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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Live People and Online Family Trees -- What is the Reality Here?

To start off this blog post, I would like to point out that nearly all the people on Facebook today are alive. Hmm. This may not seem like a very insightful observation, but I want you to think about it, just for a moment. Here are a few statistics to show what I am writing about.

I am going to focus on the United States. In 2010, according to the United States Census, Computer and Internet Use, 44% of the householders in the United States had access to the Internet. By 2013, this number had jumped to 74.4% and computer ownership had climbed to 83.8%.

See,, Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013, American Community Survey Reports,, (accessed 19 November 2015).

On 27 May 2015, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, Byers published a paper by Mary Meeker, entitled Internet Trends 2015 -- Code Conference. Oh, by the way according to the report, Facebook is the most used App. Among teens the most used social networks are Instagram and Twitter with Facebook third. Guess what, Internet access has now climbed to 84% of the population in 2014 and 64% of the population own smartphones. Remember this includes babies. 87% of the Millennials say that their smartphone never leaves their side, night or day.

Are you one of those people who are concerned about the inclusion of "living people" in online family trees? Do you own a smartphone? Well, I would guess that the average person who is very involved in genealogical research is way behind this curve. Are you worried about including your grandchildren on an online family tree while at the same time looking at images of them on Facebook or Instagram? Don't you see the issue here?

One observation from the trends and data is that the online digitization of original source records will continue unabated. The large online family tree programs will undoubtedly continue to attract users who are unsophisticated in genealogical research. The overall quality of online family trees will likely not improve absent direct intervention by the hosting companies. The inclusion of data about living people in online family trees is really a non-issue given the amount of data that is online in social networking programs.

The online family tree programs uniformly block access to the data entered on living people, but users who ignore that provision can still enter publicly available information about living people. For example, on Memories, if you tag one dead person in photo containing several living people, that makes the entire photo discoverable on Google. In light of the dramatic changes in individual information available online, the entire concept of privacy and ownership of information is radically changing.

If you care, just don't put any detailed information online about living people in family tree programs. Of course, what you do or do not do is only from your perspective. The living people you are trying to protect likely do not care about their own "privacy."


  1. The living people I am protecting actually care a great deal. My brothers and parents are all extremely paranoid and private people. They do not have an online presence in their own right -- no Facebook, no Twitter, no blogs, nothing (see above mentioned paranoia). I do. I am, by far, the least private person in my family (even so I fully believe and act on the principle that if you don't want it known don't put it online and am selective about what I talk about or put online). The one time I tried to put pictures of my nieces on Facebook without vetting it with my brother first nearly caused WWIII. I had to agree, in writing, not to name living people on my blog at the outset. In my family it definitely matters. I don't agree with their level of paranoia , but I will respect it.

    1. I am fully aware that there are a significant number of people who have that attitude towards any type of "public" information. Nearly all of them would be appalled and disturbed if they realized how much of what they consider to by private is easily known and obtainable online. I have written about the concept of "privacy" many times, but it looks like it is time to visit this topic again. Of course, none of the people who are caught up in that belief would be the ones reading my very public blog.