Coding Horror

programming and human factors

For a Bit of Colored Ribbon

For the last year or so, I've been getting these two page energy assessment reports in the mail from Pacific Gas & Electric, our California utility company, comparing our household's energy use to those of the houses around us.

Here's the relevant excerpts from the latest report; click through for a full-page view of each page.

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These poor results are particularly galling because I go far out of my way to Energy Star all the things, I use LED light bulbs just about everywhere, we set our thermostat appropriately, and we're still getting crushed. I have no particular reason to care about this stupid energy assessment report showing our household using 33% more energy than similar homes in our neighborhood. And yet… I must win this contest. I can't let it go.

  • Installed a Nest 2.0 learning thermostat.
  • I made sure every last bulb in our house that gets any significant use is LED. Fortunately there are some pretty decent $16 LED bulbs on Amazon now offering serviceable 60 watt equivalents at 9 watt, without too many early adopter LED quirks (color, dimming, size, weight, etc).
  • I even put appliance LED bulbs in our refrigerator and freezer.
  • Switched to a low-flow shower head.
  • Upgraded to a high efficiency tankless water heater, the Noritz NCC1991-SV.
  • Nearly killed myself trying to source LED candelabra bulbs for the fixture in our dining room which has 18 of the damn things, and is used quite a bit now with the twins in the house. Turns out, 18 times any number … is still kind of a large number. In cash.

(Most of this has not helped much on the report. The jury is still out on the Nest thermostat and the candelabra LED bulbs, as I haven't had them long enough to judge. I'm gonna defeat this thing, man!)

I'm ashamed to admit that it's only recently I realized that this technique – showing a set of metrics alongside your peers – is exactly the same thing we built at Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange. Notice any resemblance on the user profile page here?

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You've tricked me into becoming obsessed with understanding and reducing my household energy consumption. Something that not only benefits me, but also benefits the greater community and, more broadly, benefits the entire world. You've beaten me at my own game. Well played, Pacific Gas & Electric. Well played.

Davetron5000-tweet

This peer motivation stuff, call it gamification if you must, really works. That's why we do it. But these systems are like firearms: so powerful they're kind of dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. If you don't think deeply about what you're incentivizing, why you're incentivizing it, and the full ramifications of all emergent behaviors in your system, you may end up with … something darker. A lot darker.

The key lesson for me is that our members became very thoroughly obsessed with those numbers. Even though points on Consumating were redeemable for absolutely nothing, not even a gold star, our members had an unquenchable desire for them. What we saw as our membership scrabbled over valueless points was that there didn't actually need to be any sort of material reward other than the points themselves. We didn't need to allow them to trade the points in for benefits, virtual or otherwise. It was enough of a reward for most people just to see their points wobble upwards. If only we had been able to channel that obsession towards something with actual value!

Since I left Stack Exchange, I've had a difficult time explaining what exactly it is I do, if anything, to people. I finally settled on this: what I do, what I'm best at, what I love to do more than anything else in the world, is design massively multiplayer games for people who like to type paragraphs to each other. I channel their obsessions – and mine – into something positive, something that they can learn from, something that creates wonderful reusable artifacts for the whole world. And that's what I still hope to do, because I have an endless well of obsession left.

Just ask PG&E.

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Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror