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

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Facebook Genealogy?

I understand genealogy to be a highly complex and involved activity. When I began "searching for my ancestors" I quickly discovered a very research oriented and intensively source based community. One of my early activities was going through a pile of letters that constituted years of inquiries posted by my Great-grandmother. These were long letters telling family news and setting out relationships. I also found, rather quickly, that very few (were there any?) members of my immediate family were at all interested in my research. I would constantly try to "update" family members on my progress, but I cannot recall any instances where my interest was reciprocated.

I wish I could say, in this Facebook generation, that all that has changed and that I am now inundated with interest in my family lines. Not. I do get an occasional inquiry, usually about a remote relative about whom I know next to nothing. Since a significant portion of my family lines go back to New England, this is not unusual. Estimates place the number of descendants of my third Great-grandfather, John Tanner, into the hundreds of thousands. I was one of the early contributors to the Pedigree Resource File, an early online family tree program, where I uploaded my research three different times. As far as I know, I am the only person I have every discovered, who documented John Tanner's birth records in Hopkinton, Rhode Island. Do you think one of those hundreds of thousands of descendants might have some interest in John Tanner's actual sources? Apparently not.

My Great-grandmother would painstakingly hand write inquiry after inquiry about her family and gathered literally thousands of names of relatives with pertinent genealogical data. She would wait months and years for replies. So, now that we have Facebook, this should all be happening a warp speed, shouldn't it?

OK, so I go to my venerable Facebook account. I make a search for "John Tanner" genealogy. Given all of his descendants, many of which I know are on Facebook, there should be a lot of genealogical information? Right? I get three responses: an offer for a free Tanner surname search, an advertisement for a book about Tanners and my own reference to my research. Let's try my standard search for "Henry Martin Tanner" my Great-grandfather. I already know he is listed literally thousands of times on the Internet in various sites. Now to the Facebook search. Guess what? Two of my posts and one from my daughter.

Maybe I am missing something. I will just search for genealogy on Facebook. Wow, I hit the jackpot. There is a whole world of Facebook sites dedicated to genealogy. I get tired of clicking to see more results, the list is endless. So maybe I went about this all wrong. I shouldn't be searching for anyone in particular on Facebook, I should be posting my inquiries like a billboard along the Freeway. Something you can read at 65 mph. No time to discuss whether or not the sources for John Tanner are documented, maybe Facebook is just a place to get together, sort of like the Mall in Phoenix in the summer?

Hmm. A little more investigation is in order perhaps. I go down through the Facebook listings. It looks like a lot of people are asking for and offering help with genealogical questions. It also looks like Facebook has taken over the old bulletin boards like RootsWeb and such, where everyone used to post their inquires. It does look like a lot of the "sites" on Facebook are really fronts for commercial businesses. A lot of the sites are republications of blog posts and associated comments. Let's see what happens with a Mayflower family inquiry. Richard Warren ought to have some real discussions going.

I search for Richard Warren and get a cross-reference to Wikipedia from Microsoft's Bing. Now I am confused. If I search on Facebook, I am actually searching on Bing? Apparently. However, there is nothing on Facebook itself.

So what does Facebook offer to me in the way of serious, complicated, source centered, documented, intense genealogical information? I think the jury is still out on this question.


  1. The only genealogical use I have so far found on Facebook is contacting living cousins and documenting their growing branches. Thankfully most Facebook accounts, if they don't provide the age of the user, have photographs attached to them, so you can make decisions accordingly.

    For finding like-minded cousins interested in ancestors more than a century back, I think the genealogy site forums are still much better than Facebook.

  2. If you want to find information about ancestors on Facebook, you probably won't find much. I think you summed it up quite nicely when you wondered if Facebook is just a place to get together like the mall. For most people it's just a way to keep in touch with friends, share short thoughts or links, or (ugh) play games. Facebook is probably only useful for genealogy if you can use it to get in touch with living cousins who might have documents or information or who would be interested in what you've done. For example, you could send a message or post on your wall that you're looking for a picture or birth certificate of so-and-so. Then again, a genealogy site forum would probably be a more effective place to find that kind of thing since most of your Facebook friends aren't as interested in genealogy as you are, whereas the people on a genealogy forum are there because they want to find and share genealogy.

  3. I guess my point is that Facebook isn't really meant to be used like Google. It's meant to be used to get in touch with living people.

  4. I have found Facebook to be a useful tool in my research, but it is not meant to replace even the most basic of searches (and, quite honestly, I would find the person who told you it does and give them a stern talking-to). For example, I created a private group for a branch of my family, invited family members who are on facebook (we now have 21), and we post photos for identification or sharing, or ask questions about where certain people lived at certain times. I have even managed to connect with 3 cousins who have also been doing research. I also have my blog posts automatically fed to my Facebook page (and my Twitter account, if it matters). It has actually gotten my family members interested in what I'm doing.

    I'd say it's a win.