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

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Some Comments on Surviving Online

I just finished reading a book about the early history of the Internet. The book is:

Segaller, Stephen. Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet ; [companion Book to the Television Series “Nerds 2.0.1 - a Brief History of the Internet” on PBS]. New York, NY: TV-Books, 1998.

Since I lived most of this history, I was interested to see what they had to say about it back in 1998. Not surprisingly, the author's predictions seemed quaintly out of date, especially since the book was written before Google. Also, back then, Steve Jobs was still out as Apple's CEO. The book describes how very, very few companies or organizations were even interested in the concept that computers could be networked together. In fact, the first thought they had was that people would "steal" the work they were doing on their huge main-frame computers and they were not at all interested in communicating. The author points out that this is exactly the same reaction people had to the telegraph and the telephone.

Now, as genealogists we find ourselves in a similar position. We are just new beginning to experience the full effect the Internet will have on the way we do our work. So much of what I see going on around me with genealogical research is still profoundly paper-based. Rather than adapt to the changes, we are trying to impose our previous methodology on the new technology. If I seem to write about this topic frequently, it is because I have the issue of technological adjustment thrown in my face almost every day.

After reading the history book above, I then began the following book:

Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

This is a more recent book, but it proceeds from the false premise, that is, that we are all "victims" of the big online companies and that they are able to manipulate us by "personalizing" our Internet experience. This has always been the case with advertising and propaganda. The book paints the whole world with a broad brush as victims. After years of going to court as a trial attorney, I am more than aware of the victim mentality. Unfortunately, I see the same evidence of a victim mentality in genealogists.

The victim mentality consists of thinking that you are not in control of your own life and that "they" are forcing you to act or think in some particular way. In many cases victim mentality leads to either no action in the face of problem situation or inappropriate action. Let me give a trivial example from the standpoint of genealogy.

One reality of doing genealogical research is that some types of records are "restricted." This can occur as a result of political, social, legal, or ownership claims. I recently ordered two microfilm rolls from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and my order was refused because the films were "restricted." Now, I could adopt a victim mentality and rant against the "system" that creates this problem, or I could simply begin the process of working around the problem. In fact, I have spoken with people recently, when faced with exactly this situation, that conclude that they will not use FamilySearch at all anymore because "all the films, books or whatever are restricted and only available to members of the LDS Church etc. etc." Neither of these last two statements is true but the conclusion comes from a victim mentality.

Another of the most common symptoms of the genealogical victim mentality is the whole concept of a "brick wall." This concept implies that someone or something "out there" is preventing the researcher from finding their ancestors. As Shakespeare wrote in his play, Julius Caesar, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Now back to working with the Internet online. Here again, we need to avoid a victim mentality. I know some people who will not give out their email address because they do not want to receive unsolicited emails. Guess what? There are ways to handle junk email just as there are ways to handle junk snail mail. Yes, I see ads from Google, Apple, Amazon and dozens of other entities all day as I work on my computer. But rather than think I am the victim of a vast advertising conspiracy that is going to take away my individual freedom. I adapt. I implement systems that allow me to ignore all of that noise and still do my work. My system is simple. I make the decision about what I focus on, open, view or ultimately buy. Just because someone tells me a record is owned or restricted, I simply find another way to view the record.

Right now on my screen, there are at least five or six ads for different products. Until I began writing this sentence, I hadn't focused on or even noticed any of them. I refuse to be a victim. On the other hand I will not cut off my nose to spite my face. I do not over react to these attempts to influence what I do and what I think. There are always many different ways to obtain the same objective in doing online research (or any research for that matter) and you just have to accept the fact that you are not in control of the whole world but you can control how you react to what happens. Stop feeling that they are out to get you and start taking control of your own life.


  1. James, reminds me of a conversation with my young granddaughter when she hit her brother for something he said. She said he made me angry, I told her he can't do that only you can decide if you get angry, walk away or laugh at it.

  2. Another fascinating book is The Glass Cage: How our computers are changing us, by Nicholas Carr. Something pertinent (in my read of his book) to genealogy research is that Google makes more money the more we click on buttons, so things are designed to entice us to spend less time on a page. Many researchers today just click on a shaky leaf or someone else's tree without really checking the details - - so many people have been conditioned for immediate gratification. And without serious research trees with bad information get promulgated thru out the Internet and the good information gets hidden. Popular information, not correct information rises to the top of the search screen.