The TH Interview: Chief Yahoo David Filo

Yahoo Co-founder David Filo with Yahoo! Green Taxis.

Yahoo / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

David Filo is Co-founder and Chief Yahoo of Yahoo!, one the world's most-trafficked websites and most-recognizable internet brands. He currently serves as a key technologist, directing the technical operations behind the company's global network of Web properties; the most recent of these is the "Be a Better Planet" campaign and launch of Yahoo! Green. Joined yesterday by actor Matt Dillon and Global Green USA CEO Matt Petersen, David announced the "Be a Better Planet" campaign, a search for the greenest city in America; the program empowers Americans to take action against climate change and can participate by using Yahoo! tools, resources and communities to become better planetarians. Consumers are also encouraged to "take the pledge" at Yahoo! Green, a new Yahoo! hub for all things green and eco-friendly that shows how to help fight global warming, one person at a time (full discloser: TreeHugger has provided content for this as well). We had that chance to chat with David about the new programs and Yahoo!'s commitment to helping the world go green.

TreeHugger: Tell me how the idea for the "Be a Better Planet" campaign got started.David Filo: It had a lot to do with various Yahoo! employees who have been pretty passionate about this stuff. We've done a number of things over the years, but, of course, more recently, we've come to the realization that the biggest way for us to make an impact -- there's only so much we can do as individuals and as a company, and we are doing those things, and will be doing more of those things, in terms of reducing both the employees and company's footprint on the environment -- but we realized the biggest way to make an impact is through our users. We have something like half a billion people coming to Yahoo! -- how do we get those folks involved and excited about this stuff and ultimately start making decisions in their own lives to make a positive impact? As we've been thinking about it more, we've been trying to figure out how to reach out to those consumers and convince them to make a difference; this campaign is really about just getting that message out and trying to make it a little more fun and get people involved and create this competition among cities, and we're hoping that will encourage people to get online and follow through on some actions.

TH: Obviously, climate change has become a huge topic of conversation, not just among scientists and environmental non-profits and the like, but among more and more people in America and across the world. How do you think we can move people from knowing that global warming is real to actually doing something about it? How can we inspire people to take action once they've learned that global warming is for real?

DF: That's a good question, and definitely what we're trying to get at here. We're trying to foster those communities within things like Yahoo! Answers. Part of this campaign comes from questions like "Can we get people to talk about this stuff more? Can we get people to ask questions and answer questions and become more informed?" So it's taking things like that -- other Yahoo! products and services -- and figuring out how to get those in front of consumers and getting those messages out. In general, to us, this is a beginning to figuring out how to make an impact with those 500 million folks, and we're going to figure that out over the years to come. We're going to have to find out what resonates with those consumers. Clearly, TreeHugger has an audience today that is very well aware of the situation and already making changes in their lives; our goal is to reach those same people and encourage them to take further action, but, probably more importantly, getting to people that aren't thinking about this today, that don't know the issues, that aren't passionate about it and haven't made changes in their lives. That's really what we're looking for: if we can get a small percent, or hopefully a large percent, taking small actions, it can create really a significant positive environmental difference.

TH: About the launch of the new site, you said, "We believe many small individual actions can add up to significant change." How do you respond to folks who believe that lifestyle changes can't make a difference?

DF: Well, fundamentally, if you look at where the environmental issues are coming from, it's all because of humans and our impact on the environment, so while it's true that one individual is not going to sufficiently fix the environment, it is a necessary thing. The only way we can possible solve these problems is to get all individuals, or a significant portion of individuals, to do something about it. If we don't, as individuals, start to make changes, then, eventually, some of these things that are going to have dire consequences are going to be forced upon us. I guess one way or another, we will all be forced to make changes; we want people to be a little more proactive about it. We want to convince people that either don't know about it, haven't thought about it, or aren't convinced they can make a difference, that you can take a lot of these changes, and although it may seem insignificant at the individual level, they will add up, and we'll see significant change from it.

TH: One of the things you mentioned before are the different tools you're using, and one of those is Yahoo! Answers. Matt Dillon has asked the question "What are the most effective yet simple ways people can save energy?" on Yahoo! Answers. How would you answer that question?

DF: We have some of those things listed on the campaign, where folks are taking the pledges, but Matt also mentioned that at the event (yesterday). He talked about changing bulbs and being more conscious about turning them off; other simple things like reducing your junk mail, driving less and taking mass transit, buying cars that are more fuel efficient -- when people buy a new car, they have lots of choices, so why not make that a primary reason? -- but a lot of things are very simple, and don't require massive lifestyle changes. They're simple things, and there's always more things you can do. That's one of our goals: we look at the event (yesterday) as a beginning of things, that'll only become much richer, and a better utility for consumers to come in and really understand how they can make a difference.

TH: Yahoo! has had an increasingly visible presence in the world of "green", not only launching several new green online resources (like the green cars site), but purchasing renewable energy credits (something TreeHugger mentioned here) and pledging to be carbon neutral in 2007. What else can we expect to see?

DF: More of the same, certainly. We've been focusing on things like energy efficiency throughout the company, whether that's in our offices and reducing air conditioning in the summer months, or in the data centers, making our servers more energy efficient and making our cooling more energy efficient -- things like that. So, we're going to continue to explore those areas. We've done a fair number of things, but we realize there's still lots more to be done. To help spearhead a lot of that, there's been a lot of grassroots efforts within Yahoo! -- there's a group called the Green Team who have spontaneously gotten together and have come up with a lot of these ideas -- but we're always looking for other ideas from outside people, or inside people, on ways that as a corporation, we can reduce our footprint. We're encouraging our employees to do the same, with things like our commute programs, that try to get people to telecommute more, and when they do commute, to take things like our biodiesel bus, etc. Again, we've done a number of things, we think there's more to do and we will do those, but fundamentally, we want to tap into those half billion people who are coming to Yahoo! to get them excited about this stuff and make a change in their lives and make a positive change for the environment.

TH: If you could get everyone who reads this interview and everyone who comes to Yahoo! in a day to do one thing to make the world a greener place and make a positive change, what would that be?

DF: One thing? I'd say that other than participating in this campaign (laughs), I'm a little torn between something more proactive, like buying green power, which I can do here in Palo Alto, but isn't available from every utility yet -- it costs a bit more, but can make a huge change -- and doing something that's easier and can deliver more context, like changing a light bulb, which can actually save you money. It's a tough call between the really simple things that everyone has no excuse not to do, and something that requires more of a sacrifice. Overall, there's a lot more talk and press about the environment these days, so maybe the number one thing is to get people to stop just talking about it and get out there and take positive action.

David Filo is Co-founder and Chief Yahoo of Yahoo!.