RootsTech 2014

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

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Online Family History or Genealogy Wikis

I would guess that I am right in the middle of any issues regarding the use of wiki programs for genealogy since I have been working on the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki since 2008. I thought it would be a good idea to see what is going on with wikis in general as they relate to our genealogical community. I realize that there is a substantial love/hate relationship with Wikipedia in the online community. As with any large and popular program, it has its share of detractors as well as a huge number of users. Today, Alexa.com has Wikipedia.org listed as the 6th most popular website on the entire Web. It is hard to argue with that kind of success, but there are certainly those who try.

A few years ago, when wikis were not as prevalent as they are today, there was a significant amount of discussion about the accuracy of Wikipedia.org compared to traditional encyclopedia articles. Most of the online article giving comparisons missed the point of wikis. They are a moving target, whereas traditional encyclopedias are not. It is relatively easy to pick up an article in Wikipedia.org and claim it is inaccurate, but it is also possible that by the time you make the claim, the article has already been edited and corrected. From the standpoint of someone who actively works on the content of a wiki, my response would be that if you find a mistake in a wiki why don't you correct it. Measuring the accuracy of a wiki is like trying to pick up Jello with your fingers.

Despite years of use on the Internet, wikis still elicit a significant amount of negative reaction from all types of computer users who are on the network. I regularly teach classes on me FamilySearch.org Research Wiki and almost without exception the same questions concerning accuracy and the ability to maintain the integrity of the data contained in a wiki are questioned by the class participants. Of course, my experience is that they are just as reliable as any other method of presenting information in a general database format. The objections center around the ability of all of the users, usually registered users, to change the data at any time. In fact, recent comments to my blog posts about the FamilySearch.org Family Tree program also focus on the concerns of individuals that any information they contribute to the Family Tree will somehow be tainted by other users. However, this attitude originates from a very egotistical origin that somehow those detracting individual's data is more accurate and superior to that of anyone else.

I haven't done an exhaustive search of the Internet for genealogy wikis, but here is a list of the ones that I most aware of:


Some of these wikis include information about individuals linked as pedigrees, others contain general information about genealogy subjects. I'm sure there are many others that could be added to the list.

The main characteristic of a wiki program is its collaborative basis. Wikis have evolved into the most powerful method of handling huge amounts of data by diffusing the oversight for the accuracy of the data among all of the contributors.  The effect of this type of organization is that detractors who claim that the wiki is inaccurate put themselves in a position of criticizing information that apparently they themselves could correct if they wished to do so. Essentially, criticism of the accuracy of the wiki is an attempt to transfer responsibility for the accuracy to someone else. As such, wikis require the participation of some segment of the users. The main reason for their accuracy is that the only people motivated to contribute are usually those who have some sort of stake in the accuracy of the information.

Wikis cannot be characterized by any particular format because the appearance of the wiki can be changed by overlaying a specialized interface. For this reason, the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki functions and appears like a traditional wiki similar to Wikipedia. On the other hand, most users would have difficulty recognizing FamilySearch.org Family Tree as wiki.

Wiki programs take advantage of the interconnectivity of the Internet and are therefore powerful forces for change. One example, outside of the genealogical community, is the OpenLibrary.org. In this program part of Archive.org, the wiki format has been used to create a user contributed database attempting to identify every book ever published. This type of program receives very little, if any, media attention but in fact they are the fundamental forces molding the structure of our data usage in the future. This fact can be partially substantiated by noting that Archive.org is part of the Digital Public Library of America.

I regularly emphasize the potential of the FamilySearch.org Family Tree program to revolutionize the genealogical community. The most part, it has this potential because of the structure of the program based upon the wiki model. The main issue facing FamilySearch Family Tree is whether or not the collaborative model presented by the wiki can overcome the rather extensive limitations in the data used to create the initial data set.

It is clear, that wikis are not well suited for handling all types of information. They are, however, here to stay and will continue to be actively pursued especially as the need to handle huge data sets in a collaborative context continues to increase.







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