Is social media hurting the environmental movement?

Change founder Marc Stoiber wants brands to stem the firehose of superfluous chatter and foster real change.

Recently, at a green brand conference, I witnessed something incredible.
It wasn’t the speakers, although they were inspiring in their own right. It was the audience that caught my eye.
About 90% of them never looked at the stage – instead, they were rapid-typing the content of the speeches into their tweets or blog entries.
I was impressed, thinking I was witnessing a glorious mass communication revolution.
That is, until I peeked over some shoulders and saw what they were typing. Posts like “Speaker says green is here to stay.” And “Green is good for business.”
A pretty anemic version of what was actually being said.
Then it dawned on me. These audience members were so intent on flexing their social media muscles, they were missing out on 95% of the message. Technology had turned them into stenographers – and not particularly good stenographers at that. There was no synthesis, no analysis, no thinking. I’m certain each of the writers felt they were making a difference. But they were, in fact, adding little more than chatter.
And that, I believe, is a problem. The movement to fight climate change does not benefit from a fire hose of superfluous communication. It needs focus.
I’m not a luddite. I understand and admire the power of social media, and believe the world is a better place for it. Social media provides shades of content; it’s visceral and raw; it’s authentic (well, usually); it can help me instantly connect with like-minded thinkers.
That said, it doesn’t replace real action, real human connection and commitment. Becoming a fan of Al Gore’s Facebook page may make me feel like I belong, but it isn’t doing a damn thing to save the world.
It does, however, reflect a disturbing phenomenon. We have become a society that is deathly afraid of being left out. We somehow feel better knowing we have hundreds of people following our tweets. We feel comforted by all our Facebook friends and fans.
Substituting real friends and family with the online variety speaks volumes about the isolation technology can enable. Unfortunately, this isolation is the exact opposite of what the environmental movement needs.
David Suzuki says a major contributor to environmental destruction is our disconnection from each other, and the environment. He calls it the shattered world syndrome.
To illustrate, imagine our society is like safety glass that’s been shattered. Each of us occupies a tiny shard –
physically close to our neighbour, but disconnected.
When we turn on the tap, we don’t know where the water came from. When we flush the toilet, we don’t know where the water goes. When we get the clarion call to fight climate change, we pull back into our cocoon and start retweeting.
It’s not that retweeting is bad. But again, it seems pretty anemic when you think of what’s necessary.
What I believe we need to rediscover is a sense of commitment to our fellow earth-dweller. Studies show that the number one reason people enlist in the armed services isn’t for government or country. It’s because their friend or brother enlisted.
That’s strong stuff. Imagine if we could harness that sort of action for the environmental movement.
Truth is, we can.
It’s time we all rediscovered the power of that sort of commitment. Instead of sitting in front of our screen, we should be jumping on our bikes with our kids, getting involved in public forums with our friends, looking politicians in the eye and telling them that our families are a force to be reckoned with.
As marketers, we should also be looking at real commitments we can be making. Consumers don’t expect brands to be perfect – but they do want them to be sincere in their efforts.
Take a hard look at what your brand is doing to make the world a better place. Is it doing something real and original – something that is not only true to brand values, but the values of the consumer? Or is it simply jumping on a convenient bandwagon that enables you to feel superficially green without actually changing anything?
I believe there is a world of opportunity for brands that want to make a real, tangible difference. Think of Tom’s Shoes donating one pair of shoes to African kids for every pair you buy. Truth is, Tom’s doesn’t need a Facebook page or frantic army of tweeters to make people fans. They generate mountains of free media by simply making their brand stand for integrity.
If you want it in simple English, actions speak louder than words.
We have to live the mission. Not type it.

Marc Stoiber is founder of Change, a green innovation brand agency. He delivered this speech at the TEDx Conference in Vancouver. He can be reached at marc@changebiz.com.