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Power Ballad: Public shaming FTW.

The British: Humoursly shaming each other since at least Queen Victoria.

The power of British sarcasm and self-depreciation.

Ever a sucker for projects with clever names, I couldn’t help looking into the short paper  “Power ballads: deploying aversive energy feedback in social media,” which, incidentally, was a follow up to the paper “There’s a monster in my kitchen: using aversive feedback to motivate behaviour change.” Despite the fact that I have my suspicions that this whole project was conceived over a pint and much laughter, I have to give credit to these researchers for looking to falsify the commonly held belief that people will not respond appropriately to corrective feedback (i.e. punishment). It’s Science! Science seeks to falsify beliefs, yay science!

Many point to research findings, such as Schultz’s et al. 2007 study of  social norms and energy usage, to support the notion that some people become disengaged with the topic of environmental sustainability when they are punished for poor performance relative to others. In order to avoid punishment, it’s said that it’s simply easier to not engage with the thing that is punishing you, be it your hydro bill or your “be-an-eco-star” app. A little touch of the avoidant in all of us, I suppose. Makers of the Power Ballad suggest that aversion can be delivered in a way that is engaging – namely – using humour.

Power Ballads notification interfaces for energy usage.

Power Ballads notification interfaces for energy usage.

Power Ballads is a project that attempts to use a cheeky form of public shaming to encourage participants to use less energy from one 24 hour-cycle to the next. Users check into the Power Ballads application via their Facebook account and this connects to  Current Cost, an off-the-shelf home energy monitoring system to collect energy use information. The interface informs them of their energy usage with a large notification stating ‘Yes!’ if they have saved energy or ‘No!’ if they have increased their usage. Should the participant be in the latter camp, the application automatically publishes a public post to their Facebook newsfeed suggesting they are both listing to some “popular UK chart music”, and that they have been using more energy over the past 24 hours compared to the previous 48 hours. The researchers let it be known that the nine “participants were initially screened and accepted based on their strong disliking for this type of modern chart music.” What we don’t know is how concerned they are about their energy usage.

At the time of the paper’s composition this was a small pilot project. Only 5 of the participants were actually able to use Power Ballads for a variety of reasons. Only 30% of the visits to the application resulted is aversive feedback, for a total of 50 automatic Facebook posts. There was some indication that the aversive feedback led to some interesting engagement with the topic of energy use, both on the part of the participant and his/her friends.  The “majority of comments were centred on two themes, the first based around energy usage and the appliances potentially responsible for causing the aversive feedback. The second theme focused around friendly banter related to the chart music used in the newsfeed posts.

I haven’t yet found any updates on  their site, but there are a lot of interesting projects going on at the Lincoln Social Computing research centre, UK. One has to wonder, given the  unique nature of British humour, how generalizable any such findings would be, even with a larger sample. While I’m pretty confident that Canadians would be just as likely to get a kick out of this, I don’t know how universal this particular brand of self-effacing humour is. That being said, I would be thrilled to see this expand to include other, perhaps randomized, shameful posts… bad TV listings, links to gossip columns, anything pointing to FOX news. All in the name of sustainability, of course.

Foster, D., Linehan, C., Lawson, S., & Kirman, B. (2011, May). Power ballads: deploying aversive energy feedback in social media. In CHI’11 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2221-2226). ACM
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