Power Of Social Media

BioCycle November 2011, Vol. 52, No. 11, p. 44

Climate Change Connections

Sally Brown

I have advocated a number of things in this column that are not yet common practice across the U.S., such as food waste diversion, bioretention systems and urban agriculture. I am not alone in thinking that these are highly beneficial and not so hard to do. But they are still far from being the norm. And so you are left with the question of how do you get there from here? How do we get this organics revolution started?

Well it turns out that a whole field of research exists around information dissemination – how a new idea or practice is adopted. This process is referred to as diffusion of information. New ideas go through five stages of adoption: Knowledge of the idea, developing an attitude toward it, deciding to adopt or reject it, actually enacting the idea or practice, and finally realizing that it is a good idea after all. This sequence over time has been altered to include reinvention of the idea, making it your own, specifically tailored to your community. Not everyone adopts new ideas at the same time or with the same enthusiasm. Here the number five comes into play again with the categories of adopters: Innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

Looking at this through a pop music lens, the Beatles have gone all the way through both the new idea section and the adopter section. Rock and Roll is here to stay and everyone, even iTunes, has the whole Beatles library. In contrast, SBTKRT (www.sbtrkt.com/), the band who is currently playing on the radio station that I listen to when I want to feel hip, would qualify in the “knowledge of the idea” stage of the patterns of adoption framework and as an innovator in the adoption category (at least within my demographic).

For many of the practices in the organics diversion field, stuff like food waste diversion, anaerobic digestion and green infrastructure, we are maybe a little bit past SBTKRT. In other words, we are early in the process with a lot of change to instigate.

But unlike when these concepts of information diffusion were first developed in the 1940s, we have the Internet and social media. Forget the Ed Sullivan Show; just click on that SBTKRT website and you can watch and listen to them play, find out where to see them (actually it is really only one guy), and download the music to your Ipod. If you click on the Amazon link, you can hear what anybody who wants to express an opinion thinks about SBTKRT in the reviews section. Nothing against Ed Sullivan, but now we have an incredibly powerful tool to aid in the process of instigating change with regards to organics reuse. However, with both the Internet and social media, we also stand the risk of poor communication leading to rejection rather than adoption. In the pop music world, that is the equivalent of a one hit wonder. Anyone out there remember “My Shirona”?

GET TWEETING
What exactly is social media and how is it different from your standard www.website? For answers I turned to Kate Kurtz, the person who told me about that cool radio station in the first place. She defines social media as simply an application on the web that allows and encourages social interaction. So things like Facebook, flikr, Twitter and Blog posts qualify. All of these encourage people to interact and respond. And perhaps more importantly, these are all things that you are expected to actively participate in. What fun is Facebook after all, when you don’t get any notifications and never change your status or your picture? Websites on the other hand, are often things that you checked off on your to do list a few years back and haven’t thought about since.

So is social media the key to starting the organics revolution? Lately a number of groups, individuals and programs that I work with have realized that this social media thing can open up whole new worlds, the key to a new tomorrow. And in this day and age, it is a requisite component of a truly successful operation. The Internet and social media are critical for changing practices for individuals and families. But it is only part of the answer, and used without actually doing something, i.e., having something to Tweet or blog about, it won’t get you very far. For example, the Beatles with the web would have gone viral in no time. They were incredibly talented. My Shirona – that is another story.

I see two components to making social media work for you. The first is to really know what you are talking about, to know it from a “get your hands dirty” experience – where you have been successful enough that people who don’t have Facebook accounts have some knowledge of what you’ve accomplished. I don’t mean the world in general, or even everyone in your community. I mean some as yet not well-defined critical number of people outside of your immediate group that can attest to your credibility. And the second is to realize that your social media presence can be viewed as a real-time reflection of what you are and have accomplished.

And put in some pictures, video clips even. One picture is a whole lot easier to proofread than 1,000 words. Finally, your social media presence needs to be geared to the groups or individuals that you want to influence. To provide information for neighbors requires a different level of information than providing guidance for city planners.

LIVE EXAMPLES
There is a group in Seattle called Alleycat Acres (www.alleycatacres.com/). You can also find them and like them on Facebook (they have well over 1,000 likes). Pictures are on Flickr and they tweet. Its goal is to create community-run farms on under utilized urban spaces. So far, Alleycat Acres has taken two empty lots in Seattle (soon to be three) and turned them into farms using locally available biosolids compost. They are different from pea patch gardens or community gardens in that the lots are planted by the whole group as one collective farm. Weekly work parties are organized by the leader for one of the farms or collectively at the other with most of the produce donated to local food banks. If you go to the website and like them on Facebook, you will see lots of pictures and clips of people that look happy in thriving gardens. Their social media presence makes it look like a lot of fun, something you want to be connected to.

But a critical part of the success of Alleycat Acres is that their farms actually produce large quantities of food. They have credibility because the group is bringing fresh and healthy food to food banks. Many people show up to learn how to garden. You can go to the Beacon Hill garden on Tuesdays during the spring and summer or the Central District garden on Wednesdays and see for yourself. They are delivering on their Social media presence. They make you want to do it too.

The other example is Seattle Public Utilities’ (SPU) storm water website, which is a great source of information. Go to www.seattle.gov/util/ About_SPU/ and click on ‘Green Stormwater Infrastructure’ under the Drainage and Sewer System heading. SPU’s Street Edge Alternative program was one of the first to use bioretention systems to limit storm water flows. On this website, there are pictures and maps to each of the sites where bioretention systems have been installed, as well as quantitative information on their performance. There are documents to download on what plants to use, construction specifications, even details on expected costs and benefits.

But there is no interaction here. This may not be enough to convince a skeptical storm water manager that this approach will work for them too. To start getting people excited, you need that social interface. What happened with the big rain last week? How do the plantings look in the spring? What are upcoming projects and challenges?

Both sites reflect groups/organizations that are doing excellent work. As you look, think about which of the two sites you would rather be “friends” with. Which includes the human element? In short, which of these two sites will you check in with to see just what is going on, all the while humming the Beatles’ “Revolution” to yourself?

Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at slb@u.washington.edu.

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