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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Can we have anonymity and privacy in the online world of genealogy?

Today in Facebook there are a variety of posts from marriage to birthdays and software reviews to genealogical conferences. When do these people have time to actually do anything? They seem to live their lives online. On the one hand I occasionally glance through a long list of daily posts on Facebook and at the same time deal with people who think registering a new software program will make them an instant victim of identity theft. Yes, it is again time to talk about privacy in the context of genealogy. At the same time, I need to address the two opposite poles; complete and total anonymity in contrast to the openness and almost complete disclosure of social networking.

Facebook and its counterparts allow those who are interested to connect with family members in a way that could only be imagined a few years ago. Contrasted with this lack of privacy in social networking are those who shun the Internet entirely through fear of identity theft and concerns about privacy in general. In between are those who use the Internet extensively, but wish to remain anonymous.

Anonymity in communication has a long history in its variant form of pseudonymity. Think Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens and you will get the idea. In our online communication age, the pseudonym has been replaced by the avatar. The term "avatar" is defined in Wikipedia as a computer user's representation of himself/herself or alter ego whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, or a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities. This online phenomena of using an avatar spills over into the Blog world and is extensively used in the genealogical community.

For examples of anonymity, all you have to do is look at a selection of genealogy Blogs. If you need examples, go to Geneabloggers by Thomas MacEntee and click on Geneabloggers' list of current Genealogy Blogs. Start clicking on the Blogs listed and look at the author's name or lack of a name. I didn't do an exhaustive count but there is a definite split between bloggers who are unidentified except for an online name (avatar) and those who are clearly identified. Is there some problem in putting your name on your blog posts? Apparently a significant number of people think so. In asking this question I am not criticizing or condemning anyone for using a online avatar. If you choose to do so, you certainly may. Establishing an online identity can certainly be done using an avatar just as pseudonymity has its place in literature.

The issue is how does the current concepts of privacy and the creation of avatars impact genealogy? Privacy is always a really confused issue. For example, currently in Arizona there are bills before the State Legislature that would allow public officials to redact the identifying information of those who contact them through personal mailing addresses, computers, telephones or other personal electronic devices in the name of privacy. There have been several other major legislative efforts in the past few years to severely limit the availability of personal information especially concerning health care related records. Privacy concerns limit the availability of many records such as the U.S. Census and adoption records.

From a genealogical perspective there are competing interests. On the one hand, there are legitimate concerns about privacy that result in extensive limitations on the availability of records, even of people who have been dead for many years. On the other hand, we have the need for records in order to find our ancestors. Society has obviously put the need for privacy well above the need for access to genealogically important records. Where is privacy's curtain drawn? What is truly private and what is only private in the sense that we do not normally talk about the subjects in polite society?

Many of us would think that something such as the amount of debt we owed or our annual income was somehow private. We would probably be uncomfortable and even angry if this information were published without our consent in a blog post. But both our debt and our income are easily learned from public, online sources. There are also public sources for almost every other type of "private" information from the identity of family members to our work history and what kinds of things we purchase. Anyone who has been online for any longer period of time has little or no privacy in the traditional sense despite their perception to the contrary.

Both anonymity and pseudonymity such as avatars can be used for both good and bad purposes. But it is also clear that both interfere with the availability of records and thereby interfere with the main interest of genealogy, which is building family lines. That said, there are some types of information that are better left off of the Internet entirely. It is true that criminals may use anonymity and avatars to advance their illegal activities online. Even if anonymous activities are not criminal, people can hide behind secrecy to harass and offend. Some of the most obnoxious comments to my blog posts have come from "Anonymous."

One place anonymous contributors cause a lot of grief is in online family trees. People add information to online sites like New FamilySearch and fail to identify themselves making it almost impossible for family members to correct inaccurate or intentionally wrong information.

As long as we recognize that privacy and anonymity are competing interests to genealogy and strike an acceptable balance between protecting peoples' privacy and thereby limiting record availability and destroying the concept of privacy altogether through social networking, we will continue to be able to do genealogical research and at the same time feel comfortable with the level of information available.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points. I don't use an avatar on my blog, but I've got to say that I can understand why some may want to. If there are some serious skeletons in the closet that don't go too far back, they may want to share their experiences and family history, but it can hurt those that are still living. I will admit that I do hold a little back when dealing with skeletons that deal with living family members (well, not my father).

    As for online family trees being anonymous, I've got to say that whether there's a name on the tree or not, you've got to verify it all anyway. Maybe you can get some leads. I've found that sadly, even if you can contact people and let them know of a mistake they won't change it.

    Great blog by the way. I'm enjoying it so much!

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