Greener on the Other Side


How the Internet Can Save the Planet
August 20, 2009, 7:16 pm
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In preparation for what I hope is a panel at SXSW (vote for it here) moderated by my esteemed boss lady Summer Rayne Oakes, I wanted to outline some of my personal thoughts on the lack of connectivity between the internet and the environment. My career sits at the nexus of these two revolutions. I’m working on an Internet startup designed to streamline the supply chain for sustainable fashion designers. It leaves me scrambling to learn everything I can about both movements, but often I feel like I have a leg on two banks of river.  Both revolutions are infants by all accounts, but what’s perplexing is their detachment.

Let’s start with the Internet. The Internet as an industry is not doing well. It’s immensely popular, innovative, socially, culturally, and educationally life alerting, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of money. YouTube (one of the examples used in Chris Andersons incomprehensive book ‘Free’) is estimated to have made around 200 million dollars last year. You may think to yourself, shit 200 million isn’t bad, but YouTube is ranked number 4 on Alexa making it by all means one of the most powerful sites on the entire web. Look up the number 4 energy company, the number 4 bio medial corporation or the number 4 financial firm and you’ll see how measly 200 million dollars is. I understand of course, that the Internet is still in its infancy, but when its number 4 player only makes 200 million dollars something is askew. Other than giants Google, Yahoo and Facebook few top sites have billion dollar potential. Twitter is ranked number 13 and hasn’t even decided on a revenue model yet. This means one of two things; It’s still way to early in the composition of the web to see how it will be profitable. Or, the Internet (generally speaking of course) really doesn’t know how to make money and what’s worse, may not be properly structured to. Before the first dot.com bubble burst VC’s and the average investor alike were more then willing to overlook short-term profitability for inconceivable long term potential. Now, as Web 2.0 comes to a close, the honeymoon is officially over. Looking from the ground up, the start-up community from coast to coast is all in a tizzy. Few of the thousands of start-ups with or without funding have the ability to convincingly answer that ever-important question, “what is your revenue model?” It makes sense to me why, up until the last few years the tech community wasn’t really worried about their revenue stream so the 20 some odd years of experience this industry does have, in some ways, isn’t applicable.

Now lets talk about the environment. In certain aspects a much older industry than the web, conservationism dates back to the 19th century. The “Green” movement however, is relatively new. I don’t love the term “green” but in this context it best describes the social and cultural progression we’ve seen in the last decade. When global warming finally hit the collective conscious we realized that the human being was at a pivotal moment in its existence. Soaring energy costs and turmoil in energy producing regions present catastrophic political and environmental problems, but also unrivaled economic opportunity. All of this has been muddled by an economic crisis and what should be an uncontroversial debate about health care that is instead a floundering political parties last gasp for air. I understand the valid concern for these extremely important issues but the environmental problems facing our planet exceed anything we can even imagine. The beauty is that our environmental woes provide the perfect solution to our long term economic instability. That fact has been skewed by an aforementioned political parties disenchantment with reality and scientific fact, the over branding of “Green” or “greenwashing” which has led many to ignore the issue much like they would any other overly branded concept and the poor assessment that technology will just fix everything when it becomes an imminent danger. All told, the environment needs a second wind.

In sum, these two larger then life movements both have some serious ailments but their problems appear to be tangentially related: The Internet is looking for a direction (a direction that actually makes money) and the environment needs a miracle of human collaboration and invention. That seems like a good fit to me.  For the last 20 years, and rightfully so, the tech community has devoted a tremendous amount effort to improving the Internet itself. Online tools are created before their true purpose and value is revealed. It’s kind of like getting dressed in the dark but with a closet full of great clothes. Now, there is an opportunity to develop specific platforms that aid in saving the planet. It melds perfectly with the idealism that surrounds the Internet and it’s a far greater cause then “connecting” upper middle class white kids. So get on board Internet people, you don’t have to pretend you are changing the world with a social net site for cat breeders…you can actually do it.

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Facebook- In Life and Death.
April 17, 2009, 3:50 pm
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First of all, I’d like to apologize for the long interval since my last post. I debated writing about myself personally on this blog, but as an advocate of social media I felt on this post I should walk the walk and bear all. So, for this installment of greener on the other side, the environment won’t have anything to do with it. Instead, I’ll focus on another aspect of my career, the aforementioned social media and how it recently played a role in my personal life.

In 2006, after 20 years of being a passive Internet user I decided to step up my online game. My brother was carving out a name for himself in the tech space, building off a passion for technology that dated back to his childhood. Under his guidance, I started to pay attention to the revolution. I began reading Wired, TechCrunch and Digg, keeping up with the Internet the way I always followed music, sports and politics. Two years earlier in 2004, Facebook flooded the lives of every college student in the country. It was a constant topic of discussion at bars, dinners and drunken Tuesday afternoons that defined college. We could feel it affecting our lives. Facebook changed the way our generation used the Internet. It was changing dating, creating an additional layer to the already hilarious process of college courtship. It even got my fraternity suspended for a semester. For better or worse, everything that happened in real life, also happened on Facebook. But even with all its influence Facebook never was and still isn’t “cool.” At least not in the way that this was cool, or these guys were cool. Ask most people aged 18-34, “ do you love facebook?” The majority will say no. They will say it’s a great way to keep in touch with friends. I like the pictures. It’s useful. But Zuckerberg’s romantic idea that people feel empowered by Facebook to express their true identity simply isn’t true for the average user. The average Facebook user is a passive one, just like I was pre 2006. They don’t care about web 2.0, the lack of online revenue streams or what their twitter ratio is. For them, the Internet is functional; Google, email, AIM, Facebook, with forays into news sites that cover specific interests, I.E. espn.com, perezhilton.com, nytimes.com. Pre 2006 I was skeptical of the social media tools my brother introduced to me years prior to their widespread adoption. I refused to believe twitter would become a useful tool or that anyone like me would use it. Now it’s my job to use it. So whether or not you care about the Internet doesn’t matter. Not caring about what’s happening online is like not caring about what happens in politics. You can try to ignore it, but one way or another it’s going to affect your life. And while I’ve been studying, using and perfecting the social media, particularly its effectiveness within business, it was very recently that I realized the true depth of its presence in our lives.

On April 4th I lost a wonderful friend of mine, Berit, to a tragic accident. Shortly after learning of her passing I went to her Facebook profile and scrolled through the photos one by one. I was relieved they were there. I voyeuristically watched her life as the pictures went by. I saw her laughing, traveling and living. She was happy. I even got to see myself a few times within her Facebook documentary. As the days passed people began to write on Berit’s wall. Her profile was becoming a memorial. Her sisters even posted information about funeral services. I wasn’t surprised. I had seen this happen before. Twice while I was in college I lost close friends. Each time their Facebook pages were used and still are, as a platform for collective mourning. When I had seen Facebook profiles memorialized in the past, it was in my passive Internet phase. It didn’t register into any greater context. But this time, I noticed the significance. Not only is Facebook an extension of our lives, but also our deaths. At first I felt hesitant about the role Facebook was playing in Berits passing. Somehow it seemed inappropriate. Were we really going to allow Facebook to be apart of this moment? My initial reaction was a mere amplified version of the gut reaction people have to social media all the time. Do I really want everything broadcasted? Do I want people to know where I am, what I am doing and what I am thinking? In this case, posting on Berit’s wall has been helping people express their feelings, deal with the grief and say goodbye. Sure, other people can read it, but I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing. I realized that while I received the news from a dear friend, many people probably found out from Facebook directly. It’s how news travels within our generation. A few summers ago when I was traveling through Europe, cut off from my real life, I received an urgent message via Facebook. The message led me to call home and learn of my friend Garrets death. My discomfort with Facebook playing any kind of role in Berit’s passing quickly dissolved as I realized I still looked at Garrets Facebook profile and that I would do the same with hers. They still show up on your notifications when it’s their birthday. Their face still pops up in the 6 thumbnail photos of your friends. And when they do, you click it. It should be noted that because my friendship with Berit dates far back before the days of Facebook I also looked at pictures on a webshots.com account. Blast from the past both in content and technology.

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to recognize the rhythm of grief I experience when I lose someone close to me. It doesn’t move through stages exactly like they say it should. Different aspects of the 7 stages of grief come in and out simultaneously. For the most part, I’m feeling a mix of reflection and loneliness. Right now, I really miss my friend. I’m beginning to accept she is gone, and I feel an overwhelming sadness for the very simple fact that I won’t get to hang out with her anymore. Missing your friend doesn’t really stop. You keep missing them forever. As time goes on you aren’t as traditionally sad as you were in the beginning, you just want to see your buddy because you know they would like this beach, or this song, or this baseball game or that they would know how to appreciate a given moment. Nothing can fix that. But for the same reason people have had gravestones, tombs and monuments for millenniums, I think it’s nice we have Facebook. More intimate then a few sentences that try to capture the beauty of someone you loved, a Facebook profile is an in depth documentation of their recent life. It goes with you everywhere and it’s at your finger tips 24/7. Gary Vanerychuck of Wine Library TV has talked about this on a few occasions. In the age of the Internet, we will leave behind a tremendous amount of content for our descendents. Our online contributions will be integral in constructing the foundation of our lineage. Imagine if you could read your grandfathers streaming thoughts after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Or, what if you could peruse one of your parent’s Facebook albums entitled, “Woodstock.” In the greater scheme of things it’s a small consolation, the same way a gravestone doesn’t make losing a loved one any easier. But for whatever reason, we as human beings are the sentimental sort. When someone is gone we like to have a symbol of their life here on earth. It helps us remember and it gives us a place to visit when we miss them. No Facebook profile, gravestone, or anything for that matter, could ever truly depict Berit as the dynamic, amorous, intelligent, effervescent person she was. But they can help us to crystallize her life’s narrative. In the end it seems we really can’t escape Facebook’s presence in life or death, but at least for now, I think that’s okay.