The internet is undergoing a recursive metamorphosis from a loosely connected network of anonymous strangers to a rich, social mesh with users increasingly asserting their identity online and sharing information that would have seemed too private to publish only a few years ago. And a slew of services has emerged to either leverage monster social graphs (ala Zynga) or build one of their own from the ground up (FourSquare).
There's a social network for almost anything you can think of and one might be forgiven for assuming that this new web would have spawned several successful cleantech business models centered around social networking. But look around, and very few notable names come to mind. There are a handful of interesting green social networks in CarbonRally, MakeMeSustainable and their counterparts, and a noteworthy (but arguably trivial) game in (Lil) Green Patch; but none of them seem to have acquired significant momentum / scale.
And here's why we think green social won't work. Or at least not in its current avatar.
When the novelty around a service wears off, it needs to address two key issues for the service to remain 'sticky' and subsequently become addictive:
1) There needs to be sufficient utility or incentive, so that the user is convinced to return
2) The service needs to deliver fresh content each time the user returns, even in the event of minimal participation
Most green social services fail miserably on the first front. Let's face it - green, for most users, is "nice to have", not essential, and far from a being pain point. And while these services try very hard to compensate for this lacuna by building a "game component" into their offerings, this game element simply doesn't have legs because it isn't quite possible to verify the veracity of most claims (+20 points for drying clothes in the sun rather than the electric dryer - who's to verify you really did?). Oh, and the second front is heavily dependent on the first - even if you're able to deliver insightful new content, what's the point if the user never returns?
At this point we'd like to digress and draw an analogy from location based social networks, because they're all the rage right now. Loopt and Brightkite were early players in location based social networking - they let users announce where they are and discover friends or interesting places around them. But somewhere down the line, they became a bit boring and lost some of their sheen - there was utility in sharing your location, but no real incentive to do so, and fewer users sharing their location meant that there was lesser new content flowing in. Foursquare and Gowalla stepped up to break this vicious circle by awarding users points each time they "checked in" to a place and having them compete to try and check in to as many places as frequently as they could. What will take location to another level though, is users' locations being resolved in the background the moment they walk into a place.
What's the take away for green social networks? The answer, we believe, lies in the internet of things. With the emergence of the smart grid and in-built sensors in devices that we use, some of the fundamental problems plaguing green social get tackled. Going back to the location analogy, the internet of things can potentially do for green social networks what automatic location resolution will for their location counterparts - elevate them to the purest form of a game where your real-world actions influence your in-game performance.
So picture this (and note that the technology for all this exists right now; it simply needs to be woven together):
You put your clothes out in the sun to dry and your power consumption drops for the day. Your Google Powermeter feed reflects this change and you've scored 10 points over your neighbour. You cut the lights for a couple of hours during peak energy demand (which you're informed about in real time as you're hooked up to the smart grid) and your utility offers you a rebate. Your green social dashboard lets you know what your environmental footprint looks like in real time and lets you offset it at the push of a button. It also lets you know how your friends are faring, where you can improve and the products or services (do we smell a monetization model?) that can help you get there.
It will be extremely interesting to observe how green social networks evolve to step up to the next level. What's beyond doubt though, is that it's high time someone got the world addicted to a real-world game to save the planet and stopped people from dropping the classic cliché "I'd like to do my bit, but have no idea how".