The Obama administration formally outlined the sum of its efforts to preserve the digital media of what has widely been called the “first social media presidency” Jan. 5.
After an initial announcement regarding their intention to make White House social media assets a part of the 44th president’s archival record in late October, President Obama’s team shared the steps they had taken and what it means to the public just over two weeks before the new administration is set to take office.
The outgoing president has been a powerful figure in the federal government’s move to embrace innovative ideas and technology, but he also served two terms at a time when social media grew into a ubiquitous communication tool.
In addition to the launch of a presidential social media archive, the White House also announced several other social-centric projects:
A series of digital multimedia essays around the Obama administration.
A topical analysis of the most popular White House topics on Twitter.
A searchable database of the GIFs shared by the White House.
A Twitter bot utility that will republish tweets from the Obama presidency over the course of the next eight years.
He was the first sitting U.S. president to use the @POTUS Twitter handle, the first to use Facebook Live and the first to engage with the public directly through Q&As on YouTube.
But, these online engagements came at a cost; the cost of having to catalog and retain the information for public records.
While major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter do a fairly decent job of maintaining posts, photos and videos shared by everyday users, those posts, accounts and comments can be deleted or edited. And the rules are different for public officials and their offices.
Online interactions with the public and an airtight digital trail are a must to meet public record requirements — especially for the highest office in the country.
Through digital archivist ArchiveSocial*, a searchable database has been created that allows anyone anywhere to access content created across the administration’s many official social media accounts.
According to Anil Chawla, founder and CEO of ArchiveSocial, the move toward a searchable public database provides unprecedented access to the administration’s online presence and helps the highest office tackle an issue they have never had to deal with before.
“It really felt like a shot in the dark when we first reached out with a cold email that my team and I wrote. We had seen some news in some of the federal publications about the Obama administration wanting to archive their social media, so of course that is the perfect fit for us,” he told Government Technology.
The company, which was founded in 2011, and has seen considerable growth as many agencies grapple with how to best meet public record management requirements. Though state and local organizations are ArchiveSocial's primary focus, the opportunity to work with the more daunting White House Web footprint was one the company couldn’t pass up.
The Obama administration’s social portfolio consists of more than 100 accounts, and the number of outgoing posts through the various channels stands at around 250,000.
“We were blown away because when we first reached out, I actually pitched a really short timeframe in which we could help them because I was paying attention to the less than 10 social media profiles that you see on the White House page. Turns out they have well over 100 profiles on the networks that we supported,” he said. “Just the amount of content in breadth and the number of profiles … the volume was incredible.”
What’s more is that the noncontracted collaboration between the digital archive team and their federal partners did not evolve out of the need to comply with the Presidential Records Act. Instead, Chawla explained, the teams gave transparency and public access priority. The searchable tool is more a supplement to the legal record requirements than a way to ensure adherence to it.
“Our efforts are really grounded on not the records requirement, but more on the archive and making it available,” he explained. “Our involvement is more about transparency than legal fulfillment.”
When asked what he considered to be the key takeaway from the project, he said he was pleased to see that his company’s platform translated from small local agencies to the highest levels of American government.
“I think what I am most proud of is that this platform isn’t something custom for the White House. This is the same technology that we make available to a city or town with a population of 10,000 …” he said.
For Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History in Washington, D.C., any move toward making presidential records and information available more quickly is a good move.
Though the social media archive had not yet been announced when Government Technology reached out to White, he spoke generally about the importance of record searchability and public access.
“Obviously, as a rule of thumb for historians, the faster the better. The quicker you can get access to records, the better it is and your scholarship is more informed,” he said in advance of the announcement. “Anything that would expedite the release of records would be a good thing.”
*Editor's note: e.Republic, the parent company of Government Technology is an investor in ArchiveSocial through e.Republic Ventures.