Your Content Has a Carbon Footprint ... and It’s a Problem
Clint Eastwood is quoted as saying, "Tomorrow is promised to no one." (Doubtless, he quietly added, "unless you're content.")
We are all digital hoarders, by accident or design. And whether this content resides on physical devices or is jettisoned to the cloud (yes, the cloud still counts as hoarding), it has an environmental impact that we must all answer for.
Before we go further, it might be useful to define content. On a personal level, content is anything you have created, stored or shared on your mobile phone, for example. Pictures, memes, videos, music, WhatsApp messages, emails, text messages ... you get the idea. From a professional standpoint, think websites, intranets, communication channels, DMS, CRM.
Gerry McGovern understands the environmental impact of our digital hoarding habits. Speaking with UK Tech News, Gerry thinks we need to talk about the cloud, “because it’s not a cloud at all.” It is 7.2 million energy-hungry data centers where hundreds of servers require round the clock powering and cooling. Data emits carbon, but, according to Gerry, 90% of data is rubbish that isn’t used three months after it is created.
This may sound wildly unlikely, but check your content strategy, channel strategy or intranet and website governance. There's a good chance you will struggle to find a process for content review and deletion.
As a serial contractor, I'm often brought into an organization to make sense of the "content chaos." Almost every conversation I've ever had about a company's intranet echoes with frustration around inadequate search results (despite the textual treacle that must first be crawled to produce said results), and, more generally, huge swathes of time lost trying to find content.
The problem isn't just one of lost productivity or of employees who can't find the right information to do their jobs. This is also a problem for the planet. Because the content that we don't audit, delete (archiving doesn't count) or repurpose becomes fodder for that capacious storage repository in the sky.
Disposable Content (Which Never Gets Disposed)
Where internal communications are concerned, talk really isn't cheap. The imperative of engaging employees or establishing a dialogue around topics comes at a significant carbon cost to the planet (as well as the IT budget).
A colleague of mine once described internal communications as the glue which holds an organization together, such is the breadth and diversity of its content.
Seasonal holidays, business wins, transformation projects are all examples of transient content that have no tangible lifespan, but remain under the intranet's surface for years.
From a dissemination and implementation (D&I) perspective alone, I counted over 50 calendar days "of note" where articles, images, videos and podcasts will be generated for employee consumption. Just imagine the sheer weight of storage this accumulated content will require over one, three, five years! We are in the business of producing single-use, disposable content — which doesn't ever get disposed.
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Post-pandemic, the sprawl of communication channels gives and takes in equal measure. On a positive note, you now have a plethora of information at your fingertips, variations of detail (depending on the channel) and you're far less likely to miss something important. That is, unless you’re suffering from information overload with your attention pulled every which way due to said communication channels!
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As the debate rages on about what a good channel strategy looks like, let's set aside the more obvious environmental impact of all this free-flowing content generated by channels and focus on the more nebulous footprint of channel notifications. Take Microsoft 365 as an example.
Anyone working in internal communications knows the importance of using both "push" and "pull" channels to target their audience. What they don't know is that’s a hill they will die trying on, if Microsoft settings have anything to do with it.
By default, a new post, @tag or message will appear in your desktop version of Teams or Yammer. Great. But wait! What if you were making a tea, plotting corporate domination at the water cooler, or, dare I say, scrolling through your Insta account?
Fear not. Microsoft has this covered with the failsafe of channel alerts, reminding you in Outlook that there are channel alerts to review. And if you downloaded any of those channels to your mobile phone, well, third time's the charm.
Not only are the channel strategy efforts of the internal comms team redundant, the company edict about reduced email usage, utterly moot, your sanity gets a HIIT-style workout and the carbon fallout from all this activity is frankly catastrophic (in the context of this repetitious behavior across every Microsoft 365 account in your organization, not to mention organizations worldwide).
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Be the Change You Want to See
With the future of our planet firmly in the spotlight, chances are you’re already doing your bit at home and in the office. But don't wait for your organization to put digital sustainability on the strategy agenda if they haven't already done so.
There are lots of ways you can mitigate the carbon footprint of your content (and you don't need to be a content editor either), as well as raise awareness of this issue to senior leadership.
Stay tuned for part two of this installment, when we put the focus on producing carbon conscious content and creating a culture of content cancellation.
About the Author
I have delivered knowledge related content and internal communications (often based on transformation initiatives) applying content design principles — in particular, GDS — and UX writing to provide a relevant, informed, and positive user experience for external and internal audiences. My background includes product management and I'm a keen advocate of “clean digital” practices — to minimize our carbon footprint and promote sustainability — across intranet and content channels.