'U' professors research use of energy in social networks

By Claire Goscicki, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 9, 2011

While logging into Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn may seem as simple as clicking a button, two University faculty members suggest there are complex, energy-intensive processes behind these mediums for social interaction.

Thomas Finholt, professor of information and senior associate dean for faculty in the School of Information, and Erik Hofer, lecturer in the School of Information, recently received a nearly $300,000 two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to research energy use of social networks. The networks include online, cell phone and other mobile communications.

Finholt and Hofer have been involved in this area of study for more than 10 years. Their work has evolved in part due to the increasing popularity of social media tools. The goal of their research is to find ways to make energy systems more sustainable and ultimately help people manage or reduce their carbon footprints.

“People maintain their social networks through a whole host of supporting infrastructures, and those all have energy signatures associated with them,” Finholt said, giving the example of a cell phone, which goes through an energy-intensive manufacturing and packaging process and uses additional energy to power its battery and antenna

Finholt added that he is concerned about the overconsumption of Earth’s fossil fuels, which are burned to support many of the processes associated with socializing.

“We think (social networks) are a place where some of this energy consumption is discretionary, and if people knew what the consequences were, they might change their patterns of behavior,” Finholt said.

For Hofer, the research also prompts the question of how much power and energy is truly required to maintain a friendship. Hofer said he hopes to better understand the means by which people network with one another and develop relationships, whether it’s through social media such as Facebook or Twitter, e-mail, cell phone communication or meeting in person. Ultimately, this understanding could lead to the creation of more sustainable technologies to support interpersonal connections, he said.

Hofer added that the findings will help answer a broad range of questions about communication patterns and how they vary across different demographics.

“It’s a very exciting project … It’s a chance for us to take a big step back and look at how all of these new technologies that we’re using to shape our social lives are being used in the real world by people and in what combinations,” Hofer said.