The Ups and Downs of Social Media for Sustainability

Any day now, I'll attract my 10,000th follower on Twitter. Whoever you are, thanks. Not coincidentally, Twitter has become my favorite social-media platform. So this seems like a good moment to reflect on social media, sustainability and journalism.

Like most of you, I imagine, I'm spending more time lately with social media — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and blogs (obviously) — and less with newspapers, magazines, television, radio and books. While there's obviously overlap between digital and traditional media, I'm finding social media to be an increasingly efficient and effective way for me to gather and absorb information, which is what I do.

This post is not about how social media is transforming corporate sustainability -- although clearly it is. Business has fewer secrets. Corporate communication has become a two-way process. Corporate shaming campaigns are more powerful than ever. Greenpeace targeted Kit Kat and Nestle very effectively last year on Facebook and YouTube, gay activists at All Out brought pressure on PayPal to drop its business relationship with hate groups and a petition on helped spark a national conversation about shopping on Thanksgiving. This is powerful stuff.

Today, though, I want to talk about my own experience with social media. These platforms can be immensely valuable but they can also be a time suck. Here's my thinking, as of now:

Why I love Twitter: I was on a conference call on August 23 when my home office started to shake. My first reaction was that a car or truck had hit the house. Then I checked Twitter, and found a bunch of posts about the earthquake that was making its way up the east coast. (Within a minute, according to Twitter, there were 40,000 earthquake-related Tweets.) Friends in New York read about the quake on Twitter and felt it moments later.

The point is, Twitter is a super-fast way of keeping up with the news. More important, it's the best way I know of to stay abreast of the news that I need to know -- about business, sustainability, energy, climate and corporate social responsibility. That's because I've found people I trust on Twitter who share what they are reading and thinking about. By spending 15 to 30 minutes a day on Twitter (not counting the time reading links), I can stay on top of news and commentary that matters to me.

I follow nearly 500 people -- too many, and so I intend to prune my list -- but a dozen or two are especially useful to me. They include my colleagues Joel Makower and Hugh Byrne at GreenBiz, Jesse Jenkins and the crew at The Energy Collective, Andy Revkin of Dot Earth, Bryan Walsh of Time, the brilliant curmudgeon David Roberts of Grist, Tom Philpott and Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones, David Biello of Scientific American, Damian Carrington at the Guardian, CSR blogger Toby Webb, and writers Christoper Mims, Paula Crossfield and Sam Fromartz. I also follow groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC and Sierra Club, publications like Grist and a handful of companies, but I much prefer individual voices and tastes.

I love sharing what I'm reading on Twitter, and doing my part to help good work find a broader readership. And, of course, I use Twitter to promote my own writing. We insecure writers (the adjective is superfluous, of course) want nothing more than to be read. Just getting "retweeted" or "favorited" delivers a tiny rush of recognition.

Next page: How do Google+ & Facebook stack up to Twitter?