But as agencies increasingly take to outlets like Facebook and Twitter, the question arises: Are these posts federal records? And if so, how can agencies save them? It can be tricky and time-consuming to save tweets and chats — some agencies copy and paste them into Word documents for posterity. Other agencies just don’t archive them at all.
“I realized this was a real pain that industries like government were facing — how in the world do you keep records of these electronic communications?” said Anil Chawla, a former IBM engineer.
It’s how he conceived North Carolina-based startup Archive Social, which has emerged as an option for agencies looking to adhere to records rules and still have an active social media presence.
Archive Social acts sort of like a Facebook app — it plugs into your social media accounts and automatically pulls posts and comments, and all their metadata, into an Amazon Web Services cloud. Agencies can then use Archive Social’s portal to search and replay the content. National Archives and a few other federal offices are using the startup to save their posts, said Chawla, the company’s founder and CEO.
The service, which costs about $400 a month for a “good sized” federal agency, allows agencies to easily access documents for Freedom of Information Act requests and could serve as a resource if there’s a legal dispute, he said.
Recently, there’s been increased focus within the federal government on how agencies handle digital records, particularly following news that Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton used a private email server to conduct official business while she was secretary of State.
The National Archives two years ago said social media content “is likely a Federal record” in a bulletin to federal agencies. It included a list of methods to capture social media content, including using application programming interfaces, aggregators or Web crawling software to pull content. But it stopped short of recommending a method.
“It is not feasible for NARA to provide platform-specific guidance because it is difficult to predict which tools will be available and preferred in the future,” it said.
The National Archives and Records Administration wouldn’t speak about its own work with Archive Social. However, several local and state governments across the country use the startup’s services, including the North Carolina, which put out a searchable portal for the social media activity of many of its agencies through Archive Social.
“We were trying to give citizens and users access to that material without having to go to through an agency,” said Kelly Eubank, head of the digital service section at North Carolina’s Department of Cultural Resources.
Are agencies archiving social media now?
As it stands, many federal agencies don’t seem to be archiving their social media.
According to a survey from the Association for Information and Image Management two years ago, 18 percent of agencies were storing internal social business records, like Yammer chats. Meanwhile, 14 percent were storing external social conversations. That could be anything from copy-pasting text into a Word document to using a backup service to something more sophisticated.
“The use [of social media] is certainly growing,” said Peggy Winton, chief marketing officer for AIIM. “But in terms of capturing that, I believe that most [agencies] either have never started or just abandoned it.”
Winton said ideally agencies would do something similar to what the National Archives is trying to encourage under its Capstone program for archiving emails: set up an automated system that gathers relevant content, and create algorithms to determine what to save.
Expecting, say, a social media manager to gather the records by hand is extremely cumbersome, she said.
“If you leave it into the hands of individuals, it makes it is really, really difficult” to archive, Winton said.
But Chawla said agencies are gaining a greater appreciation for saving their social media records, particularly as agencies increasingly use social media to disseminate critical information on everything from food recalls to disaster response.
“The conversation on social media is incredibly important, and therefore important to retain it and maintain it for the long term,” he said.