We need to stop being so unconcerned with our digital history and respect the information that is moving to social media September 27, 2012

The fragility of digital history

A little while ago in our post on professional collaboration, we promoted research done by Hany SalahEldeen and Michael Nelson at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia which showed that one year after the Egyptian Revolution, 11% of the social media content documenting this momentous event has disappeared.

In our post we warned that information in the social media space is inherently fragile, but noted that increasingly, key business processes including policy development,  community engagement, business collaboration and project management are all moving to social media channels.

It is great to see that in recent days SalahEldeen and Nelson’s research has been discussed on Gigaom and Technology Review. Both these articles have made interesting points about the possible long term effects of this information loss and the need to be careful with our history.

I have been interested though in the range of comments that both these articles have generated. There is a real spilt in the nature of the comments, between those who are concerned about the impacts of these possible losses and those who are relatively unconcerned.

Some people commenting on the articles (here and here) have  made the legitimate argument that throughout history, we have always lost parts of our history. Legitimately again, others have commented that we are creating so much data now, we really don’t want to keep it all, particularly a lot of the very informal communications that take place in social media systems. 

However, like others who have commented, I think we do need to be concerned about research like this that flags the widespread information loss that is occurring.

I think this loss is part of a bigger picture and a larger trend. Our ways of operating in both a business and a personal sense are shifting fundamentally. A very large proportion of our personal and business communications are shifting to social media channels and these technologies are fragile. We are moving away from more stable forms of business operation, communication and recordkeeping into more ephemeral operating environments. This is a positive and necessary business shift in many ways but we need to enter into it with a full awareness of its possible impacts.

We need to be aware of our digital data. It’s fragile and, as SalahEldeen and Nelson’s research shows, it is not likely to survive on its own. Therefore if it’s important, we need to be proactive with its management.

I saw a nice quote from Paul Koerbin of the National Library the other day where he said that ‘Web archiving is fundamentally about taking the initiative’. To shift this slightly into a business context, we need to be aware that today, information management is fundamentally about taking the initiative. Virtually all active business information today is in the digital domain. It will not last unless we proactively take steps to make it last.

As mentioned at the top, we need to take heed of the fact that a lot of key business operations are moving to social media technologies. As a result, increasingly there will not be formal publications, or reports, or white papers or meeting minutes or other fixed, formal, standard forms of accountability and history that we have traditionally relied upon. Instead there will be wikis and tweets and Facebook forums and a host of fantastic, dynamic, collaboratively developed content but by itself this will not survive to be the stuff of history, it will not survive to be accessible under FOI or GIPA review, it may not even survive to be part of formal annual reporting a year from now. And this is a very significant problem.

Therefore we need to stop being so unconcerned with our digital history, in a social sense but also in a corporate and business context. Business models are shifting fundamentally. We need to make sure that our models for information management, information use and information continuity and sustainability are shifting with them. If they don’t, we genuinely risk losing our history and losing our business intelligence and accountability frameworks with it.

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