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January 12 2011


How Green is Facebook, Microsoft Push into Cloud Computing?

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

Like many people this holiday season, the couple in the Microsoft ad below was stranded in an airport. With their plane delayed, the man has an idea. "To the cloud," he says to his confused partner. He then uses his laptop to stream TV shows the couple had stored in Microsoft's "cloud" of data centers.

The virtual cloud he referred to is made up of information stored in physical warehouses of high-powered servers. The commercial is intended to show that Windows 7 users can manage their pictures, videos, and documents from anywhere there is Internet access. Microsoft is spending hundreds of millions on similar spots to convince other consumers to follow the fictional couple's lead into cloud computing.

"Yay cloud," says the woman in the ad, engrossed in an episode of "Celebrity Probation."

But is the growing cloud something everyone should cheer? Information and communication technology (ICT) companies already account for up to three percent of global greenhouse gas emissions -- a figure projected to increase as more data centers are built to store the shift of information to the web. During interviews with MediaShift, executives at Microsoft and Facebook said cloud computing could have positive environmental impacts. But analysts and activists have expressed serious doubts about the implications of the coming data-center building boom.

Big Business, Big Emissions

One issue that all sides agree on is the tremendous growth potential for cloud computing. The cloud encompasses a wide variety of new media applications, ranging from established offerings such as email and e-commerce to rapidly expanding services like shared documents and social networking.

Already, the size of the worldwide cloud computing market is an estimated $37.8 billion according to MarketsandMarkets, a global research and consulting company. As broadband speeds, WiFi, and mobile Internet devices continue to improve, M&M predicts the value of the cloud will nearly quadruple to $121.1 billion by 2015.

Environmentalists fear that the carbon footprint of the data centers powering the cloud could grow at the same breakneck pace. Data centers consume vast quantities of energy to both operate and cool the cloud servers.

"The world's 44 million servers consume 0.5 percent of all electricity, with data center emissions now approaching those of countries such as Argentina or the Netherlands," the McKinsey Quarterly reported in 2009. "Without efforts to curb demand, current projections show worldwide carbon emissions from data centers will quadruple by 2020."

Surprisingly, there could be positive environmental side effects to this rapid expansion of the cloud. Although the influential SMART 2020 report from the Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative had similar projections for the growing carbon footprint of data centers, it saw reason for cautious optimism: "ICT's unique ability to monitor and maximize energy efficiency both within and outside of its own sector could cut [carbon dioxide] emissions by up to five times this amount" in the next decade, it said.

How would the ICT sector prevent these future emissions? One way is by sharing the advances in infrastructure and software design that the industry is using to reduce emissions from its data centers with building engineers and tech developers outside of the ICT sector. By way of perspective, the report notes that the potential CO2 savings from this information transfer could be "greater than the current annual emissions of either the U.S. or China" -- the world's second and first largest greenhouse gas polluters, respectively.

Positive Potential

Industry spokespeople interviewed for this story were understandably eager to play up the potentially positive effects of the data center boom. All the companies spoke of their innovations in efficient data center design as well as the additional environmental benefits provided by their particular business model.

Executives at Facebook pointed to the emissions prevented by their popular photo sharing platform. In July, the dominant social network announced that its 500 million users were uploading more than 100 million photos every day. That massive influx of pixels has led the company to construct two new data centers, one in Washington State and another in North Carolina. Facebook policy communications director Barry Schnitt told me that storing the images in these new data centers -- coupled with a new virtual storage infrastructure referred to as Haystack -- prevents hundreds of tons of CO2 emissions that would be required to mail printed photographs.

Microsoft, which is trying to take Windows from the desktop to the data center, has been promoting a study it commissioned on the increased efficiency of cloud computing. The resulting research, from consulting firm Accenture, found that if companies switch from on-site servers to Microsoft's data centers, they can reduce data storage emissions by between 30 and 90 percent.

Industry analysts are not very impressed by these claims.

Ansimonheadshot.jpg"There is a lot more proof that needs to be put in place to show that the cloud can be green," said Simon Mingay, Gartner's vice president of research.

In collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, his firm recently released a study examining the carbon footprint of the ICT industry. "Whilst we all recognize the potential of it, I haven't seen anything yet that convinces me that that's a reality today," Mingay said.

Speaking from his London office, Mingay criticized Microsoft's Accenture study, in particular.

"There's a distinct lack of real data there," Mingay said. It would have been more useful had the study revealed the used raw kilowatt hours of energy saved instead of making assumptions about emissions factors, which can be used for "fudging issues," he said. "I mean, it was interesting but it was in no way conclusive."

The same paucity of information gives reason to doubt the CO2 reduction claims Facebook makes in association with its digital photo platform. While the company's communications director said its Haystack storage system had produced big efficiency gains, he was unable to provide specific research to support the benefits of its massive photo library.

"How online activities replace carbon-intensive offline activities," Schnitt wrote in email, "is something we're interested in exploring."

Microsoft defended its study, saying it couldn't release more details for competitive reasons.

profile-photos-josh_jpg.jpg"A lot of the data that is associated with our data centers is proprietary and confidential," said Josh Henretig, a senior environmental field manager at Microsoft. "And for a peer organization that is also operating in this space, you could pretty easily back into some of the margins that we have, the services that we provide, and things that we just consider competitive in nature. It may be frustrating that we didn't reveal more within the study but we were really excited about the direction that the report exposed around the efficiency gains that can be achieved through that shared infrastructure model."

h2. Green Questions

Environmentalists are concerned about the industry's apparent confusion with the difference between efficiency and sustainability. Companies "need to recognize that energy efficient is not 'green' on its own, and is no longer enough. NGOs, and increasingly customers will demand more," Mingay wrote in a post on Gartner's blog.

Greenpeace blogger Jodie Van Horn explained why her NGO is so concerned about this confusion: "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."

Jonathan Heiliger, the vice president of technical operations at Facebook and a Silicon Valley veteran, told me that tech companies traditionally treated "data centers like 'Fight Club' -- the thing everyone does but doesn't talk about."

Environmental groups feel that, given the threat of catastrophic climate change, tech firms can no longer continue with business as usual and risk forgoing the type of innovation the SMART 2020 report said is necessary to reduce global warming.

The loudest voice calling to change the ICT industry has been Greenpeace. The environmental advocacy group launched the Cool IT campaign in 2009 and published its fourth biennial leaderboard at the Cancun climate conference in December. In addition to publicizing and ranking the environmental efforts of IT firms, Greenpeace stepped up its pressure on the industry early last year by focusing on the data centers of a particularly public target: Facebook. The social network attracted Greenpeace's ire after it chose to locate two new, high-efficiency data centers in states that are heavily reliant on coal for power.

The decision to make Facebook the face of its IT campaign struck some industry analysts as an odd choice.

"There are certainly much 'dirtier' data centers out there and in the pipeline that Greenpeace could have attacked," according to a note by Tier 1 Research in September.

While that is certainly true, Greenpeace IT analyst Gary Cook explained that, because the company is young, high profile, and expanding rapidly, there's more scope for activists to exert influence. This strategy was most cleverly elaborated in a video Greenpeace made that was loosely related to the hit film "The Social Network":

In turn, Greenpeace wants Facebook to have its "friends" in Washington push for clean energy.

"Ultimately, they can't change the grids themselves and that's why we need to get them involved in the policy debate and demand cleaner sources of energy," Cook said. "If we're stuck with the same sources of energy 10 years from now, they're going to be a much, much bigger problem -- and they're already a significant problem. [ICT firms] like to talk about efficiency -- and that's great -- but when you're growing that much you have to look at the fuel source for the electricity."

Google -- whose popular Google Docs are in part responsible for Microsoft's focus on getting its Office Suite into the cloud -- is one tech firm that gets high marks for its clean energy advocacy and investment. In the last election cycle, the search giant came out strongly against Proposition 23, which would have suspended implementation of California's global warming law (commonly referred to as AB32) until unemployment in the state fell below 5.5 percent. The failed ballot initiative could have cost California $10 billion in private investments in clean energy businesses and 500,000 jobs, according to an analysis from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Google also backed up its clean energy talk with a $5 billion investment in Atlantic Wind Connection. If it's approved by regulators, this massive project will create an underwater transmission network capable of adding to the grid 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy. According to its developers, that's "enough power to eventually serve approximately 1.9 million households" -- or a lot of clean energy-powered data centers.

Sustainable Policy

So what exactly would green groups like to see from ICT firms that could alleviate their concerns about the cloud?

In the case of Facebook, Schnitt, the communications director, said he had met behind the scenes with Greenpeace before the holidays.

"We had a good conversation and they expressed their desire for us to reduce load and/or increase renewable capacity in the areas where we have increased load," Schnitt said in an email. "I asked them for specific proposals, which they sent earlier this week. We're reviewing those and hope to have them here in the coming weeks to discuss them and other issues."

More generally, environmentalists want to encourage ICT companies' continued shift towards greater transparency -- an area where even Google is in need of improvement, according to Greenpeace -- as well as more technical and political cooperation on clean energy issues. Collaborating on data center design is only a start. Green groups are asking for more sharing of both energy usage data and efficient data storage software as well as help in climate change policy advocacy.

That's not too much to ask, says Mingay. "That is a perfectly legitimate role for any commercial organization to play. And at the end of the day, the ICT sector will be a winner in a low carbon, more sustainable economy."

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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October 08 2010


How Climate Activists Are Warming to Social Media

American environmentalists recently suffered a pair of devastating defeats in their decades-long effort to halt global warming. Progress stalled on domestic legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions prior to a key UN summit in Copenhagen. Lack of leadership from America, the world's second largest climate polluter, made it impossible to produce and binding international agreement at the conference. Then, a few months later, the U.S. climate bill died in the Senate.

Their diplomatic and legislative maneuvers having fallen short, U.S. climate campaigners are hoping a renewed focus on activism and grassroots organizing can provide the push needed to produce carbon emission controls. As a result, the Internet and digital media are playing a growing role in efforts of progressive organizations ranging from new climate activists like 350.org to longtime environmental agitators such as Greenpeace.

Birth of 350.org

Screen shot 2010-10-07 at 10.45.42 PM.pngBy using the same name and web address, 350.org announced to the world in 2008 that it was a new kind of environmental advocacy organization. In choosing the odd name, the founders of 350.org wanted to communicate that their group was a science-based, single issue organization. The number comes from research, which shows that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most the atmosphere can safely absorb without triggering catastrophic climate change.

The group emerged after author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates organized the 2007 Step It Up campaign. They collaborated with existing environmental organizations like Greenpeace, as well as other groups and governments interested in climate protection. The upstart activists described it as the "first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change."

It was a surprising success. On April 14, 2007, tens of thousands of Americans held simultaneous rallies in some 1,400 places across the country telling Congress to "step it up" and reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Their grassroots pressure likely helped convince presidential-hopeful Barack Obama to co-sponsor an ultimately doomed bill in the Senate.

After a second successful Step It Up event, McKibben and the Middlebury graduates created 350.org. Co-founder Phil Aroneanu told me that leading up to the 2009 UN climate convention in Copenhagen, "we realized there was this space to have a public show of force and show that folks really care about this issue when most of the leaders didn't really feel that."

Using a handful of foreign contacts they'd made at previous UN climate conventions, the team began planning the "International Day of Climate Action" on October 24th, little more than a month before delegates were due to meet in Denmark.

Organizing via Skype, chat, and text messaging, and via activist social networks like Change.org, the 350.org team mobilized over 5,200 actions in 181 countries, as you can see in this video:

Solar Challenge

"There might have been one person from Malawi," Aroneanu said, "and as long as we kept communicating with them and showed them how this could be a great way to build up networks in their own countries, they did the hard work of organizing and reaching out to people who didn't have access to the Internet."

In one recent initiative, 350.org set up an online petition encouraging world leaders to install solar power on the roofs of their official state residences. It has been signed by tens of thousands of people. This was combined with blog support from Change.org and others, as well as a high-profile road trip from Maine to the capital with the first White House solar panel, a relic from the Carter administration.

Although McKibben and other 350.org members were initially rebuffed in their meetings with Obama administration officials, earlier this week Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that new solar panels would be installed, making the White House "a symbol of America's commitment to a clean energy future." So far, leaders in India and the Maldives have also agreed to take up 350.org's solar challenge.

In an article calling McKibben one of the world's top global thinkers, Foreign Policy magazine described the 2009 Day of Climate Action as "the largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind." Yet, despite the unprecedented organizing success of 350.org and behind the scenes pressure from countless other environmental organizations, diplomats in Copenhagen failed to agree to a plan that would reduce CO2 to that magic number. A half-year later, a much discussed climate bill also died in the U.S., the world's largest historic greenhouse gas polluter.


With international negotiations at a standstill and U.S. legislation at a stalemate, 350.org, Greenpeace and others in the environmental community are using every new media tool available to them to share their climate protection message and recruit new organizers.

The most visible display of this renewed focus on digital organizing will be this Sunday's "Global Work Party," where activists from around the globe will "pressure our leaders to Get To Work themselves by passing strong climate policies promoting clean energy and reducing emissions," as 350.org's website explains.

With two days remaining until 10/10/10, the group has registered nearly 7,000 events in 188 countries. Coordinated online outreach by 350.org and its partner organizations has made the immense scale of the Global Work Party possible. Jess Leber, editor of the environment blog at Change.org, has worked with 350.org to feature a Get To Work series guest posts from its organizers around the world. Chris Eaton, an online community organizer for Greenpeace, spent all of last Friday calling and emailing people in the climate movement to get them involved in one big social media push ten days before the 10/10/10 event, which like previous 350.org events his group is co-sponsoring.

"I've found that's really effective," Eaton said. "If you get everyone to do the same thing at once online it's like a wave that gets a lot of attention."

Greenpeace Gets Digital

Greenpeace certainly knows how to attract attention. For nearly 40 years, this confrontational environmental group has been adept at building what co-founder Robert Hunter referred to as "Media Mind Bombs": "reaching the public consciousness through dramatic, camera-ready opposition to environmental crimes."

As the media have fragmented and cameras have proliferated, the activist group has had to expand the scope of its non-violent direct-action campaigns. Sure, British Greenpeace members will still scale Westminster Palace to protest what it perceives as Parliament's weak climate efforts. But increasingly its activists are downloading online toolkits for decentralized events like a Bake Sale to Save the Whales or using the power of social media to push for greater climate protection.

Screen shot 2010-10-07 at 10.48.14 PM.png

In one campaign, Greenpeace's online organizers drew attention to deforestation, a major contributor to global warming, by targeting Nestle. The confections company was making chocolate with unsustainably-sourced palm oil, a fact Greenpeace pointed out in a graphic video depicting an office worker eating a bloody Kit-Kat made of an orangutan finger that was viewed 350,000 times the first day it was posted. After Nestle made YouTube remove the grisly campaign ad, the environmentalists protested at its headquarters, jammed its phone lines with complaints, and plastered its Facebook wall with negative comments until the company announced a "zero deforestation policy."

One of Greenpeace's ongoing campaigns is protesting against Facebook, one of the social media tools it used in its battle against Nestle. The environmental group singled out the Internet giant earlier this year as a part of its Cool IT campaign to encourage tech companies to use clean power. Facebook attracted the ire of Greenpeace in February when it announced plans to build a server farm powered by dirty coal-fired energy. To protest, Greenpeace started a Facebook group, We want Facebook to use 100% renewable energy, that currently has nearly 300,000 members. They also encouraged online activists to send a message directly to CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook account.

When the company announced in September that it planned to double the size of the dirty data center, Greenpeace stepped up its online campaign with the charmingly inflammatory video posted below. The crudely animated short mocks Zuckerberg and tells him to "unfriend coal." It has already attracted more views than the Facebook protest group has members. You can watch it here:

The campaign has not yet succeeded in getting Facebook to switch entirely to clean energy, but Zuckerberg responded to one message saying, "We're moving in the right direction here." Whether he and his company get there fast enough to ward off further action from Greenpeace remains to be seen.

What's Next?

Maintaining their new media momentum in a changing technological landscape will be a challenge for the climate movement. While Change.org's Leber told me how her site is aiming to become the "YouTube of social change," Greenpeace and 350.org have both deployed new media tools experimentally rather than tactically. This makes sense to some extent, but their better financed opponents in the fossil fuel industries are not leaving the development of social networks to chance. (For example, read this remarkable New Yorker article about the Koch Industries-fueled Tea Party movement.)

The climate movement is seeking low cost, easily accessible online tools. 350.org is interested in "boot-strap solutions that we can use extremely cheaply and scale up," Aroneanu said. His organization recently ditched their iPhone app in favor of a simple mobile website.

"We're not looking for things that we have to own, we're looking for things that our organizers can use effectively," Aroneanu said.

Greenpeace's online organizer Eaton said his number one rule is "organize where people are at" and he pointed out that there simply aren't a critical mass of activists on Foursquare yet.

Regardless of the precise new media mix, the climate movement is committed to continuing the push for climate protection with what Aroneanu called "open source" activism. Social activism sites like Change.org feature blog content about environmental challenges and online petitions that can recruit activists for 350.org and Greenpeace. The organizers at those groups can then mobilize high-impact online climate campaigns or on-the-ground distributed actions across the nation and around the globe. The big, one-day march on Washington has been done so many times, no one notices anymore.

"We really focus on developing grassroots leaders," Aroneanu explained. "And we feel like that grassroots leadership is what's going to lead this movement to a place where we actually are able to pass the kind of legislation we need to pass."

Legislative deal-making is worthless without deep pockets or a broad base of public support.The failure of the recent climate bill proved that environmental groups cannot outspend or outmaneuver the fossil fuel industry.

"Everybody understands that we need to build a movement beyond just this piece of legislation," 350.org's Aroneanu said.

The successes his organization, Greenpeace and others have had organizing in the expanding digital space has made activists realize that savvy use of new media is required to construct a lasting climate constituency.

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based editorial assistant at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of the New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at the Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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March 20 2010


Video: Nestle staff discuss the Facebook fan page

Nestle’s social media car crash over Greenpeace’s Kit Kat video continues – this time on its Facebook fan page. Background here. Follow-up to my previous video above.

March 18 2010


Greenpeace’s Kit Kat video: behind the scenes at Nestle



Nestle staffer 1: “Greenpeace have done a viral video attacking our sourcing policy. I do so hope people don’t pass it on and it becomes a huge viral hit.”

Nestle staffer 2: “Yes. I know what will stop people passing it around and it becoming a huge viral hit: get YouTube to take it down for alleged copyright infringement.”

Nestle staffer 1: “Yes, that will definitely stop people passing it around and it becoming a huge viral hit. That is a good idea and I hope you get all the credit for that.”

February 01 2010


Denise Searle: Blogging or flogging? Why NGOs face challenges in embracing the Internet’s potential

[The Internet opens up new means of communications for major NGOs. But does it also make their position vulnerable to a new breed of web-native upstarts, who understand the power of technology more fully? Denise Searle, who has worked with some of the world's best known NGOs, explores that in this, the final part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

At the offices of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in London during December 2008, the customary Christmas and New Year parties were supplemented by a round of often tearful farewell drinks as staff at the respected broadsheet newspapers reeled from the third round of redundancies in two years. The Telegraph Media Group’s desire to invest in its online activities was a key reason for the cuts in print journalist jobs, with the global economic downturn adding to the pressures.

The Telegraph is far from alone. Most UK and U.S. newspapers and news broadcasters have been building up their online presence, which has usually involved spreading editorial resources more thinly to create round-the-clock multimedia online outputs from existing or even reduced staff complements. In January 2009, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was axing 300 jobs, 70 of them in the editorial department, which had already been virtually halved in size over the past five years. The timing was surprising. According to Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor at the City University of New York and writing in The Guardian newspaper, the LA Times editor, Russ Stanton, had claimed earlier that month that the paper’s online advertising revenue was sufficient to cover the entire print and online editorial payroll.

There is growing concern about the combined effect on news coverage of financial pressures and the needs of the internet. In January 2008, the UK and Ireland’s National Union of Journalists sent out an e-alert to members asking them to blow the whistle on where cutbacks are undermining journalism standards.1 The same month the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University published “What’s Happening to Our News: An Investigation into the Likely Impact of the Digital Revolution on the Economics of News Publishing in the UK.” International news is particularly vulnerable because it’s costly. According to the Reuters Institute report, there has been a large-scale cull of foreign news staff in newspapers and broadcasters in the UK and abroad. Independent Television News (ITN), a major broadcast news provider in the UK, has more than halved the number of permanent overseas bureaux and staff since 2000. ITN now allocates just five per cent of its overall news budget to a network of six foreign bureaux.

“To feed the appetite of 24/7 media platforms, news publishers increasingly rely on a range of external suppliers for the raw material of journalism,” says the report, “not only trusted wire agencies, but also the public relations industry and, more recently, citizen journalism.” It’s safe to assume that NGOs and charities could be included in the list.

While few NGOs would celebrate the loss of jobs and the squeeze on foreign news coverage, many of those involved in international humanitarian and development work are certainly eyeing up the opportunities these changes present for increasing coverage of their concerns and activities by the media, particularly on their digital/internet platforms. International NGOs have access to human interest stories, so the logic goes, so surely the content-hungry news websites can’t afford to be as choosy as their parent publishers and broadcasters have been in the past and will snap up news and features to fill the gaps left by shrinking foreign reporting teams.

Be there or be square

The reach of the internet and associated digital platforms, such as mobile phones and online social networking sites, continues to grow. According to the Internet World Stats website, which aggregates data from the International Telecommunications Union and Nielsen/NetRatings among others, more than 1.5 billion people around the world use the internet, which is 23.4 per cent of the total global population. This has grown by 305.5 percent since 2000. The fastest expansion has been in the global south and east in recent years but even mature markets such as the United States and UK continue to grow. Almost 47 million or 76 percent of people in the UK use the internet, a growth of 203.1 percent since 2000. In the United States, 228 million people use the internet, representing 74.1 percent of the population and 138.8 percent growth since 2000.

NGOs need to engage these internet users for funds and general support, and because the people they need to influence for policy change and major donations are increasingly influenced by the internet. The internet is no longer simply an alternative or accompaniment to traditional print-based communications. Internet experts point out that many “digital natives” (usually defined as people aged 18-28, largely in industrialized countries) are uncomfortable with more traditional forms of communication. In other words, they probably won’t read the lovingly produced mail shots. Even “digital immigrants” (those over 30-ish) expect their NGO of choice to have a substantial online presence.

Plus, the internet theoretically enables NGOs to communicate directly with existing and potential supporters, without having their messages filtered by the media or the commercial prospecting agencies that many use to recruit new members or supporters via the telephone or on the street. This must be a benefit, given that the 2009 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual international survey commissioned by Edelman Public Relations, based on 30-minute interviews with 4,475 individuals aged 25-64) showed that trust in nearly every type of news outlet and spokesperson is down from last year — apart from NGOs. In fact, NGOs are the most trusted institutions globally: 54 percent of the older part of the age group surveyed (35 to 64 year olds) trust them to do what’s right. If only NGOs could reach their publics, they’re bound to be won over by their case. Simple. Or is it?

The problem is that today’s fast-moving internet isn’t an easy fit for all NGOs. In the early days, in what we now realize was merely “web 1.0,” businesses and non-profits alike used their websites as shop windows for electronic versions of the sorts of materials they published anyway. There were probably some pictures and maybe a bit of video and audio and even a “contact us” facility, but on the whole the relationship with audiences was on a “read (or watch) only” basis. Through a gradual process of increasing interactivity, “web 1.0″ has morphed into “web 2.0,” which is based on participation, and where many users expect to share their own content and ideas and be listened to. The underlying technology is largely the same, but more people are using it in many different ways. Organizations that are known and respected in the real world often face competition for attention from a range of other sources and perspectives in the virtual world.

What’s more, this dynamic online environment continues to change. In July 2008, the U.S. business website Forbes.com tapped the internet analysts Nielsen Online to get a sense of where and how U.S. residents are migrating on the web. They drew up a list of the 20 most trafficked websites, compared with three years earlier, and found that the top slot went to Google, with 123 million unique visitors a month, seven million more than Yahoo, the second most popular site, and 62 per cent more than the 76 million unique visitors Google attracted three years previously, when it ranked fourth.

The survey indicates that the Internet is still about searching for information. Out of the top five sites most visited in the United States — Google, Yahoo, MSN, Microsoft’s home page, and AOL Media Network — four are portals to other websites. This means that: “web surfers are ‘leaning forward,’ looking for something in particular, versus ‘leaning back’ as browsers of traditional print publications do,” concludes Forbes.com. “In theory, that dynamic should spell opportunity for online enterprises peddling products and information that truly meet specific needs, be it t-shirts or health advice (if only it weren’t for the myriad competitors, now on similar footing, trying to do the same thing).”

The United States’s sixth most popular web destination is YouTube, the user-generated-video site, with 75 million unique visitors a month, each of whom spent an average of one hour per visit. In fact user-generated content of all sorts has redrawn the digital map. Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia, jumped to 9 on the list from 57 three years ago. Online social networks are also popular, with Facebook ranking 16 on Nielsen’s list with more than 34 million unique visitors, compared with 4 million in July 2005, when it ranked 236, according to the Forbes.com article. The picture is similar in the UK, which has the highest level of online social networking in Europe.

I’m speaking but are you listening?

“We’ve only just begun the journey of involving readers,” said Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News Media, in an interview in the February 2009 edition of UK Press Gazette, in which he described the group’s move to new premises accompanied by a switch to 24/7 multimedia publishing across The Guardian, The Observer and guardian.co.uk (with no compulsory redundancies).2 The Guardian has the UK’s most popular newspaper website, with 26 million unique users a month.

“I think journalists are going to get much more at ease with the idea that we don’t know it all, and that we’ve got incredibly intelligent readers who live and breathe The Guardian and who love the opportunity to get involved with it,” Rusbridger said. “What that means in terms of the systems and how you edit and aggregate all that, I don’t know — but that’s what makes it so interesting.”

All this indicates that if humanitarian and development NGOs want to attract and retain visitors in the increasingly crowded and competitive online world, and turn them into supporters, they need to provide timely, easy-to-find information, genuinely involve their audiences, and keep up with the latest trends. This is a tall order, particularly when many of the web destinations competing for their audiences’ attention have commercial muscle behind them.

Feeding the voracious internet beast takes extensive human and technical resources. While most NGOs have established substantial web teams, they are not geared up for 24/7 content provision and updating — and probably should not be, given that their core business is in a different field, such as tackling poverty or defending human rights. Plus, the fast turnaround and response demanded by the internet (which is putting a strain on the quality of output from traditional print and broadcast newsrooms) conflicts with the longer-term, planned activities of most humanitarian and development NGOs, and simply could not be met by the lengthy approval processes most NGOs operate for any kind of external communication. The contradictions are illustrated in “Virtual Promise,” a survey published in 2008 by the UK think tank and research consultancy nfpSynergy into charities’ use of the internet. Of 376 organizations surveyed, 80 percent said they used their website for “news and regular updates” yet only 25 percent said they updated their website on a daily basis.

There’s also a difference in perspective and culture, particularly when it comes to involving supporters and giving them a voice. The big humanitarian and development NGOs work on the basis that supporters give them money and trust them to spend it wisely in working to achieve their mission. It’s genuinely difficult to decide how much information and transparency to provide around an NGO’s work and objectives, and the strategic decisions that have shaped the particular activities and approach being undertaken. How should these processes be translated for the digital sphere to make them accessible in a sound-bite culture while not being misleading over the challenges of building rural livelihoods, protecting biodiversity, ending the arms trade and so on? How much detail can internet visitors be expected to absorb?

It’s all very well having snappy, web-friendly outreach or media and commercial advertising activities that drive audiences to the website. But when people get there, very often they find that the optimistic, passionate promotional materials have dissolved into stark content about suffering, hardship, injustice, and the other myriad issues NGOs are dealing with. Or conversely, they are presented with slight web features that imply that the problems are all being dealt with.

NGOs have made real efforts over recent years to engage with the internet beyond simply building an attractive website. A visit to Facebook brings up more than 500 results for Oxfam, including pages from various Oxfam national chapters, pages on specific campaigns and links from supporters. Some are current, while others are old and/or out of date. There are similar Facebook presences for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Save the Children, Medecins sans Frontieres and other major international NGOs. On Youtube there are 3,860 videos about Amnesty International, both official videos and those posted by supporters. [Please note that the number of videos cited was current as of the time this essay was written in 2009; the numbers today may be substantially different.] The situation is similar for Oxfam (2,460 videos), Greenpeace (12,700 videos), Save the Children (13,900 videos), and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (286 videos). NGO content on MySpace includes videos, weblinks and dedicated pages by the organizations themselves and supporters, and again the big players are there, including Greenpeace (101,000 entries); Oxfam (30,000 entries); Amnesty International (38,100 entries); Save the Children (207,000 entries); and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (around 15,000 entries).

But go to most large NGOs’ websites and it’s near impossible to find information about the volume of visitors to the website or numbers of supporters. For example, Amnesty International USA quotes 2.2 million global supporters for the total Amnesty movement but doesn’t give its own national membership (although Amnesty International UK does give its 230,000 “financial supporters”). Others don’t even do that, including Medecins sans Frontieres UK and Liberty. Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, and Amnesty International USA give financial figures (Amnesty International USA and Save the Children UK publish their audited report and accounts). Greenpeace US provides Greenpeace International accounts. But all take some finding.

This is not very web 2.0. Digital natives and frequent internet users tend to expect more information about what an organization is doing and who else is involved to decide whether they are in good company. Peer feedback and activities are key drivers of web activity, hence the popularity of blogging and the “swarm of bees” effect that can drive huge numbers of users to view a video on YouTube or to sign up to a particular petition.

Promoting impact

The Kiva website, which enables users to give loans to businesses in the developing world via local microfinance partners, has an “Impact This Week” box on its home page that tells you how many people have made a loan in any one week, and how many new lenders there are. There’s also easy-to-find information on different lending teams, now many are in them and how much they’ve loaned. Kiva enables lenders to see the actual project they will be supporting and to monitor progress. Avaaz.org, the international civic organization that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, and religious conflicts, states at the top of its homepage how many actions have been taken since it was set up in January 2007 (15,277,937 as of January 2010). Prominently, on its “about us” page, it says: “In less than three years, we’ve grown to over 3.5 million members, and have begun to make a real impact on global politics.” The front page of the U.S. liberal public policy advocacy and political action group Moveon.org says: “Join more than 5,000,000 members online, get instant action updates and make a difference.” It also gives clear facts about actions and money in the website’s “” section.

It is obviously easier for small, single (or limited) issue groups to provide this kind of apparently transparent data than larger, more complex, long-established NGOs whose claims are likely to be more closely scrutinized by their own members as well as outside audiences and regulatory bodies. Who is going to count whether Avaaz actually has more than 3.5 million members in every nation of the world? Whereas Amnesty International spent a couple of years painstakingly compiling the returns from its 80 offices round the world before releasing the figure of 2.2 million members, supporters, and subscribers. Even so, big NGOs do have a way to go before they are truly embracing the spirit of the internet.

nfpSynergy’s 2007 fundraising benchmark survey of 109 charities showed that online fundraising raises on average just 2 percent of total voluntary income. This compares with supporter development and retention raising 27 percent of voluntary income and major donors raising 7 percent. Ironically, online fundraising is highly cost-effective, raising an average of around £10 for every £1 spent on direct costs, including salaries. “Most charities have not started to implement best practice and maximize their income. Most are missing the opportunities from both web and email communications and from the various ways of collecting online income,” wrote independent charity ICT and internet consultant, Sue Fidler, in Third Sector Magazine.

She reckoned the reasons are often simple: charities do not have the time, the resources or the knowledge to get the various tools and mechanisms in place, or the management buy-in to get more resources. But for many there is a more frustrating reason: they have the tools but are not using them to sell the charity’s proposition. If the route to donate and the ask are wrong, the tools won’t help.

“We have learnt that having a donate button isn’t enough. The concept of ‘build it and they will come’ hasn’t worked,” Fidler wrote. “Until we learn to sell ourselves online, using our stories to engage our supporters while offering them every opportunity to help, we will not see an increase in online income.”

Nick Aldridge, Chief Executive Officer of MissionFish, is slightly more optimistic. In the forward to MissionFish’s June 2008 report, “Passion, Persistence, and Partnership: the Secrets of Earning More Online,” he states that “Charities of all sizes are becoming more confident and sophisticated in using the web to attract, engage, and develop potential supporters. They are learning that success depends on the passion and persistence they show, and the strength of the partnerships they’re able to form.” User-generated content, online auctions, affinity schemes, and e-commerce are all growing in popularity.

“Those representing and speaking for charities online are finding that they need to engage the public in less formal and more personal dialogue. They must be prepared to take part in lively real-time discussions about the value of their work, rather than posting out their annual reports,” he emphasized. “It’s clear that an online strategy now involves far more than ‘click here to donate.’ Charities must recognize the difference that online interaction can make in helping them to achieve their goals, and incorporate online work in all their major initiatives.”

However, Aldridge concluded that there’s still a long way to go. “Staff who specialize in internet communications or fundraising often feel sidelined, and have a hard time explaining the potential of their work to managers. Meanwhile, many small charities still struggle to develop the tools and content they need for a basic online presence.”

Only a few years ago a senior member of the governance board of a major international NGO demanded to know who had approved the NGO’s entry in Wikipedia and why they hadn’t had it changed because the tone wasn’t as flattering as she would have liked. At that time it was pretty remarkable that she was actually aware of Wikipedia. It’s hard to envision such a conversation happening now. Yet awareness of the internet doesn’t equate to understanding or benefit. Most NGOs accept that they must exploit the potential of the digital sphere if they are to stand a chance of achieving their mission but many still believe that their core business can function as usual, which is where media organizations used to be. Websites were seen as an add-on to the main activities of publishing or broadcasting, which is now not the case, as illustrated by the current job cuts and concerns about quality of journalism.

How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz, plus numerous national and local advocacy and development groups that can apparently provide digital native audiences with direct, tangible ways of making a difference? And will it stop there if governments and major institutional donors start fully embracing the internet as a way of doing business? They are already listening to online constituencies. Will these digital-savvy communities start mobilizing online to ask hard questions about why, despite years of effort, international development and humanitarian NGOs have not made poverty history or achieved social justice? And how will they be answered?

Denise Searle is an independent communications consultant. Her current projects include helping to develop a digital strategy for Oxfam and serving as part of the coordinating group for the communications strand of aids2031. She previously served as senior director of communications with Amnesty International and chief of UNICEF’s Internet, Broadcast and Image Section.

  1. Interview with Miles Barter, campaigns officer, National Union of Journalists, January 2009.
  2. UK Press Gazette. “Inside the Guardian’s New Home.” February 2009, p. 34.

December 19 2009




You don’t need to read too much abut the UN Conference in Copenhagen.

Just listen to Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace:

“Not fair, not ambitious and not legally binding.

The job of world leaders is not done.

Today they failed to avert catastrophic climate change.

The city of Copenhagen is a climate crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport in shame.

World leaders had a once in a generation chance to change the world for good, to avert catastrophic climate change.

In the end they produced a poor deal full of loopholes big enough to fly Air Force One through.

We have seen a year of crises, but today it is clear that the biggest one facing humanity is a leadership crisis.”

As The Guardian says today:

Low targets, goals dropped: Copenhagen ends in failure.

So don’t be fooled by the propaganda machine and PR spin of the big polluters.

Copenhagen was not “Hopenhagen”

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