Tr.im and the risks of social media

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Shortly after starting this blog in January 2008, I copied-and-pasted my first ten posts and emailed them to my parents, who were not blog-friendly but who were very interested to see what I was writing. (Are parents great, or what?) The next month, I emailed another bunch of posts, and from then on, it became a regular thing. By the tenth or eleventh email, I realized that I was inadvertently creating a complete backup of my blog.

Right now, everything I’ve written at Law21 is also stored on Sympatico’s email servers somewhere. I’ve also saved all those messages into a Word file, which is stored on my hard drive and therefore on Carbonite’s backup system too. Later this month, I’ll probably copy that Word file onto a thumbdrive as well. (Printing out all 180,000 words on the blog would require more than 400 pages, so I think I’ll stop short of taking backup to that extreme.)

The reason why I take all these steps was amply illustrated yesterday when URL-shortening service Tr.im shut down with no advance warning. All of the stats it was tracking have disappeared, and all the links it created could be gone by Jan. 1, 2010. If you’ve been following me on Twitter, this could be problematic, since I’ve been using tr.im links for a few months now. (I switched from tinyurl.com and eventually from bit.ly simply because tr.im bought me one extra character to play with,vital in Twitter’s 140-character universe.) It’s a bigger problem for me, though, because I’ve been using Twitter as a micro-publishing tool, so I’ll now need to go back, click on all those tr.im links I posted, and resave them using some other method. That’s assuming, of course,  Twitter keeps my old posts — Robert Scoble, for one, isn’t sure they even exist anymore.

Tr.im’s sudden demise is a wakeup call to every lawyer who blogs, twitters, or otherwise employs social media as marketing, communications, publishing or client relationship tools. (Not to mention those who use URL shorteners for legal citations, as this engaging conversation at Slaw demonstrates.) We all learned this lesson the hard way back in the late 1990s and we may be about to learn it again: the online ecosphere is incredibly fragile.

Massive platforms that appear ironclad-strong from the outside can be hollowed out or ripped up on a moment’s notice. Look at Bloglines, the first and only feed reader I’ve ever used — Michael Arrington notes today that it could be on its last legs. Or look at Friendfeed, which has its devotees among lawyers — it was bought by Facebook yesterday and could quite easily disappear within Facebook’s gigantic digestive system. Twitter itself was taken down with alarming ease last week by a hacker attack aimed at just one blogger (and Facebook didn’t fare much better). WordPress is and has been a fabulous platform for this blog — but if it disappeared tomorrow, what would happen to Law21?

Lawyers are constantly advised to use these new online social tools, as well they should. But it’s easy to forget that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are not permanent features of the landscape — especially since none of them has yet come out with a sustainable business model. You do take a risk when you invest time and money in them. In no way is that risk big enough to justify giving up on these tools and platforms — but neither should you regard them as failsafe. As Scoble says, “whenever you put your data in other people’s, or other company’s, hands, you are taking a pretty significant risk.”

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5 Responses to “Tr.im and the risks of social media”

  1. Vickie Pynchon

    I used to worry about losing my work but realized at some point that I generate “content” daily, compulsively, and more coherently today than yesterday. Other than my book in progress (which my addiction to social media is delaying; I’m losing weight now – one addiction at a time please!) I genuinely wouldn’t much care if my entire online life disappeared. I wouldn’t, of course, re-create it. Lot’s of it is like yesterday’s newspaper, fit for wrapping fish. But that’s MY point of view. Maybe the present gets more and more important and the past less precious as one nears the 60 mark!

  2. Jay Parkhill

    I agree with Vickie. I create lots of online content, but I view it all as ephemeral (though I do back up my blog to comply with Cal Bar’s 2 year record of advertising rules).

    The activity and the relationships are more important to me than any single piece of content. If WordPress and Twitter died tomorrow it would take me a little while to rebuild the social graphs, but I would do it and would restart with fresh content somewhere else.

  3. Luis

    Because wordpress is based on open source software that is freely available and modifiable, you’re in a lot better position than people using tr.im, twitter, etc.- if wordpress.com announced it was going out of business tomorrow, there’d be a dozen migration options for you to choose from by tomorrow night. So really the problem is with proprietary social media, not all social media.

  4. Laurie

    I definitely back up my blog and website stuff as needed, but like Vickie am not too concerned about Twitter/Facebook etc. Most of it is most important in the moment and fresh content could be created just as easily as re-creating an archives. And I would be cautious of relying on finding anything older on Twitter, I’ve definitely noticed you can’t search back very far anymore.

  5. Wendy Reynolds

    While most of the material we currently create via social media is ephemeral, we do need to be aware that over time, we will be creating more important documents in this space – see how e-mail is now considered the document type for “formal” communications in the minds of Gen X and Y.

    Finding solutions for this now, while it doesn’t matter so much, is important, so that we aren’t scrambling to cope when it does matter.

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