How Social Media Will Push Earth Hour Beyond The Blackout

For one hour on March 26, millions of people will turn off their lights and sit in relative darkness. It may seem like a random way to support environmentally sustainable action, but Earth Hour — a global initiative in partnership with the World Wildlife Fun (WWF) — is hoping that one hour of darkness will lead to a whole year of change.

Begun in Australia in 2007, Earth Hour has grown exponentially. Last year, more than 125 countries participated in the self-imposed blackout. Even major landmarks such as Rome’s Colosseum, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Toronto’s CN Tower and Egypt’s Pyramids went dark to support the cause.

This year, Earth Hour will take place from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m., local time, March 26. The various time zones will create a wave effect as countries show their support hour by hour.

Despite the international acceptance and support, Earth Hour has been plagued by accusations of poor effectiveness. Sure, it’s great for people to spend an hour thinking about the planet, but what happens at 9:31 when all the lights go back on? What kind of change can a one-off event really have?

Earth Hour, on its skeleton crew, has been trying to answer that question for five years. Now, they think they might have the answer in a new platform designed for and powered by its millions of supporters.

Beyond the Hour

Beyond the Hour” is a platform that allows anybody to post and pledge his or her environmental actions and then share those promises and stories through social networks. With global scale in mind, the platform will be translated into 11 different languages.

Users can mouse over the dynamic images to preview randomly selected actions or search by a variety of terms, including location. If users see an action that speaks to them, they can join in by clicking “do this” to mirror the pledge.

An app version of the platform has already landed in the iTunes store for iPhone, with an Android version on the way. Both offer all the same functionality of the web app.

Earth Hour also created embeddable widgets to allow bloggers to share “Beyond the Hour” from their own sites. All of these projects feed back into the platform.

An Environmental Resolution for the Planet

Earth Hour co-founder and executive director Andy Ridley always considered the hour to be a valentine to the planet, or even a New Year’s Eve-type event. He hopes Beyond the Hour will act like a web portal for millions of New Year’s resolutions aimed at environmental living. “The plan was always to go beyond the hour,” Ridley said. “If you can prove that hundreds of millions of people care, what do you do next? There’s only a few of us [on staff], so we had to make it open source and hand it over to the people out there. The next bit is asking: ‘What does everyone want to do?’ ”

Just like a normal New Year’s resolution, that idea obviously has its pitfalls. Are you really going to go to the gym more this year? Are you really going to switch our your incandescent lights this year? However, while it’s easy to point theoretical fingers, Beyond the Hour has already racked up some extraordinary promises.

The government of Nepal has committed to put a complete stop to tree-felling in the Churiya Range, a vital ecological and sociological forest area. Mengniu Dairy, a Chinese dairy company, is doubling the number of milk cartons it recycles and increasing its use of FSC-certified packaging. Clover Moore, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, has committed to another six separated bike lanes (“cycleways”), installing LED lights in parks and streets and endorsing a tri-generation plant to provide low carbon energy. Credit Suisse AG is sponsoring an Earth Hour in Singapore and also promising to send staff to a Brazilian forest reserve to support field research.

It’s possible to get involved even if you’re not a major government or company. Chloe Nicol, a 7-year-old girl from Australia, is guiding her school to increase recycling and reduce energy waste. Ridley pledged to only drink local beer to help cut down on the cost, waste and emissions of shipping and transportation. It may be small, but those little promises can add up.

So What’s the Big Deal?

Earth Hour’s mission is not revolutionary in and of itself. Many other organizations and non-profits have tried to use the Internet for green causes. What stands out is how the project has evolved to embrace social media not just as a talking point but also as a way to extend its impact. “The big inspiration [for the campaign] was the frustration that we were not reaching out to millions of people,” Ridley said. “We were only talking to people that already sort of agreed with what we were saying.” The first year, millions of Australians joined Earth Hour but the idea didn’t quite have global appeal.

The team used social media to spread awareness but also to listen to the global conversation. Ridley explained that Morocco joined Earth Hour in 2010 thanks in large part to seven students. “They contacted us through Facebook and said, ‘We want to do this for the whole city.’ We basically sent a letter to their mayor and that’s a story that’s sort of been replicated across the world,” Ridley said.

Despite having an extraordinarily low budget (Ridley said a lot of the work is done by friends as favors), online tools have been a way to grow the campaign without blowing the bank. Ridley hopes the new Beyond the Hour platform will help make the goal a reality by empowering the Earth Hour community. “The holy grail for us is to start getting lots of content but [also] to start getting into the situation where the kid in Beijing can connect with the kid in Rio, using Rosetta Stone, to share what they’re doing in their home or on the street. You can scale that to cities and countries.”

The whole point is not to create a social media “event” or blackout stunt but rather to use the rally point as a launch pad for environmental conversation driven by social networks and tools like Beyond the Hour. It’s possible for social media to inspire change, whether you’re the government of Nepal or just looking to drink local beer.

Now it’s your turn: What do you make of crowdsourcing social good and do you think it’s possible for the community to organize itself? Sound off in the comments below.

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