Mankoff and her colleagues developed a website called StepGreen, which is providing people with advice and motivation for reducing their carbon footprint. StepGreen enables people to track everyday actions that save energy and often cut expenses — from replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents to air-drying the dishes.
How it works: the StepGreen site can be linked to an individual's profile page on MySpace or Facebook, where updates are sent as a news feed. A polar bear icon on the page will thrive or fail depending on the individual's actions, or inactions. The site keeps track of how much users are saving and how they are shrinking their carbon footprint.
"Research shows that a public commitment to environmental action increases the follow-through," said Mankoff. Pilot studies of the social network application also showed that users are engaged by the use of a cartoon icon for monitoring their progress.
"People got attached to whatever icon we gave them, whether it was a bear or a tree or whatever," Mankoff said. "As people increase their actions to save energy, their icons mature or add features. There's a sense of anticipation that grows as people become eager to see its end-stage." She anticipates that the web applications may use a series of icons to keep people engaged.
Right now, users have to manually update their actions reflected on the StepGreen site, much of which can be done from their Facebook or MySpace pages. In the future, it's expected that special software and common devices, such as mobile phones, will be able to update some activities automatically.