The Guardian's excellent Web 2.0 blog-up
If we build it, they'll shrug
Comment Late last month The Guardian quietly put to sleep its exercise in fighting climate change via the power of blogs, Tread Lightly. Nine months of weekly personal CO2 reduction pledges by Guardian readers had shown, Carolyn Fry wrote bravely, "that even relatively small weekly carbon savings can add up to significant amounts if enough people commit themselves to the task in hand."
Which is true, as statements of the obvious so frequently are. But unhappily for the Graun, which has bet a fair bit of its Internet ranch on Web 2.0 (and which just recently passed a $30 million wad through the bookie's window), the exercise also indicated that not enough people - hardly any, in fact - were prepared to commit themselves to the task in hand.
We noted the deranged hubris of the original Tread Lightly announcement, The Register and since then have been quietly observing the unfolding disaster. In October Leo Hickman - exhibiting a bizarrely precise knowledge of Graun readership numbers - wrote that if Guardian readers switched to energy efficient light bulbs "this week, we could turn off a coal-fired power station for one day, one hour, 46 minutes and 1 second."
By the time Carolyn Fry was euthanising Tread Lightly, the Graun's blogborg had, over something in excess of 30 weeks, "saved" 54.13 tonnes of CO2 - thus shutting down the notional power station for 23 minutes. Fry herself doesn't put it that way, choosing instead to claim that it's the equivalent of 83,000 two mile car journeys, which sounds a lot more impressive. But two can play at that game - 54.13 tonnes is the equivalent of the UK's total CO2 emissions over three seconds. Want to see it again?
If you look at it from the point of view of a publisher doctrinally convinced of the wisdom and activism of crowds, the numbers are grimmer still. Introducing a similar exercise - "Katine, it starts with a village" - immediately prior to Tread Lightly, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had spoken of focussing "15 million readers around the world" on the development of an African village. Tread Lightly's numbers seem to reverse engineer to a rather smaller readership figure than this (around 2.5 million - although the Graun's audits shows it currently has around 18 million unique users), but over its whole life only 4,333 people signed up with it to 'make a difference.'
Worse still, as we noted in our original report Tread Lightly clocked up 2,000 of these in the first weekend and, onwards and worsewards, a whole 68 participated in the final pledge (to buy UK-sourced low air miles charcoal this summer, since you ask). Debate about low energy lightbulbs had been brisk in the first pledge week, but this tailed off rapidly, and comment numbers rarely hit double figures in its final few months. Effectively, Tread Lightly was moribund after the first couple of weeks (as indeed was "It starts with a village").
As exercises in winning and holding reader engagement, and in harnessing the power of the Internet to solve the world's problems, both were clearly stonking failures.* This was, so long as you hadn't had one sip too many of Web 2.0 loonyjuice, obvious from the start, and should have been obvious to anyone with some grasp of how newspapers - and indeed blogs - work. We understand that prior to taking up his position "at the forefront of the digital revolution" Alan Rusbridger had some experience as a journalist, when he might surely have noticed that stories have short shelf lives, people have short attention spans, and they wander off fairly rapidly if you bang away at the same thing ad nauseam.
They might commit themselves in large numbers for one thing - say, signing a petition - but the more effort involved and the longer the period of commitment the fewer people will commit. Yes, a handful will stick the course, but that is the nature of activism - it does not come in batches of 15 million, and it does not sell newspapers.
Not all of Rusbridger's staff seem to notice this kind of thing, however. In February, when Tread Lightly had manifestly been comatose for three months, Jessica Aldred claimed (with the power station now off for 15 minutes) that the project's success so far showed "that we can achieve big things through small actions... so now we'd like to tell you about our plans for the site and ask you about what you'd like to see in the future."
Plans for future development (which did not include putting a bullet into it after another five months) "are to enable you to send pledges to a friend, and create a working communities section - it would be great to get a group functionality going, so that schools, clubs and families can pledge together (until then, there is a Facebook group that you can join)."
The Facebook group currently appears to have a membership of 26, and to have more or less pegged out after pledge two - possibly not an ideal example of the power of communities. The response to Aldred's post was perhaps not 100 per cent supportive, including: "The total lack of interest for this naive Blue-Peteresk, jolly-hockey-sticks, proto-nazi 'I'm cleaner-than-thou and saving-the-world' nonsense is most heartening. Four months and millions of Guardian internet readers to preach to... and you've struggled to sign up 4000 cranks. Even the comments section about this escapade descends into squabbling over carrier bags after the fifth message."
A point pithily made. So where did it all go wrong? Essentially, at the point where Rusbridger and Hickman said 'make a difference', and believed that they could. Newspapers can be quite useful things, can inflict the occasional dent on deserving targets and can cause some small changes, but they are most certainly not large-scale change-making machines. When they attempt to present themselves as such they fall flat on their faces and look ridiculous. Or, when they attempt to hitch a lift on change that's already happening with high profile campaigns, they look shabbily cynical.
And Web media aren't that different. Just like the dead tree merchants they can pontificate worthily to small audiences, scream less worthily to larger audiences, and induce people to rabbit on for their own entertainment. But change the world? And when people start acting like they think they can, you know they've got a bad dose of Web 2.0-itis. ®
* N.B., in some senses "It takes a village" can be viewed as a success. As we pointed out when it launched, strip away the Web 2.0 fluffiness of the project and it boils down to Geldof and "give us yer fokkin money." It's raised over £800,000 so far, so although the 'power of the web' stuff was a giant turkey, old-style charitable donations clearly still work.