RootsTech 2015

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

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Is there a resolution to the online family tree controversy?



Online family trees are proliferating at such a rate that if they had any substantial reality we would be in a world wide crisis. As it is, since they only take a relatively small about of computer storage space, there is no concern for the physical reality. However, from a genealogical standpoint, it is almost like the predicament of Sleeping Beauty asleep in a castle surrounded by an impenetrable forest of thorns, sort of an aggressive jungle. Now, we are stuck like Sleeping Beauty. So the question becomes, is there a Prince Charming in our future?

OK, that was really corny. But the underlying issue is real. Let's analyze this issue for a moment. If there are about 7.1 billion people on the earth, there is a very remote possibility that each of those people could decided to put a family tree online. Of course, there would be a massive amount of duplication but then think for a minute more, I have, at least a half a dozen or more different copies of my own family tree online, so theoretically, there is no upper limit to the number of potential family trees online.

The prevailing attitude of the more experienced genealogists towards online family trees falls into several categories from totally ignoring them to actively ranting about the errors and wrong family connections. A significant group of genealogists adamantly refuse to put their genealogical data online or even provide copies to family members. They do this for a variety of reasons including the claim that the work is not complete (it never could be) and that their research is their own work and no one else is going to see it or use it. My experience is that the vast majority of casual genealogists, those who devote only a very small amount of time to the pursuit, have no idea of the amount of family tree data online.

Just for an example. My great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, is included in FamilySearch.org Family Tree and every other online family tree program I have ever looked at. On Ancestry.com there are 3,933 family trees containing him and his family. I use this ancestor as an indicator of the validity of any copied family trees. He was born in 1852 in San Bernardino, Los Angeles County, California. But most of the books and old family group records show the county as San Bernardino County which did not exist in 1852. Despite the fact that you can verify this fact from a number of online sources, the erroneous information is contained in the vast majority of the online family trees in Ancestry.com alone. But in most of the family trees, the birth information is either incomplete or missing altogether.

At this point, when I am discussing this issue in a class, I usually get a comment about who cares? So what if thousands of people are incompetent? Well, is there any possibility that academia, for example, will ever take genealogy seriously when there is such a proliferation of trash online? Not likely. How can anyone tell which, if any, of all those tree have accurate information about the family? Now, perhaps you see the value of my initial analogy. These millions of family trees create an almost impenetrable jungle for anyone trying to ascertain correct information about their ancestors.

Another common reaction to this issue is saying, "Well, just ignore the whole thing." Yeah, I could do that, but unfortunately, I get them thrown in my face continually. The problem is that every time I do a search on Ancestry.com or any other program with linked family trees, I get results from those bogus family trees.

Another example. I am also a member of Geni.com. Referring back to Henry Martin Tanner, I find that the family tree on Geni.com also has the wrong birth county for Henry Martin Tanner. Even if you were to have a "gold master copy" of the right information somewhere online, what are the chances that all this misinformation will be corrected?

But there is an even deeper issue with the birth information about Henry Martin Tanner. As experienced genealogists, we know that an event should be recorded as the locations existed at the time of the event. But very few genealogists know about this rule and even fewer care about it. Why would you want to spend what little time you have to do research in correcting all of the online misinformation?

If you were really new to family history and you stumbled across some website such a Ancestry.com or Geni.com, what would you do with all the information you found?


37 comments:

  1. I actually believe that the online trees can be a useful tool.

    They can sometimes give a hint as to where to start researching.

    Just like any other tool, they can be high quality or junk. Information shown still needs to be researched and proven or disproved.

    Don't rule them out and don't believe them. Use them as a possible hint for your own research.

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    1. Do I really want to search through 3,933 hints? When I already know the information is incorrect? Second, if I find a "hint" back on one of these trees how can I take it seriously if there are no sources for any of the people linking back to the hint?

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    2. On Ancestry, you can switch off tree hints if you want. It doesn't solve the proplem of inaccurate data in other trees of course, but it does give you the chance to concentrate on record hints.

      Long term solution would be that Ancestry improves their matching, so that you see tree hints that have the most value on top. I see that on Geni.com, where matches against trees on My Heritage are sorted by the amount of new information that you may find in those other trees. With that, you still see large numbers, but you don't need to search through all of them.

      Another alternative would be if one would be able to configure Ancestry to only show hints for end-of-line individuals in your tree, or individuals that you mark as research focus points, or something like that. That is up to them to build, but the alternative is that users like me cancel their subscriptions because of the large number of useless hints.

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    3. Those are really good suggestions. Unfortunately neither of us are in charge of Ancestry.com :-)

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    4. I know, but like My Heritage it's a business, which doesn't get any money from me anymore, and doesn't earn any from new LDS members either. And with FamilySearch and Geni competing, I hope that they understand that they need to adapt some time.

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    5. Geni.com is owned by MyHeritage.com and I would characterize Geni.com as competing with FamilySearch.org. FamilySearch.org is a free website.

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    6. Oh yes, and that makes it more interesting. In my experience, Geni is ahead of the FamilySearch tree in a few aspects, one being that it has much less duplicates. Others are that it's more multi-lingual, and that there's quite a strong community, also in Dutch. FamilySearch's forums and wiki are less visible. There are disadvantages too, like limited GEDCOM support (export only), and price, but right now, I'm happy to pay that, even though 'competing' sites like wikitree and WeRelate are free. The good thing of FamilySearch is that I can connect to it with many desktop software packages, but alas not with Gramps. A test drive downloading 10 generations of Henry Martin Tanner's ancestors however revealed that there's loads and loads of duplicates. And to remove those, FamilySearch probably needs much stronger policies, including the elimination of bad sources, which have already been eliminated from Geni.com

      Case in point is that with Geni and My Heritage combining personal and shared trees, they're strong contenders for Ancestry, which doesn't seem to have plans for a shared tree, and may eventually become the next Nokia, while Geni and FamilySearch are more like iPhone and Android.

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    7. Hmm. I would guess that depends on who acquires whom in this online world of common acquisitions.

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    8. True, and I see that I used the wrong term here. Contenders suggests that I think they might buy Ancestry, which I think is not a realistic thought. They're more like challengers, for the FamilySearch tree too, because on Geni, a lot of time has already been invested in cleaning up profiles and trees.

      In the FamilySearch tree, the number of duplicate profiles is huge, and too many times, I see messages that duplicated can't be merged, without any explanation. And I think that such things are driving users away, even if the service is free.

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  2. First ; family history has existed longer than academia so why should we be bothered what academia thinks about genealogy?

    It does not matter how carefully the subject has been researched academics do not take genealogy seriously.

    Second ; any half serious family historian takes little not of online trees, yes they may offer clues but that is all.
    They do not count as a serious source, one needs to view primary records of facsimiles of primary records for that.

    In other words ignore online trees and concentrate on original records.
    Indeed I am afraid it seems that some modern genealogists need to first discover what a primary record is.
    Cheers
    Guy

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    1. As I mentioned in the post, most genealogists would simply ignore the issue.

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    2. As a historian working in academia, I don't think that's really true. I think the real armchair genealogists aren't taken very seriously, for the same reason that people who watch the History Channel a lot aren't considered historians. But people who are serious about their research are quite respected. There's no disrespect for the field overall; I think that's a weird persecution trope that circulates without grounds.

      Bear in mind that most of us become historians because we love playing with old records and solving mysteries. Historians and genealogists are naturally paired. That's why they're/we're generally the same group. ;)

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    3. My reference to academia was specifically aimed at the fact that there are only a small handful of university level genealogy programs in the world.

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  3. There has always been misinformation in genealogy out there. It has happened since genealogy has been around. The only difference between then and now is that it is incredibly cheap and easy to publish misinformation.

    But as for your analogy about whether academia will ever take us seriously... couldn't that analogy be applied to all sorts of things? Weightloss for example - there are all sorts of bogus weight loss scams out there, and yet, the medical community still take doctors specializing in weight loss seriously. I'm sure there are other examples - but I can't think of any off the top of my head.

    Honestly, I think the best thing that can happen to be considered "legitimatized" by academia is to just keep publishing quality work, having peer reviewed journals, continuing education, etc. That's how you get recognized.

    But even still - I don't really care if academia every notices the genealogy world. I'm not doing this to get recognized. I'm doing this for me, my ancestors, and those that will come after me.

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    1. I just threw in the reference to academia because it is just one of the many things that separate us from them. Or am I them and we are us? Hmm.

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  4. "what are the chances that all this misinformation will be corrected?"

    Where it is presently more-or-less-massively housed, chances of correction are small and the stuff is likely to be copied over and over by others. Researchers doing the requisite research may or may not engage in creating or adding to existing databases, with accurate data.

    "If you were really new to family history and you stumbled across some website such a Ancestry.com or Geni.com, what would you do with all the information you found?"

    If I were about as naive as when I personally started out, I would be likely to adopt what seemed plausible until it started to lose the appearance of logic and evidentiary underpinnings -- then dump the mess and start more systematically. Nearly everyone starts somewhere rather on the trusting-ignorance end of the researcher spectrum. Some of us learn faster than others; some never do have genealogical accuracy as an objective.

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    1. I certainly relate to your comment. I started out the same way.

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  5. It may have happened already, but if not then it's only a matter of time before online trees are deliberately vandalised by taking advantage of their viral nature. Deliberately incorrect information will still propagate quickly and widely.

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  6. Maybe the denial of service attack on Ancestry.com was just a first salvo?

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  7. Perhaps people use the today's names of cities or towns is because genealogy source information is often filed under the current names of the towns. I am doing a review of which Shackfords were where in the 1790 census and every single source document seems to index people as being in the state of Maine even though Maine was not a separate state until 1820. If I want to do further research for these individuals in this time frame, I need to look under Maine for wills, probate records, and town documents even though these individuals were living in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Also, if I want to use the tools in my database where I keep track of the individuals to plot the location of where they lived, I need to use today's location. Just because people use today's locations for birth or residence doesn't mean they don't know that the location was different back then - it may mean that they want to maximize their opportunity to find more source data about the individuals they are researching.

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    1. That is an interesting theory, but my experience is that the people who use the current place are just mostly ignorant of the actual name of the place at the time. Your idea works except where the records have moved because of the original jurisdiction. I will work on doing a blog post as an answer to your ideas.

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    2. One of the methods to handle historical/modern differences is to put in the entry as:

      'Historical name', now 'modern name' ... for each part of the "location hierarchy where it's helpful -- with the historical name given prominence or precedence (so it agrees with historically contemporaneous records).

      For example, pre-1776, the location could be:

      'city or county name'
      Commonwealth of Massachusetts, now Maine
      Colonial America

      The exception might be for burial locations, where the 'modern' name may be preferable to help people find it (e.g. to photograph it), with the historical location as a secondary note (if even necessary).

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    3. Also, the best way to handle mapping is to attach GPS coordinates to the location; then the name doesn't matter.

      For example, one can use the Google API to find the current location name, get the GPS coordinates, and then go back to edit the associated text location fields to match the historical names.

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    4. I most certainly agree. But this is hardly ever done.

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  8. Of course, when you have collaborative online genealogical trees like Geni.com or WikiTrees, then that information can be corrected -- as a Geni.com member, you probably know that is the goal: to have one validated profile for each person, with attached sources.

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    1. Hmm, then why is the entry for my Great-grandfather wrong on Geni.com? I can't change it because I do not have a "paid" subscription to the program.

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    2. You don't need to be a paid member. You can send a request to collaborate with any of the managers of the profile, or you can ask to be added as a manager yourself. Takes two seconds. Then, once you edit the info and cite your source, ask a curator to confirm and lock the field so no one changes it again.

      I find your comments about professional genealogists not using on-line trees interesting because, when I go to conferences and association meetings and other events, that is not what I hear from colleagues. I think most of us who are serious about both genealogy and technology understand that there is no real benefit to paper-only, silo-style research anymore. We must move in very different circles. Do people like me look at any old FTM-generated website and think, "Ah, now here's a valid primary source!" -- of course not. But I don't think you can throw out the whole format because so many people use it badly. You just have to be the one to use it well, and your good information will rise to the top of the results.

      And I don't mind my basic work being on-line at all. I don't own vitals. If someone wants a detailed report with additional documents on each relative, or a ton of scans, or anything complex in any way, then yes, you better believe you're paying up! :) But BMD-type stuff? Hey, be my guest.

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    3. re: correcting info on Geni: There are at least 2-3 ways to get this done:

      (1) Ask the current manager for 'collaboration'; that lets you act as a 'co-manager' for the Public Profiles that other person manages (not their private profiles).

      (2) Alternatively, ask for co-management (request management), but that only applies to that one profile.

      Both 1 & 2 are found under the "Actions" button when viewing the details of that profile (a.k.a. the Profile View).

      3) Send a message (PM) to the managers (there is an 'envelope' on the profile to do this). This is often the *least* effective method.

      If the Henry Martin Tanner is the one I saw with a great-grandson James Tanner, then it looks like you are now a co-manager (probably a result of someone merging duplicates), so you ought to be able to edit that profile now. At least 4 different people seem to have contributed to the "facts" of that profile, and the current "About" description has had two contributors (some of those working on the Mormon Pioneers Geni project).

      The point being that there are a number of ways to get Geni profile information corrected ... and a method to protect it, too (via a 'Master Profile' designation).

      FYI: It looks like that Henry Martin Tanner profile now *does* have the correct birth information ... and marriage of 1st wife in Utah Territory, not Utah state (which didn't exist then).

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    4. My point is that I cannot go around trying to correct thousands of family trees! Yes, I can correct Geni.com but that is only one tree on one website. I just used the entry on Geni.com because it was inaccurate and showed the tip of the problem.

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    5. Is there another online program where you can correct someone else's mistake? In my view, unless you are working on Geni, you are probably wasting your time, as your tree is destined for oblivion. The Geni tree has the greatest chance of lasting far into the future because it is by far the largest and most accurate of the online trees.

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    6. Yes, there are other online programs that allow users corrections. That is the idea of a wiki-based program such as WeRelate.org and FamilySearch.org's Family Tree. I guess time will tell which of the online programs survive.

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  9. Any member can change info that is incorrect, this is not a PRO function. Raise a public discussion from a public profile with the correction needed (source attribution included of course) and a collaborator will come along to assist.

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  10. James, I think it is important not to lump all online trees together. Geni's world family tree is over 78 million profiles with 3 million connected users. It is FAR ahead of the rest of the field. On Ancestry and MyHeritage you will not generally find any very large collaborative trees, since those sites are designed for private trees. WikiTree has 7.8 million profiles, 10% of Geni. WeRelate has just 2.6 million. OneGreatFamily claims to be as large as Geni, but I don't know anyone who uses it. I put a 100,000 person tree there and have not gotten a single match or message. FamilySearch started a collaborative tree, but I heard that it is a big mess because they allowed too many gedcom imports and now they don't know what to do with it. So really there is only one option for collaborative genealogy on the Web and that is Geni. Geni is poised to become the Wikipedia of the genealogy world, with the same advantages in terms of breadth and accuracy. See my blog at http://schoenblog.com/?p=471 for answers to some of the common criticisms of Geni.

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    1. My comment was not intended to be a criticism of Geni.com. I used the example of the incorrect information merely to show how pervasive it has become, even when correct information is readily available.

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    2. Maybe that correct information is not as visible as you think. I mean, when I try to edit a location like San Bernardino, none of the sites that I know parse that location right. Geni tries to normalize it using Google's current location database, FamilySearch uses another database that doesn't know how to standardize it either, and even WeRelate.org, which I consider the most accurate in this area, doesn't provide the right county for the year 1852.

      When people type locations on-line, or upload GEDCOMs, these location parsers influence what we see, which I think even leads to accurate uploads being distorted. And of these sites, I think only WeRelate.org allows users to correct the place database on-line. And many times, that is too late.

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  11. As I noted on my blog, the good thing about Geni is that you notice errors and correct them. Everyone has errors. If Geni has an error on just 1% of the 78 million profiles in the Big Tree, that's 780,000 mistakes. But where else can you find and correct them? That is why the number of errors are decreasing on Geni and it is quickly becoming the most accurate, definitive tree available.

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    1. You are certainly making a good case for Geni.com. Thanks for the comments and the support for Geni.com. It helps to have an advocate.

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