A very good article by Mike Elgan (The Wikipedia Exodus Is the Least of Our Worries) and already commented by my colleague Daryl Plummer, raises a few excellent points for those who are strategizing about government 2.0 and the whole issue of citizen engagement.
Elgan flags the decreasing number of editors on Wikipedia, as well as the decline of Digg, as possible signs of what could happen to some of the most critical web 2.0 machinery that holds communities together. What if URL shorteners just go out of business? What if some of the mainstream social media platform suddenly change policies or shut down? What about all the content that people is putting on these various platforms (including videos on Youtube or pictures on Flickr or collaborative work in Facebook groups) and turns to be very vulnerable to their fate?
This is a problem that each of us has and is not dissimilar from the one of relying on old support to store our content: who does remember floppy disks? or Betamax tapes? and how many of us did lose pictures of their beloved ones when our disk crashed and we realized we had never backed it up?
However it becomes a societal problem when one looks at the government 2.0 implications. If it is true that successful engagement between government and citizens happens when the former joins the latter on a turf of their choice (be it a Linkedin group for unemployment support or a Facebook page to chat about changes in public park opening times or a tweets for mass notification or Flickr for a historical pictures archive to be tagged), then the whole issue of how persistent these communities and platforms are becomes a very pertinent one.
While this may give additional ammunitions to those who like to believe that government needs to retain control and host communities on its own web sites, reality is that joining external communities and making content available to others to transform and consume in the way they see fit is unavoidable and there is no way back.
Governments must reflect about where they draw the boundaries, and this clearly extend to where they decide to host their data. Daryl Plummer touches upon this, and clearly the whole issue of cloud portability and vendor independence is one that will stay with government clients for a long time. However the most critical problem is whether and how to secure information that is beyond the span of control.
In previous posts I talked about the asymmetry of government 2.0 and the need for governments to reach out to communities to be able to assess and possibly use external information that they create. If they do, should they then secure that such information survive? Should they make it subject to records management rules (whereas doing otherwise would seem the smartest move at the present time)? And how will they deal with liabilities that may derive from somebody else’s decision to shut things down?
As usual, answers will be found as we go along, and sometimes the hard way. A good rule of thumb for governments approaching external social media is to realize that choosing an external social media platform or network to engage with is like picking up a bottle of fresh milk in a store and being unable to read its expiry date because it is printed on the edge of the label. Unfortunately, unlike in a store, all bottles have an unreadable expiry date. The important thing is to know there is one, and sip carefully every time you open it.