Friday, March 13, 2009

What is the Value of Genealogy 2.0 Technology?

Chris Staats on the Staats Place blog has asked this question:

"...what value [do] you feel (or IF you feel) blogs, wikis, social networking (Facebook, Twitter, etc), and any other tool I am omitting, actually add?"

My general response is this: Each of the tools of Genealogy 2.0 has the potential to broadcast genealogically relevant material, draw more genealogists and relatives into online communities and to foster online collaboration between researchers and/or relatives.

1) Blogs -- Genealogy blogs have reached some maturity in the form of creative writing, genealogy news broadcasts, issue commentary and sharing of genealogy research and family stories. I have over 430 genealogy blogs in my Bloglines file, and read new posts from them every day. There is a wealth of informative and entertaining material published on genealogy blogs every day. Some of the writers have been tabbed to write articles and columns for local, regional and national genealogy periodicals. In the future, more will be selected - blogs can be an incubator of creative and reportorial talent.

While the presence of hundreds of active genealogy blogs sounds impressive, the number is actually fairly small. Blogs do have some impact on the genealogy industry by acting as the town crier (news and commentary), the tester and demonstrator (of web sites, databases, etc.), and family history writer (stories, photographs, etc.). In the long term, the family history material is what will last - will be gathered into eBooks that are distributed to family members to inform and delight descendants of common and unique ancestors.

Genealogy bloggers have tried to foster collaboration and community within themselves and the larger genealogy world - in the form of Carnivals of Genealogy (and there are several publishing on a regular basis), through groups like the Geneabloggers and The Graveyard Rabbit, and through online columns such as on Shades of the Departed and The Genealogy and Technology Examiner.

2) Wikis -- The most widely known wiki is http://www.wikipedia.com/, which serves as an online encyclopedia produced by anybody who wants to participate. A similar wiki is the Encyclopedia of Genealogy started by Dick Eastman. One of the largest free genealogy person-wiki is at We Relate, which has over 2 million person pages submitted by users. You can see an overview of We Relate in this slide show. The idea of a wiki is to foster collaboration between relatives and friends using a common online platform.

I think that person-wikis have tremendous potential, but not many genealogists are using them yet. Some genealogy database providers, like http://www.footnote.com/, http://www.ancestry.com/ and http://www.familysearch.org/ are providing person-wiki platforms also. My guess is that less than 2,000 persons have added their GEDCOM files to http://www.werelate.org/ despite significant publicity. http://www.footnote.com/ added over 80 million Footnote Pages using the Social Security Death Index, but very few genealogists are aware of the site, the capability and the potential. The main drawback, in my opinion, is the limitations of GEDCOMs - they cannot upload the images of photographs and documents that researchers have attached to their genealogy software databases. Images can be uploaded one at a time to the WeRelate and Footnote wikis, but that can take a long time for those with thousands in their family tree databases. http://www.ancestry.com/ probably has the best chance to create a large person-wiki site, since it has millions of family trees already online, but only some of the users have the images attached to their online database. However, the collaboration aspect on Ancestry is not available.

3. Facebook -- The main purpose of this site (and similar sites) in the general population is to communicate and network with Friends and colleagues using email, notes and comments, share photographs and videos, play games or send gifts, join interest groups, write short comments about their activities, etc.

In the genealogy world, Facebook has been used in the classical way, but oriented toward genealogy subjects. Almost all of my Facebook Friends are in the genealogy world, and over time I get to know something about their life, their genealogy interests and skills. I would feel comfortable asking them to share a meal and conversation if they came to San Diego, if I was in their area, or if we were at a conference in another place. If I need some help in a distant place, I might ask a Facebook Friend in that place for help or information.

There are several collaborative genealogy groups on Facebook. For instance, the Unclaimed Persons group has over 500 members and has solved over 50 cold cases in less than a year on a voluntary and collaborative basis - essentially finding pertinent information, sharing it, suggesting research avenues, and coming to a conclusion about the case solution. It's fun, rewarding and challenging. The key to making any Facebook Group proliferate is to engage in projects or activities that are fun and challenging.

There are some genealogy societies on Facebook that have a group - Chris mentioned the Ohio Genealogical Society with (now) 50 group members. My local San Diego Genealogical Society has 19 group members. Those are small fractions of total society memberships. The challenge for societies is to achieve some useful objective which will excite their members to join the Facebook group. A Facebook Group can be used, as a minimum, for making society program or educational announcements.

Facebook has Applications like We're Related and Geni (and there are others) for Facebook users to add family tree information. We're Related is touted by FamilyLink.com as the #1 genealogy application, but a researcher cannot upload a GEDCOM at this time. A researcher can upload a small GEDCOM to Geni and show their family tree. Facebook users of these applications can invite relatives and friends to add to the family tree data and images. This capability has great potential for connecting to cousins and more distant relatives, but is probably not a wonderful genealogy collaboration vehicle.

4) Twitter is a site for instant communications - from an online computer, a PDA or a cell phone (by Instant Message). The user is limited to 140 characters per tweet. Some people use it for social or political activities, some to highlight their new blog posts (guilty!) or genealogy activities, and some to live-tweet a seminar or conference meeting. A Twitter user can send private messages to other users. A Facebook user can sync their tweets so that they appear as Facebook comments.

5) Collaborative Family Trees -- Examples of this category are http://www.geni.com/, http://www.myheritage.com/, http://www.dynastree.com/, http://www.geneanet.org/, http://www.myfamily.com/, and many others. On these sites, a researcher can upload their GEDCOM file and their digital images, and then invite other family members to do the same. In some cases, these are subscription sites. They work as far as they go. Each site needs a critical mass of researchers to contribute their family tree data and then collaborate on adding to the information. I'm not sure that this happens on a regular basis other than immediately after the first rush of adding data and images. Again, they are good for connecting to cousins and other relatives, but probably not for genealogy collaboration with other researchers.

Chris asked what is the "value" of these sites. My opinion:

* Blogs have value for genealogy news, commentary, demonstrating and family history publishing.

* Wikis have a high potential for value in fostering genealogical collaboration but need more participants to achieve a "critical mass" of users.

* Facebook and Twitter are instant communication sites that can foster friendships and group activities.

* Family tree sites can bring relatives together to share family information and images, but probably not much research collaboration.


* Each of these sites can be tremendous time-wasters. Playing Scrabble on Facebook or tweeting every mundane act in your day may not be productive, depending on your own priorities. It helps to have a focus on the goals for the day, whether it is to write three blog posts, make new Facebook Friends, do more research at a repository, add more information to your database, write or edit a book chapter, etc. Or all of the above! I try to limit blog reading to 30 minutes a day, to limit Twitter and Facebook time to 30 minutes a day, to limit blog post writing to no more than tow hours a day, and to do something that advances the genealogy research ball toward the family history book goal line every day.

* If the genealogy industry is going to draw young people into the fold, then Genealogy 2.0 is probably one of the vehicles. Most people under age 40 are comfortable with technology and use it extensively. Using these tools is one way to add youth, enthusiasm and technology experience to the industry and our genealogical societies.

What do you think? How would you answer Chris's questions? Please comment on this blog or on Staats Place.

8 comments:

Terri O'Connell said...

Randy,

Loved your reply. I think you really nailed it here. As a newcomer to Geneablogger and many of these other Geneaoly groups, I am finding more "friends" with everyone being kind and interested in what I do. I do agree that if traveling I would feel safe asking for assistance or even to have dinner with one of these friends. I also agree that we probably do waste time on the computer with many of these sites, but like you said we have to limit ourselves (I am guilty of not doing this, yet). As always, I look forward to reading more from Genea-Musings regularly!

James Tanner said...

Thanks for a very good summary of where we are with on-line genealogy. It is almost impossible to keep up with everything, but you do a pretty good job.

Chris Staats said...

Hi Randy -

Good to e-meet you! I agree wholeheartedly with the ideas here. I sat down to write a response about my own thoughts about some of them and quickly found it growing out of control. I think there is all kinds of potential for greater use in a number of these areas -- especially the use of wikis.

Not a fan of any of the online tree programs, but I don't know that I've given them enough of a chance. It seems there is way too much room for error and propagation of misinformation when everyone starts uploading everything in their database. I know I was guilty, guilty, guilty of that in the early days of Ancestry, and I still can't get them to get rid of my tree!

I was intrigued by the collaborative genealogy group idea. I looked at the Unclaimed Persons site when it first came out, but had completely forgotten about it. I am tossing around a few ideas, but they're not quite formed yet.

Again - thank you for that great response. It was exactly the sort of thing I hoped someone would post.

Apple said...

Good morning Randy,

I may put up my own thoughts on this later, I didn't have Chris' feed so thanks for that.

In #2 Wiki you state "However, the collaboration aspect on Ancestry is not available." You can invite others to be "editors" on your tree so you can work together on one tree but only with those you give permission to. I'm attempting this with my Graham line.

I still think WeRelate is the way to go but so far I have had terrible luck getting cousins to join me there. Maybe we need a geneabloggers challenge to get more people to sign up and become familar with the site.

Steve Hayes said...

On your recommendation I've just joined WeRelate, so I have yet to see how it works, but it sounds interesting.

I started a Wiki for our family at http://hayesgreene.wikispaces.com, but there hasn't been much collaboration yet. As you say, one needs a critical mass. I also have a genealogy blog, for family news and a kind of research diary.

JoLyn said...

As someone who is just getting started in genealogy, I am not familiar with many of the things you mentioned. I really appreciate your article letting me know what's available out there. I will check them out and see how they fit into my work. I have been on Facebook for a few months - I agree, you have to be really disciplined, or it can just eat up your time. I also liked that you told how you schedule your time to fit things in - that's something I'm trying to work on. Thanks for this great article - and your terrific blog.

Danny Wahlquist said...

Thanks, Randy, great article! Facebook is also great for finding distant living relatives.

Janet Hovorka said...

Great article Randy. Well summarized. FYI, the New FamilySearch database structure is largely based on the wiki idea.