Can Facebook activate a billion consumers to be green?

The Opower partnership confirmed what Weihl and his colleagues believed was true: that reducing the friction and the effort involved in interacting with applications like this is important. “The statistic I've heard is that today in the U.S., people spend about six minutes a year thinking about their home energy use,” said Weihl. “So you're not going to up that by one or two orders of magnitude if it involves much effort. But if you do it in a way that gets people thinking about how they relate to other people and doesn't require one to actually do much, you can begin to draw them in and hopefully begin to change the way they think about this stuff and change behavior.”

“So, where does this go?” I asked. “What are you learning as you help people be more transparent and compare themselves to the Joneses? What comes next?”

Weihl said that Facebook is working to engage the academic community to study the impacts of such apps, “and, from a behavioral perspective, which kinds of things actually engage people and result in real changes of behavior and purchasing that drive reductions in energy use.”

He continued. “Opower has certainly demonstrated, over the last number of years, a very consistent small, single-digit percentage reduction in energy use from the scorecards that they've been sending people. What we're talking about is adding an online, very personal social element to that. The hypothesis is that it will make a significant difference, but that's, at the moment, just a hypothesis. The goal is to gather enough data and do a careful study of that over the next number of months or a year.

“At the same time, we are very interested in encouraging other people to leverage the platform. If they're working on solving sustainability problems using Web technologies — either desktop, Web, mobile, or whatever — we're very interested in encouraging them to think about adding social to that. Or, even better, building social in from the get-go, which can make a big difference in the scale of the impact and the speed at which they can reach a very large audience.”

These early projects and research efforts could be pivotal in influencing future behavioral change around sustainability, and even green marketing. I imagine that as the Opowers and Recyclebanks start to demonstrate the potential here, that consumer packaged goods companies and other marketers will start to flock to Facebook and find ways to make green marketing work in ways it hasn't in the past.

Weihl concurred. “I certainly think there's real potential there. Ultimately, what we want people to do is to change behavior. Some of that might be purchasing behavior. Some of it might be thinking about the way they consume energy in their house or in their vehicles. And actually engaging people — as opposed to just saying, ‘Our product is better’ — is very much aligned with trying to get people to change their behavior and to get people to think about, ‘What is the behavioral norm in my community?’”

That's something that social networks like Facebook can help people see. Lots of people. And if Facebook can help consumers around the world understand what their friends and neighbors are doing for the planet and their community, and if that, in turn, starts conversations and opens minds and changes behavior, Facebook stands to position itself as a catalytic force for good, enabling an army of potential change agents, one billion strong.