Twitter and the challenge of electronic records

Twitter, like email and instant messaging, is an emerging form of electronic record that poses many risks and challenges in terms of records management.  It is perhaps more risky and more challenging than its precursors, and the management issues are complex on a level that most individuals and organizations are currently not prepared to deal with.  However, thanks to examples such as Paul Chambers’ “obviously facetious” bomb threat [1], the (unsurprising?) outing of John Baird [2], and the CNN journalist who was fired for expressing regret about the death of the Grand Ayatollah [3], we are slowly becoming aware that tweets are public records, visible to all, and can have serious consequences for individuals and organizations when used inappropriately.

In a large organization email and IM records are stored on a server typically maintained by the organization itself, which means that the organization has some control over the disposition of the records.  Twitter, on the other hand, is a service provided to individuals and businesses to share news, updates, advertisements and reflections with a broader community.  Individual tweets are stored on the service provider’s (Twitter, Inc.) servers, and it is under no obligation to the organizations of individuals who use the service.  Twitter only indexes tweets for six days [4], meaning that older tweets cannot be searched (although at least one third-party company has since begun to save and index tweets to make them searchable over longer timelines. [5]) In April 2010, the complete collection of all public tweets, since the service first became available to the public in 2007, was provided to the Library of Congress in order to create a publicly accessible archive [6].  That project is currently under development.  The bottom line is that organizations and members of organizations must be vigilant about what they publish on Twitter, because once it’s been published there is no taking it back.

Founder Jack Dorsey said the following about the inspiration for “Twitter”, which strikes an odd contrast with the negative fallout from the cases I previously mentioned:

[W]e came across the word “twitter,” and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds.” And that’s exactly what the product was. [7]

Unfortunately for Paul Chambers, Glen Murray and Octavia Nasr, information available for public consumption with some form of permanence, whether intended as such or not, does not always remain ‘inconsequential’.  In the case of Paul Chambers specifically, we witness an example where the record of the tweet is maintained as sufficient evidence in a court to convict.  It serves as a warning for those of us who have a heavier digital footprint through the use of social media, and reminds us that electronic records continue living long after we have forgotten about them.


[1] Booth, R. (2010, September 24) Twitter joke trial: bomb threat ‘obviously facetious’. The Guardian. Retrieved September 24, 2010 from

[2] Green, J. (2010, September 18) Baird’s dig at elites a bit rich, Murray says. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved September 24, 2010 from

Capstick, I. (2010, September 18) John Baird is really gay.  MediaStyle. Retrieved September 24, 2010 from

It’s sort of a running joke in Canadian politics that Conservative MP and current Government House Leader John Baird is a closet homosexual; that is, he has been widely known to frequent gay bars and has even been “outed” previously to the press by a fellow party member.  While not openly gay (he has refused to discuss his sexuality with media), a number of members from opposing parties and the press alike have pointed to a wealth of circumstantial evidence to the fact.  The controversy lies primarily in the Conservative party’s official position on same-sex marriage and the incongruities of the PC platform with LGBT culture and values.

Ian Capstick is suggesting in his article that the tweet written by Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Glen Murray is implying something about John Baird’s sexuality, as well as indicating that he happens to be one of the “Toronto elites” Baird recently accused of forcing the Long Gun Registry (a policy the Conservatives are attempting to reject).  This puts Murray in a mildly uncomfortable position, but he will not face any serious repercussions.  It is really just one more episode in this mostly insignificant narrative about John Baird.

[3] Anonymous. (2010, July 9) CNN journalist fired for controversial twitter message. Retrieved September 24, 2010 from

Octavia Nasr was fired after backlash from her tweet expressing regret and respect for Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a leader of Hezbollah, following his death on July 4, 2010.

[4] This information was acquired from a Twitter representative in response to a trouble ticket (#1044971) I filed on June 24, 2010.  From @dino: “Hello, Yes, our search currently only indexes about the most recent 6 days of Tweets. Longer-term or historical search is a feature request we see a lot, but there’s no current timeline for this feature. I’m sorry about that! Thanks, dino”


[6] Raymond, M.  (2010, April 14) How Tweet It Is!: Library Acquires Entire Twitter Archive. Library of Congress Blog.  Retrieved September 24, 2010 from

[7] Sarno, D. (2009, February 18) Twitter creator Jack Dorsey illuminates the site’s founding document. Part I.  Los Angeles Times.  Retrieved September 24, 2010 from

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