Monday, May 10, 2010

The Online Family Trees Conundrum

I love online family trees, and I hate online family trees - often in the same moment in time.

They can be very useful and helpful when a researcher has posted information about one of my ancestors or collateral family members that I don't have, and has provided a source citation for the information.

They can be very frustrating when a researcher posts erroneous information (in my judgment, which may be faulty) in an online family tree. Typically, I ignore that family tree and researcher. Frankly, I rarely try to "help" them by providing my information - they can find it if they look hard enough - I don't need the ensuing hassle.

I can be very frustrated when someone takes information from my family tree data and posts it as their own work without attribution on their online family tree or website. This has happened to me a few times, especially early in my research "career." It is why I do not share a GEDCOM file anymore (Conveniently, my 40,000 person GEDCOM file is way too big to share now!).

I have put all or part of my family tree on a number of online sites - mainly to test those online family tree sites, but also to get my information "out there" so that cousins can find me. This is especially helpful on the surnames that I collect information on - Seaver, Carringer, Auble, Dill and Buck.

While working on the wiki recently, I noticed that the information for some of my 17th century ancestral New England families is semi-protected - I cannot add to the information without going through some sort of judgment filter. To contribute to the information for those persons, I need to provide a source for any information not on the person's page. I think that this is a pretty good idea - and it creates an "official" or "certified" person page (my terms - I haven't seen anything other than "semi-protected"). The information for many of the persons that I've seen with this semi-protection was based on a recognized source, such as Robert Charles Anderson's The Great Migration sketches for New Englanders arriving before 1635.

It also seems that New FamilySearch is making some sort of effort to collapse all of the duplicate persons in the large Family Tree database into single entries through collaboration and sourcing, and creating Person Pages on, thereby creating some sort of "official" or "certified" person information.

But the big question remains: What about ALL those millions of family trees on, Rootsweb WorldConnect, MyHeritage, GeneaNet, Geni, etc. that stand alone, and are full of errors and inconsistencies? I showed several weeks ago that hundreds of these trees have erroneous data for the parents of my ancestress, Susanna (Page) Gleason. Are the online family tree sites going to campaign for "official" or "certified" person information, and combine duplicate entries currently in their online family trees? I really doubt that they are.

What do you think? Are WeRelate and New FamilySearch on the right track here? Will all of this lead to a One Big Monster Family Tree (OBMFT)? Who will be the first company or organization to "get it right" with the right combination of collaboration, arbitration, judgment, and presentation?


Unknown said...

Wow interesting you bring this up now some of these issues have been understood by the geni community for a long time. Kind of like the elephant in the house. Everyone saw it. Everyone stepped around it. It was just not talked about. If any organization would truly honor their data they could easily win this race. But they would be interested in quality not advertising quantity as a false draw to newbies.could a commercial endeavor tackle this or do we need to depend on an educational or religious organization to get it right? Sounds like they are moving in the right direction. I wish we could challenge data and have it discussed in an open forum. Genwise allows family groups so we can discuss or issues. Challenge and defend our datas.

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

To - reh ncw "I wish we could challenge data and have it discussed in an open forum." - You can do that at WeRelate now.

I started to respond here but it seems I have a lot to say. I'll post something in a day or too.

Debbie Blanton McCoy said...

Boy, you hit on one of my pet peeves! I hate all of the incorrect information on my family in the Ancestry trees, but I don't know how to stop it. I have had the correct information on my web site for 10 years and no one seems to pay it any mind. They just blindly copy the Ancestry trees and don't seem to search anywhere else for the information.

Chris Staats said...

I suspect this will be a hot topic, Randy.

I've flopped back and forth several times on the copying issue. It used to really bother me when I saw my hard-researched info show up on Ancestry or other sites. And then for awhile, I thought "well, if they are copying my stuff, at least I know there's a pretty good chance it's right, so copy away, Lazy Researcher."
But I'm back again to being aggravated. It's not even so much that they copy it, don't ask permission, and don't credit it. I think it's more that they copy it WRONG. Really? Cut and paste are pretty simple functions! I guess maybe it's good they don't credit me in those cases! After I updated my site, I started adding source images, but now those are showing up posted on Ancestry...with my original file names.
I'm considering just stripping back my genealogy site to an "enhanced index" format with just enough information that someone searching would know who it is, and my contact info to ask for more info about the family. I'm more than willing to share everything I have with anyone who asks, but I don't feel the need to populate the web's super-trees. Are those contradictory beliefs?

Ann Smith said...

This is the main reason I have never put anything on the net. Most info on some of my ancestors is so blatantly wrong as to be laughable. Some days I get so angry I put Post-It notes all over their tree or I'll write and ask them where in the world they got their info-of course I never get a reply! I think once they post the tree they never again check on it. I sent one guy an email saying I have the original document to prove my assertion that his entry was wrong and I was willing to share info. He said he'd fix it but of course he never did so it's still out there for all the copiers to perpetuate. I think some sort of source requirement or challenge forum is an excellent idea!

bgwiehle said...

There's another pitfall to be aware of with Ancestry's public trees. One of my new-found cousins attaches hints to their tree _before_ evaluating the content. Later, they remove wrong data. But someone browsing through can easily copy bad information when it was never intended to be a solid match. It's a little frustrating watching their tree, but only because their method is so exposed.
Is there even another way in Ancestry Trees to save evidence for later evaluation?

Lynn Palermo said...

Well Randy, I have been annoyed for some time about online trees. I have made some great connections through my online tree. I don't even mind others copying. However,I wish they would not hide behind a private tree. I truly dislike those who enjoy the privelege of taking information from an online tree but have no interest in sharing themselves.I often will contact these people, some answer and some do not. I personally do not consider another tree unless it has sources and then I attempt to contact the tree owner, because if we're cousins then I am just as interested in them and who they are and how we relate as I am in what they have posted in their tree. I too have posted on this subject in the past, I don't believe it's about to go away anytime soon.

Cindy said...

Ditto Ditto Ditto here Randy. For some time I've been annoyed by the trees on Ancestry and like most other comments here, I don't get the respect of a response when I question the info. Most errors are just copied over and over and over again until everyone believes it as the correct info, but all source info leads back to the same tree with the original error. This is a shame for beginning researchers who simply "click and claim" the trees as research and then go on their happy way believing what they've found. I sometimes wish the trees weren't out there at all unless they sourced something other than another tree.

Geolover said...

Bad genealogy is forever, including in books and publications in libraries (including FHL).

The LDS' New FamilySearch tree will take decades to correct since it is based on the highly flawed IGI which has most all of the Widely Held Mistaken Beliefs from genealogies, family group sheets, and erroneously keyed partial extracts from material such as local vital records (lots of the latter in the pilot.labs site too).

John Patten said...

There was a time when I would share all of my data, but now that copying and bastardization are so common I just share details as articles on my site. So if anyone really wants to go to all the hassle of extracting dates, names and locations from articles, it's somewhat reasonable to assume that they would see the value in the way their time is used, and in turn would make an effort to get the details right.

Ginger Smith said...

I have always had the same answer to this question: force the user to submit a source.

My tree is private.

I luckily did not publish my work on the Rootsweb Family Tree Connect. Someone copied my work from a private site and republished it as her own and that is on Rootsweb and she still has not given me credit, nor has she removed it as I asked her to, and there is nothing I can do about it. It is not proven fact; however, it is solid evidence supporting a familial relationship.