The National Archives and Records Administration recently released a report on the use of web 2.0 tools in the federal government. It raises a number of interesting points, but before I get into them, I just want to say that I cringe when I hear the term web 2.0. I wish it would go away. That would probably solve a number of problems identified in this report, for one thing, but it would also stop us from pretending that there was ever such thing as web 1.0 (I mean, it is a retronym after all). Same with smart phones. Technology evolves quickly and the last thing we need is a pile of poorly defined words to describe each iteration of the same thing.
Parts of NARA's report on web 2.0 seem to conflict with other federal initiatives involving social media
Anyway, some of the coverage of the web 2.0 report has summarized it as a carte blanche to delete web 2.0 content, but the report is more nuanced than that. In the report’s Executive Summary, NARA says that “from a records value perspective, web 2.0 content is best analyzed based on the function and use of the information, not solely by the platform or tool.” Meaning web 2.0 content should be appraised based on the same standards as any other content produced by the government.
It’s worth looking at what the definitions are here. The report offers this explanation of web 2.0:
Web 2.0 and social media are umbrella terms used to define the various activities integrating web technology, social interaction, and content creation. Through social media, individuals or collaborations of individuals create, organize, edit, comment on, combine, and share content online. Social media and web 2.0 use many technologies and take many forms, including RSS and other syndicated web feeds, blogs, wikis, photo sharing, video sharing, podcasts, social networking, social bookmarking, mashups, widgets, virtual worlds, microblogs, and more.
A key commonality between these technologies is their interactive nature. Content owners post or add content, but the audience also has the ability to contribute content. Social media platforms can be grouped into broad categories, though some tools may fit into more than one specific category depending on how they are being used.
It also reminds us that the definition of a federal record in the Federal Records Act makes no distinction of format:
Records includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of data in them (44 U.S.C. 3301).
The logical conclusion here is of course that web 2.0 content can be considered a federal record as long as it meets the definition in the Federal Records Act (44 U.S.C. 3301). But there is a great deal of uncertainty as to which web 2.0 content provides “evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government” and which content doesn’t. Web 2.0 services and how they are used evolve rapidly. And the distributed, collaborative nature of how federal departments are using web 2.0 tools makes it all the more difficult to make decisions about retention and disposition (for example, the report notes that there is no formal records management scheme for content created in the All Partner Access Network, a multi-agency network). The report warns that “records management staff are unaware of which tools are being used within the agency; consequently, they have no control over the management of possible record material.” This is quite troublesome because nearly all federal agencies now using social media.
Don’t expect to find easy answers in the report though. It raises more questions than answers. As an information gathering exercise, most of the issues raised were “beyond the scope of the study.” And it didn’t survey the entire federal government – there were six participating agencies and NARA gathered additional information through a half-day focus group jam session.
The report does do a fine job of profiling some home-grown social media platforms, like NASA’s Spacebook, MilSuite, DODTechipedia, and Diplopedia. It also covers the different ways in which the federal government is using social media sites and services like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and IdeaScale. I wasn’t really aware the government was developing so many internal social media tools, but most of this discussion involves the same things everyone does with social media: public outreach and engagement, internal collaboration and information sharing, interagency and external collaboration, and social networking.
Because the report does little more than highlight the same problems plaguing electronic records managers and archivists everywhere, I was mostly struck by how the report seems to contradict other messages from the government about the value of social media records. In the conclusion, NARA writes that agencies should “emphasize that many web 2.0 records will be destroyed after a certain period of time or will not be accessible through an agency’s website.” Sound advice, but it comes only a few months after the Library of Congress announced it was going to archive every post ever made on Twitter.
I’m not suggesting that the federal government should retain every record generated through its use of social media, and I know NARA and the Library of Congress have completely different missions, but it does raise questions about how decisions are being made about electronic records, records management, privacy, storage, preservation, etc. It also broader raises questions about how to determine the value of social media. Especially because at least some of those tweets being archived at the Library of Congress are the same tweets federal agencies are being told to destroy. Unfortunately, most of these questions are punted to the future – in the form of some recommendations and a hopeful conclusion that “we should be proactive in working together to understand these complexities and develop solutions.”
The NARA web 2.0 report noted that many agencies reported a reluctance to delete web 2.0 materials, partially because storage was relatively cheap. As far as the Library of Congress is concerned, it has of course retained the right to dispose of tweets as it deems necessary. But new services like Backupify, the Twitter experiment, responses from federal records managers, and even the recent HP/Dell bidding war for enterprise storage provider 3PAR suggest that we’re at least temporarily moving towards bulk electronic records storage without appraisal. Improvements in indexing, search and discovery systems, and storage hardware will only further enable organizations and archival institutions to go down this road. This, despite all the risks with long-term digital storage that were recently highlighted in this excellent survey of digital storage by ComputerWorld.
The NARA report is targeted at the U.S. federal government, but its findings and recommendations have bearing for all of us. As it concludes, “the web landscape is evolving so rapidly that if we neglect to address these issues…we risk losing the truly valuable materials created” by social media users.