facebook to work together with Greenpeace to use its social media platform to engage members on energy conservation and clean energy issues.

Berman, who notes that Greenpeace “loves Facebook,” says that the group managed to enlist 700,000 Facebook members to join the “Unfriend Coal” campaign, including a Guinness world record 80,000 people in one 24-hour period. The campaign also featured offline protests in front of Facebook offices, a Cool IT leaderboard that evaluates global IT companies on their leadership in the fight to stop climate change, a dirty data report about the environmental impact of Internet data centers, and a cartoon spoof about Mark Zuckerberg that went viral on YouTube not long after the movie The Social Network was released.

“I think that’s one thing good campaigns do is to try and connect with a dialogue that already exists in the public sphere,” says Berman, who notes that Unfriend Coal videos to explain the computing “cloud” were not as successful because they were not as funny or engaging.

She says that a big reason for the campaign’s success is how well the campaign’s on-line and real-time engagement efforts worked together. For example, a photo competition for people to display the campaign’s logos (Facebook thumbs down sign and a coal plant, or a thumbs up sign with a wind turbine), inspired creative results from all over the world. According to Berman, it’s important to “ensure that campaigning in the digital era gets beyond ‘click to visit.’ People want to actually do something; they want to engage with their friends and when they’re motivating their friends to come figure out how to create this photo op they’re having a conversation about why they’re doing it, about what the issue is.”

Berman has been in the vanguard of the environmental movement the past two decades, and is the author of “This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge,” which describes her personal and professional journey. When Greenpeace first started talking to Facebook, the company’s indifference to where its energy came from (“they didn’t see it as their problem”) it reminded her of the forestry campaigns in the early 1990s, when companies such as Home Depot initially weren’t concerned about where the wood in its products came from or where it was logged. Eventually the work of Berman and others helped a number of companies to see the light and harness their clout to protect rainforests and help create a market for ecologically responsible wood products.

“Twenty months is actually not a long time for a corporate campaign,” says Berman, who looks forward to working with Facebook to engage the public on energy issues. “It really takes a company that long to understand the issues, to decide that it’s a big enough problem that they need to address it and then to figure out how to address it.”

Hopefully, the next campaign will be even shorter. This spring, Greenpeace, in conjunction with the release of a new dirty data ranking, plans to announce a new public-targeted campaign. When asked about the target, Berman coyly says, “it depends on what they do between now and then.”

(Note: the audio of the interview is available here for Climate Access members.)

Image is a screenshot from Greenpeace’s Unfriend Coal page.