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Is social media records management still too vague?

NARA has developed guidance for governmental agencies on social media-based records management. But are the recommendations too vague to be useful?

If the rules surrounding social media records management are sometimes confusing and fluid, consider federal guidelines for managing social media-based records.

The "Guidance on managing social media records," which the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released in late 2013, defines guidelines to governmental agencies for properly capturing and managing social media-based information.

The recommendations outline in broad strokes agencies' responsibility, but the emphasis here is on broad in terms of how to execute a social media records strategy. Many of the recommendations require companies to tailor NARA's guidance to their specific business needs.

Each governmental organization is responsible, for example, for defining the meaning and scope of a social record. "The statutes say that each agency is responsible for determining what the federal record is and then managing it," said Jill Snyder at NARA, in a presentation for the AIIM New England Chapter. Similarly, organizations are expected to determine how long they need to retain these records or what constitutes a complete record.

The problem with flexibility is ambiguity

This kind of broad-brush recommendation is hardly specific to government, either; it can be a problem for information management in general, and social media environments just compound these issues. But can information managers make the right decisions when guidance is broad? Or does leaving it up to interpretation open the door to errors, inconsistency and other issues that culminate in poor records management? One could hardly blame information managers if they are paralyzed by the ambiguity of guidance documents.

Bake these tools into your infrastructure.
Steve WeissmanHolly Group

Consider this scenario in the for-profit context: A customer airs a grievance on a social media platform and it turns into a customer lawsuit. The social thread needs to be captured as a record. But what if the conversation started on a different Twitter account days prior and wasn't captured as part of the record? Is the record incomplete? Should this portion of the thread be included? Individual records managers, or other employees, will often have to make these kinds of determinations.

"It's a lot more freewheeling by [social media's] very nature," said Steve Weissman, an information management expert at Holly Group. Weissman emphasized that organizations can't leave the broad-brush strokes up to individual social media or records managers to interpret. "You don't want this to be on the shoulders of one person," Weissman said. The goal, he emphasized, is to weave the guidance into the organization's practices and automate certain tasks with tools so that it's not up to individuals in terms of the social media content that gets captured.

To that end, Weissman suggested that government agencies -- and for-profit companies, for that matter -- consider the tools that the guide outlines for capturing this information and bringing it inside the organization. NARA's Snyder outlined the following methods to capture social media records:

  • Web-crawling software
  • Web capture tools to mine content
  • Platform application programming interfaces
  • RSS feeds, aggregators
  • Social media platform tools to export content

These tools can mine and scrape relevant content from social platforms and capture them as records in a relatively automated fashion, enabling social interactions that might require action to rise to the surface.

"Bake these tools into your infrastructure so that the system is looking for these things," Weissman said. "You need to develop some rules in your social media monitoring software to bring these conversations to someone's attention. You might not see these trends emerging, so you need a tool that aggregates [content] so you can say, 'We need to check this out.'"

But Weissman also emphasized that while social media is "trickier by its definition because it's more social and fluid," these challenges aren't "endemic just to social. It's true of all information management," he said.

Ultimately, companies and organizations need to draft social media policies that get specific on company requirements for all employees using social media and for stewards of the company's social presence specifically.

While the NARA guidance is broad, only company-specific, well-thought-out social media policies can provide true guidance for enterprises in social media records management.

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