From a casual phenomenon to a full blown societal addiction - does Social Media have more to answer for than we recognise? We explore the social and hidden environmental impact of social media.
In a recent blog, we discussed how digital impacts your carbon footprint and how technology leaders and data center providers need to be not just cognizant of these growing consumption habits, but actively helping to innovate within the digital landscape.
In that blog post we explored the impact that video calls, emails and web browsing have on the environment, but is there a bigger risk within the digital world that is increasing our carbon footprint? In this blog we discuss the impact of our social media habits and just how it came to be a real social dilemma.
Since the first social media platform was launched in 1997, our interest in social platforms has continued to grow exponentially and even though Myspace probably still holds a special place in many hearts, it wasn’t until Facebook launched in 2004 that social media really began to take off.
Swiftly following the launch of the now ‘Meta’; YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Twitter to name a few began to surface over the years. Before then, there were very few ways of staying “connected” remotely. Life as we know it was transforming as social platforms began to reunite families and long-lost friends, match organ donors, and open our eyes to a world we had never had access to before.
Fast forward almost two decades and more than half of the world’s population are now active on social media. With over 4.2bn active monthly users on social, on average we spend 2.5 hours a day aimlessly scrolling our social feeds, liking memes, creating TikTok’s or Reels and reconnecting with old friends, work colleagues or potential love interests.
So where did our obsession with social media come from? In 2020, Netflix released a documentary called ‘The Social Dilemma’ which soon became the number one topic of conversation for the eye-opening information that was shared. During the documentary there was one idea that stuck with many people, and it was that we are “The product”. For regular users’ social media is free – so just how exactly does Meta become a $500bn company, with no paying users. The answer? Advertising. And it is through this idea that we are the product being sold to advertisers
“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product”
There are 3 main goals of social media. The first is to drive up engagement, get people spending more time online, interacting with their feeds and sharing content. Second, a growth goal. How can we get more people on the platform? Encouraging their users to invite friends, family, co-workers – more people, more data and finally, the third goal, advertising. More people online for longer, equals better data, better decisions, better Return on Investment (ROI).
Every platform, whether it’s Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube et al. has an advertising model and it’s through these that tech giants are making their money. To be able to offer the best possible service to advertisers and make the function a success, these tech companies need to provide tools which allow the advertiser to make informed decisions by providing enough data about the platform’s users and online habits, to do this you need data and in order to get that data, you need users to be spending more time online.
To get people to spend time online you need to make the platform more attractive and to do this, social media companies track your every move and begin to learn everything about you, typically through AI. What you like, who you like, where you visit, your dislikes, what your political stance is (and in some cases the ability to influence this) are being collected, analysed, and monetised by Social AI.
Over time, social media companies have become so sophisticated with the technologies that they use, they have created an unconscious habit – much like the casinos or slot machines, so that without realising it, you are constantly checking social media and exposing yourself, feeding the addiction as it were. Tech giants are exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology and constantly testing the platforms to find the optimal way to get more people using the platforms and it’s working, with the average time spent on social increasing from 90mins in 2012 to 153mins in 2019.
“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse” – Sophocles
But whilst this is great for advertisers and tech companies on the platforms, as well as having significant social impacts, it also creates significant pressure on anyone trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Now, in the grander picture of business growth, the impact on the environment we expect will always play second fiddle to profit in many board rooms, but what of our individual and collective impact or action?
When spending so much time online, it’s not only easy to disconnect from the real world, but also from the impact our scrolling habits are having on the environment - losing sight of not only our individual action but also what we should expect from our technology providers and platforms.
So, let’s look at what impact our usage of some of the biggest platforms has on the planet.
TikTok was first launched in 2017, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that the platform really took off. Users in their millions took to the streaming platform in a bid to entertain themselves throughout the various lockdowns and quickly the platform exceeded all expectations amassing over 2billion monthly users. And whilst this is fantastic news for the social media company, what does it mean for the planet? Let’s look at the numbers.
There are 3.7m active TikTok users in the UK and according to the comparethemarket.com social tool, TikTok uses 2.68g C02 eq. per minute. So, if we consider that the average person in the UK spends on average 41 minutes a day on the day, that’s 110g C02 eq a day. And if we looked at the year:
(2.68g x 41 = 110g C02 eq) x 365 days = 40106g C02 eq or 40.11kg C02
That’s the equivalent of driving 101 miles in an average car or charging 4885 smartphones. For one user that is quite significant in itself but if we multiplied that figure by the number of active users in the UK (3.7m) it becomes a lot more eyewatering at the equivalent of driving 372,940,821 miles in a car. That’s around the world 14,976 times or to the moon and back 780 times!
We’re all familiar with Facebook’s story, but following it’s launch in 2004, the social platform has since become the biggest social media platform in the world with 2.85bn monthly users. Reconnecting lost family members and matching organ donors the platform certainly has its benefits, but what is the impact it’s having on the planet?
In the UK, Facebook has 44.84 million users, who on average spend 23 minutes a day scrolling the app and considering comparethemarket.com says that 0.8g C02 eq. are used every minute spent on the app, so:
(0.8g C02 eq. x 23 = 19g C02 eq.) x 365 days = 8395g C02 eq. or 8.4kg Co2 eq.
This would be enough to drive 20.9 miles in an average car, but if we look at that number for every user in the UK it fast becomes enough energy for 45,331 homes a year or 42,357,578 gallons of gas.
Instagram, bought by Facebook Inc. for $1bn in 2012 is a relative latecomer in terms of social platforms, only being introduced in 2010. The photo-sharing app has since transformed with shopping and reels being launched over the years and amassing over 1.4bn users worldwide, 30.6million of which in the UK.
In terms of energy used by the platform, the tool calculates that just 1 minute on the platform uses 1g C02 eq., with the average user in the UK spending 32 minutes a day on the platform.
1g C02 eq. x 32 = 32g C02 eq.) x 365 days = 11680g C02 eq. or 11.7kg Co2 eq.
That’s the equivalent of driving 29.4miles in an average car, but again if you multiply that figure by the number of active monthly users, the figure is staggering with enough C02 eq. being used to power 7,651 homes for one year or charge 5,123,588,269 smartphones.
It’s clear to see that the impact of our social habits is dramatic. And yes, we may not be hopping in a so-called gas guzzling car to take a Sunday drive as a pastime any longer, but our habits are far from without consequence.
When discussing sustainability, it’s easy to dismiss our digital habits and not acknowledge the damaging impacts they are having on the environment unlike we do with single-use plastics, car emissions or production for example.
And whilst technology companies like Apple have introduced features such as the ‘Downtime’ function which encourages you not to spend so much time on your phone and can even be set at an app level, it’s not enough. These tech giants must acknowledge the impact our social habits have and create an awareness amongst their users. But as our overall appetite for digital increases, we must not only address our digital consumption at an individual level, but force technology partners look within and analyse their own supply chains to see where improvements can and should be made.
Digital services, whether it’s social, web-browsing, streaming, emails, or instant messaging are all delivered via Data Centers, cloud, edge, on-premise or hosted and it’s here lies the biggest opportunity to redress and reduce our carbon footprint. If we are to continue our digital way of life and enjoy all the advancements and connectivity that it brings but also strive to achieve net-zero, we mustn’t ask for just faster, more advanced services from our social media companies and tech giants, but we should be asking, or rather demanding, better, greener, and more sustainable platforms and operations and we must ask now.
As Social Media becomes increasingly more addictive and the Data Center of the future becomes more and more squeezed across all benchmarks we must be mindful of the costs both financially and to our environment, if sustainability and performance are on your agenda then Gaia Edge will collaborate with you to achieve your goals, both today and tomorrow.
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