RootsTech 2014

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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Life, Death and Genealogy on the Internet -- the Future

There is a commonly expressed assumption among a certain segment of the genealogical community that social media posts and other similar online programs will measurably affect genealogical research in the future. For example, a recent post declared, in no uncertain terms, that "Facebook is Family History." My thoughts on this were expressed, in part, in a previous blog post. But I couldn't get the issue out of my head. Do online social networking programs really constitute "family history" however that is defined?

I realize that there is a current movement, again among a certain segment of the genealogical community, to elevate stories and photos as the ultimate goal in the historical preservation of people's lives and that mere names, dates and places are of marginal importance. The statements made in this regard go so far as to denigrate genealogy as such and even state that "genealogy" is no longer needed.

So here is the question. Can you really document any one person's life entirely from sources created by the Internet phenomena and ignore "traditional" genealogical sources? What I mean by this is rather simple, can I document the life of any given person, that is reconstructing birth, school, military, land and property, military and death records from what is presently available outside of the traditionally maintained and genealogically significant records, by relying solely on social networking websites?

In this, I am making a rather arbitrary discrimination. I am saying that, as a genealogist, I would have traditionally looked at certain types of records, located in a variety of repositories, to document the life of my ancestors. Now that we have a flood of social networking posts online, has my job of ferreting out original source documents become obsolete? In the future will we simply have to refer to the vast amount of personal information supplied by Facebook posts and such and ignore the rest? Since, as a genealogist, I am being characterized as a "name gatherer" as opposed to a "family historian" what will be my role going into the future.

Granted, my own future does not seem to stretch off so far as it once did, but posing one of my hypothetical situations, suppose we imagine a future researchers trying to reconstruct different lives from the record contained on the Internet today. Can it be done?

Let's assume three different people who lived in recent times and who have three different relationships to the Internet (Web or whatever).

  • Person #1 was born in about 1900 and died in the 1980s.
  • Person #2 was born in the mid-1900s and is still alive in 2014
  • Person #3 was born in the late 1900s and has spent most of his life on a computer and online

Obviously, Person #1 was never involved in social networking. You would assume that there would be very little about that person online outside of more traditionally maintained documents commonly used by genealogists to reconstruct an ancestor's life.

The second person is a little more of a challenge. Person #2 came onto the Internet scene at the time it became available. Let's assume that even though this person was born before TV became commonly available, he is now totally saturated in the online world of social networking.

The third hypothetical person, Person #3, was raised with computers and has been on the Internet since his early years. He uses Facebook and other social networking sites daily and can easily be categorized as one of those referred to in the FamilySearch article referenced above.

I am modeling my hypothetical examples after real people. For reasons of privacy, I will not use any particularly identifiable details, but I will report my investigation in general terms. The question is whether or not I can document any one of the three people solely from Internet sources created through social networking and ignore birth, marriage and death records that I would search as a genealogist or careful family historian. What does the Internet actually add to the equation?

I will do a rather extensive Google search on each of three, bearing in mind that I am using real people with real names to do the search, I am just not putting those names in this blog post.

Person #1 shows up in several online family trees. Obviously, because of this fact, his name and commonly available dates, such as birth, marriage and death, are recorded. But what about the stories in social networking programs? Nothing. As a matter of fact, the information about this person is conspicuously absent online. I happen to know where to obtain much more information, including a biography etc. but to obtain that information, I would have to do some genealogical research in record repositories that have nothing to do with readily available online social networking programs. So our future family historian would strike out here.

Person #2 shows up thousands of times in a Google search. In fact, the number of references are overwhelming, into the tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands. The information available is very interesting. It is confined almost completely to "profiles" entered into online programs, including Google+, Facebook and other such programs. But missing are any pertinent dates or events. For example, trying to determine a birth date from online sources appears to be nearly impossible. In fact, a search on his complete name turns up only 7 entries and the two most interesting are newspaper articles about his marriage. Nothing about his birth. Even though he is online incessantly, it appears that the real information about this individual is missing. In other words, because Person #2, out of caution, did not share any vital information online despite his voluminous online posts, real historical information is missing. Yes, there are photos and a few stories, but details are conspicuously absent. In fact, searching again and again, might show that there are several other people with the same name and how do you differentiate those from the target individual?

Now, according to the commonly accepted "new family history" movement, we should have a huge amount of stories, photos and valuable genealogical information about Person #3. Hmm. I am really striking out here. I find only one entry and it is a standard profile from a public source. Public record sources are more helpful in this regard. They contain approximate ages and record various places the person has lived across the United States, but are lacking in any detail at all about his life. In addition, there are several individuals with the same name who are evidently not the same person. How do we know which of the names are Person #3? Even in Facebook posts this can be a problem. There are hundreds of people on Facebook with exactly the same name and scattered all over the world. If I rely on Facebook for my family history, how will I know if I am researching the right person?

As to Person #3, assuming I can differentiate him from others with the same name, I do find photos and some superficial stories, but dates are missing. Without resorting to traditional documentation, I cannot find a birth date or even a marriage date. I am reminded of reading packets of old letters. They contain bits and pieces of the person's life and add human interest but lack specific information about complete areas of concern.

It looks like to me that reconstructing a person's life from social networking may be more of a challenge than the superficial assumptions about "stories and photos" might lead you to believe. So far, any concrete, original source information is entirely missing for all three of my hypothetical people. In many of the search results from Google, I find people with exactly the same name, living in the same area. How do I know if the person reported online as being arrested or involved in some lawsuit is my person or not?

My point should be obvious. Somehow assuming that social networking or any other such online source is going to provide other than incidental and occasionally useful information about anyone is not a valid assumption. Yes, I could do some traditional genealogical research about all three people in my examples and could find more information. But where will these future historians come from if we ignore the real genealogists?

Final note. I could use my attorney skills and online sources such as Westlaw and LexisNexis to find out more than anyone cares to know about any one individual, but those types of sources are not social networking. It is also true that some people reveal a great deal of personal information on Facebook and that such entries might add some color to their future histories, but who will record and gather that information?

1 comment:

  1. Had we had social networking in the late 1800's, I still would have needed to research my great grandmother's basic facts like birth, death, and marriages. Genealogy and the research involved will always be needed to insure that our records are accurate. I have letters (1963) telling me my great grandmother married at 14 but the records do not reflect my 2nd cousin 1x removed (letter writer) faulty memory.

    Everything anyone might want to know about me is on the Internet. It is my legacy to the future in case anyone is interested. However, I also have the basics documented on with the proper paperwork. Social media can only enhance what is already proven and it may or may not be accurate based on a person's need to make themselves more than they are or portray a different perspective.

    Great post and though provoking. I don't despair that future generations will not record and gather information. Like the rest of us, curiosity will always trump social media and the desire to gather records will not diminish.