The future of social media at the National Archives

The National Archives described a dashboard for "citizen archivists" at a recent forum in D.C.

In November 2011, conversations about connection technologies have shifted from whether governments should use social media to how governments should use social media. Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube are part of the default template for the websites of newly elected officials.

As the year comes to an end, the risks and rewards of Web 2.0 are better known for both citizens and government alike. People from every walk of life naturally have questions about what the explosion of social media will mean for the future of society, including difficult questions about what this new landscape will mean for privacy, security, freedom of expression and online identity. Predictions about what the future of social media will mean for an increasingly networked society range from dystopian autocracies with pervasive surveillance to stronger, data-driven digital democracies. Or both.

It’s in that context that the National Archives recently convened a conversation about “What’s Next?” at the McGowan Theater in its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

David Ferriero (@dferriero), the Archivist of the United States of America (AOTUS), introduced the forum on social media:

Access to records in this century means digital access. For many people, if it is not online, it doesn’t exist. The use of social media to increase access is the new norm. NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] has been going after innovative tools and projects that increase digital access to our records, including projects that invite public participation. We are developing a Citizen Archivist Dashboard that will encourage the public to pitch in via social media tools on a number of our projects.

Ferriero introduced the idea of a “citizen archivist” after he joined the National Archives in 2009. Now, the National Archives is moving forward with enlisting the help of the people in identifying, digitizing and archiving the nation’s history with the use of the Internet.

Prior to the “What’s Next?” forum, National Archives staff hosted a social media fair where they showed how they were using Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and location-aware social networks to share the nation’s history and connect to citizens online. To learn more about how this “Citizen Archivist Dashboard” will work, you can watch the video embedded below and download a PDF of the presentation that Pamela Wright, chief digital access strategist at NARA, gave at the forum. Joseph Marks attended the forum and wrote about the dashboard at NextGov afterward.

If you watch the video, you’ll see Ferriero and Wright discuss how the National Archives is thinking about the work of preservation in the age of social media. As more records become digital, the institution faces huge challenges in how it approaches retaining the historical records.

At the forum, I gave a short presentation in which I talked about the past, present and future for social media. The talk framed a subsequent panel discussion about social media where Wright and I joined David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Sarah Bernard, deputy director for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House.

Weinberger shared some thoughts about “what’s new in social media” prior to the forum on his blog:

1. The Internet began as an open “address space” that enabled networks to be created within it. So, we got the Web, which networked pages. We got social networks, which networked people. We are well on our way to networking data, through the Semantic Web and Linked Open Data. We are getting an Internet of Things. The DPLA [Digital Public Library of America] will, I hope, help create a network of cultural objects.

2. The Internet and the web have always been social, but the rise of networks particularly tuned to social needs is of vast importance because the social determines all the rest. Indeed, the Internet is a medium only because we are in fact that through which messages pass. We pass them along because they matter to us, and we stake a bit of ourselves on them. We are the medium.

3. Of all of the major and transformative networks that have emerged, only the social networks are closed and owned. I don’t know how or if we will get open social networks, but it is a danger that as of now we do not have them.

Over the course of the evening, I moderated an engaging conversation about what the rapidly expanding universe of collaborative technologies means for the society, government and media. There was a lively question and answer period, with the people “formerly known as the audience” joining us in the theater and through an active online backchannel via Twitter. It was an honor to join this discussion.

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