Unsustainable energy consumption poses a major threat to our environment. If unchecked, it could lead to a number of disastrous scenarios, ranging from climate change to resource shortages. Carbon-neutral, renewable energy sources provide one long-term solution to this problem, but the effort required to construct a clean, renewable power grid suggests that addressing the supply-side of the issue alone is not a quick answer. Managing demand is also necessary. Initial studies have found significant opportunities for improving energy use by analyzing and optimizing the energy required to run social networks.
Social networks are often thought of from a behavioral standpoint, but they are actually deeply socio-technical in nature, according to the researchers. They link behavioral and social activities with a myriad of infrastructural networks that support relationships between individuals. These networks include the Internet, telephone systems and transportation networks, all of which are in turn tied to power and fuel-supply networks, such as electricity grids.
Accompanied by UMSI lecturer Eric Hofer, Finholt studied the use of social networks to help individuals reduce their energy footprint by examining how different communication technologies are used in social networks and how energy use accumulates in technical networks that support relationships. The results from this study could ultimately provide a better understanding of the energy cost of social networks and social computing technologies and the impact on climate change, information technology for development, and operational efficiency.
Social networks play a powerful shaping role on underlying infrastructural networks, placing great demands on their capacity and helping determine how they evolve through use. A systematic understanding of the linkages between social networks and infrastructure is critical to effective design of future socio-technical networks because social activity plays a driving role in the dynamics and behavior of technical systems in networks.
The project also looked at discretionary behavior—things like travel, Facebook use, how often people talk on their iPhones, and other choices that people make. This research sought to capture that behavior and make people aware of their usage patterns and give them the ability to make different choices to impact energy use in a more positive manner.
To hear Thomas Finholt talk about this project, please watch his YouTube interview here.