I was reading a couple of articles about joining lineage societies the other day and it occurred to me that both the authors ignored an obvious issue concerning the content of unified family tree programs and the FamilySearch.org Family Tree program in particular.
Lineage societies, such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants or the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, have long thrived on exclusivity. Nearly all of these organizations have a fairly extensive application process that involves "proving" the applicant's ancestry, in most cases, with extensive documentation. Here is an example, from Ancestry.com of an application form for Sarah Parkhurst (Sarah Tanner) (Ancestry.com. U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.)
Now let's suppose that I wanted to join one of these societies such as the Mayflower Society. What would I have to do to prove my lineage to join? In the past, I might have even had to go to the extent of hiring someone to research my ancestral lines. But today, I can go to the FamilySearch.org Family Tree and see my connection to the following individuals who are my seventh great-grandparents.
If I knew that the Mayflower Society published a list of "gateway ancestors" that had already been accepted and proven as descendants of Mayflower passengers, all I need to do is establish my lineage back to these gateway ancestors and submit an application. Guess what? All of the documentation establishing my connection to these particular ancestors is already in the Family Tree.
In fact, anyone who is a descendant of Thankful Tefft could, with very little effort, establish the necessary connection to apply for membership. So there goes all the exclusivity of the organizations. The same thing would happen if I wanted to join any other lineage society. My connections to their gateway individuals will ultimately be clearly established in the Family Tree with abundant sources. Likewise, all those people who aspire to belong to one of these organizations may ultimately find that they do not qualify. So membership in one or another of these lineage societies will become trivial for many, many people. For example, in the case of Joshua Tanner and Thankful Tefft, they have tens of thousands of descendants all of whom qualify for membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, assuming they are interested enough to pay their application fee and annual dues.
Of course, this has always been the case. The number of people in the United States who are descendants of one or more individuals who fought in the U.S. Revolutionary War probably number in the millions. But what is the attraction of belonging to an organization that nearly anyone can join because their lineage is publically available and easily verified online?
Granted, there are large volunteer, service organizations such as Rotary International and fraternal organizations such as Freemasonry, but lineage societies have other motivations. Going back to the articles I read recently, as I noted neither of the authors seemed to realize that for a huge and growing number of people, proving their descent from any particular group will become a simple as looking opening a program such as Relative Finder and then copying out the sources.
Here is my list of relatives from Relative Finder who were Mayflower Passengers.
Of course, in most cases, the lineage societies are looking for direct descendants, but right now, the Family Tree is still under development and many of these early people are still mired in a swamp of conflicting data. Using the Relative Finder and because the information in the Family Tree is becoming more reliable due to sources being added, I discovered I am related to both my wife's mother and her father. Actually, the connection to her father was bogus because the common ancestor was not really my ancestor.
What will be the impact of nearly everyone automatically knowing within a few seconds everyone they are related to?