How to reduce the carbon footprint of your online community
Just like offline communities, where there are people there is energy – and that energy both draws on, and leaves an imprint on the world around us.
While you might not immediately think of the environmental impacts of an online community, it’s useful to understand what they may be, and how you can influence them if that’s something important to you or your organisation.
The internet pollutes
Every time we send an email, use a search engine, store or retrieve data, we’re expending energy.
The infrastructure used to access and run our digital lives (like smartphones and laptops, data centres and servers) is responsible for an estimated 2 per cent of the planet’s total CO2 emissions. With every bite of data produced, this number grows.
Though we can’t see it, the traffic, interactions and output of the online communities we lead and participate in, add to the internet’s environmental impacts.
One of the best ways to reduce your footprint is where you house your community.
If you’re shopping around for a community platform, ask vendors about the state of their green credentials. Do they power their hosting using renewables? Do they have commitments in place to reduce emissions generated by their servers or data centres?
The large platforms have significant footprints, and are working on more efficient solutions. Smaller community platforms have less scale to work with, but can offer more control and the opportunity to influence their practices.
Make sustainability a priority when choosing your community site and you’ll help change the conversation for the better.
Is your content draining?
When online communities primarily consisted of text-based content, less energy was used. Now, our communities are rich in images, video and real-time streams, which draw on systems and devices more intensively.
Web designers think about the time their designs will take to load on someone’s device, using techniques such as file compression and caching to minimise user effort and energy. You can do the same with your community – both on platform and when you’re sending communications like emails.
Make every post count, and only use energy-intensive content formats when you have to. If you do, put measures in place to minimise load. Use free tools like https://www.websitecarbon.com/ to measure the estimated emissions from your community website pages, and https://whatdoesmysitecost.com/ to understand cost implications for people accessing your community around the world.
The ‘weight’ of websites has grown significantly in the last decade, as we move more of our lives online, and our expectations about website performance and capability increase. Video and graphics has played a role in that increase, but another driver is the number of analytical tools we’re plugging into the back-end of our websites and communities.
We need to measure how our community is doing, but we don’t need to allow tracking and advertising scripts that add to data weight without adding value. Be judicious about how your community webpages are set up and how they interact with third parties like advertisers or measuring tools.
Privacy and data protection make environmental sense – when large amounts of data are regularly transferred back and forth, more emissions are generated. Stick to what you need to build a thriving community and avoid capturing data that has no intrinsic value.
Reduce search effort
Online communities can be fantastic for SEO, helping align your organisation with the topical authority of your community subject matter and making you the go-to source of info for that subject.
But every unique search for something online (on any device) contributes carbon emissions from data centres and back-end infrastructure grinding away to connect us with results – up to 7 grams of carbon emissions per search.
Make it easier to find information via your community, and you can help lower this effort. Gather popular and topical answers and discussions. Corral content and information logically for member journeys and needs.
Creating a positive, helpful experience for your members doesn’t just help you drive constructive engagement, it can make you a better environmental citizen.
Behind the scenes
What type of business operations sit behind your online community?
If you host your own community on servers, what type of energy do you use?
Are the physical and digital processes you use to operate the community and the business around it sustainable in practice, or more wasteful than they could be?
Do they inequitably tax energy or materials?
Giving community managers and moderators ample time for rest and rejuvenation isn’t just good for their wellbeing, it can also ease your environmental burden. Shutting the computer down, switching into low-power mode, and unplugging saves energy as well as sanity.
Part of the story
Greening your community adds another dimension to its story.
You can discuss your efforts with members – and there may be elements they can help with directly that could form part of your content or engagement planning.
If your community prioritises social impact, mapping and sharing their environmental footprint could form part of a reason for joining and promote a sense of belonging. It can also be woven into PR or marketing for the community as a signal of community (or organisational) priorities. Become an example that others in your organisation and wider circles can be inspired by.
You can make a difference
Though it may not be your chief concern when it comes to online community, don’t overlook how it could influence the environment, for better or worse. You might like to get involved with initiatives like the Web Neutral Project work to create carbon-neutral websites – or start your own version for like-minded organisations.
Online communities do have a carbon footprint. As a responsible community custodian, explore how you can steer yours in a downward direction. Start by measuring how you’re doing now, then benchmark as you make improvements over time.