Looking through the nominations for the New Media Awards 2008 that have come in so far I was pleased to see the Big Green Switch there. Similar to Do The Green Thing, it’s a site that can help us all to overcome the apathy that so easily undermines our best efforts to recycle and reduce our resource consumption. These sites, and others in a similar vein, work in the old-fashioned internet way, by enabling communities to cohere around shared interests independently of geography or time zone.
In this case the shared interest is saving the planet, and by providing every member of the community with information about what others are doing, the sites manage to bring out both the competitive and altruistic sides of human nature at the same time.
They encourage altruism by making it feel like the small things that one person or household can do make a difference because they are cumulative over large numbers of fellow members. Reports on how many people have switched, or the progress that others are making, can be reassuring when your neighbours have just bought an SUV and a massive plasma screen.
They also allow for an element of competition in being the greenest, reducing energy consumption the most, and having the smallest carbon footprint. And once we all get smart meters there will probably be a national scoreboard for the home with the lowest electricity usage, while those with solar power and windmills will boast about how much power they are providing back to the grid. This may not appeal to the more socially-minded, but it might persuade people to change their behaviour.
We often miss the way that the pervasive network and easy access to computers have changed the pattern of daily life and made many things that would previously have required far too much effort simple and unremarkable.
Just as ubiquitous mobile phones make it unnecessary to make careful plans for where to meet your mates in town on a Saturday night, because a few texts are all it takes to assemble everyone at the pub with the cheapest beer or best band, so easy access to the net allows us to overcome many of the obstacles to achieving real social change.