Most of the information contained in FamilySearch.org's Family Tree program can be edited or, in some cases, deleted by any registered user. This includes most of the personal information about individuals and the relationships between individuals. The ability to edit or delete information is not limited to the people who contributed the information. In Family Tree's predecessor program, New.FamilySearch.org, everyone "owned" the information they personally contributed and no one else could edit the submitted information. If the information was inaccurate or inappropriate, the only response was to add more, hopefully, accurate information. But all the information, both accurate and inaccurate, was preserved at the same level and availability.
Family Tree changes this scenario dramatically. Any registered user can edit (or where allowed) delete any information. Not just the information they personally contributed.
Whenever I present this function of the program in any class, there are always the same two questions. These are:
- If anyone can change the information then why doesn't the whole database devolve into chaos or fill up with garbage? (Integrity of the database)
- Do you mean to say that anyone can change my family information? (Ownership of the data)
Usually, my explanations of these two issues does not satisfy those asking the question. The issue of the ownership of genealogical data is extremely ingrained in the psyche of the average genealogist. I find the attitude of ownership to be almost pervasive. Researchers have a tendency to think of the information they find to be "their" data. It is relatively easy to point out that all of the descendants "own" their own ancestry, so no one ancestor is owned by any one of the descendants. Although this simple explanation is true, an attitude of possession is hard to overcome. Well, whether or not you or anyone else believes they own their genealogical data, Family Tree still allows anyone to make changes. So this issue has more to do with participation in the program at all, rather than affecting the manner in which the information is edited.
The remaining question concerning the integrity of the data is a little more difficult to address. It is true that allowing anyone to edit data in a database would intuitively seem to move the data towards chaos. But in fact, as counter-intuitive as it may be, allowing everyone to edit the data raises the overall reliability of the data. The reason this occurs is dictated by basic human nature. There are two factors; some people are driven to correct the world around them and most people could care less. In other words, it a lot more likely that people possessing the correct information about the people in Family Tree will be motivated to edit and update the data than those who do not care about either genealogy or Family Tree. This is the premise that makes the wiki-based programs work where registered users can make changes. Family Tree is not strictly a wiki but it does have wiki-like characteristics.
In fact this is the case. Counter intuitively; the information in a wiki (or a wiki-like) program becomes more reliable rather than less reliable. But this brings up another common question:
What happens if I change the information and then someone changes it back and then I change it again and so forth?
Although this might happen, Family Tree has several layers of features that make this type of disagreement (commonly called a “revert war”) highly unlikely. First of all, anyone can “watch” any ancestor in Family Tree. Watching an ancestor initiates a process where the program notifies the user of any changes to the watched individual. Secondly, and more importantly, the program allows for communication between users through email. Obviously, if there is a difference in the data offered for any individual, the users can communicate and come to an understanding concerning the “correct” data to be entered. Finally, abuses of the program can be reported to FamilySearch. If the users carefully rely on sources, then the possibility of any disagreements will be minimized. If in the end, there is a genuine disagreement about a certain item, then the family will have to “agree to disagree” and get on with additional research to resolve the controversy.
Unfortunately, many of the duplications and errors in New.FamilySearch.org have been inherited by Family Tree. It may take some time to work through these errors, but ultimately, through the editing mechanism of the Family Tree program all of those errors can be corrected and information mutually acceptable to the family can be maintained.
Another comment I get at this point in teaching classes concerns the need to correct the duplications and errors in the program. The answer is yes, we are the ones who must start the work of correcting the information in Family Tree. We all hope we have more than one person per family to do the work.