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

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Fast Food? Dumbing down genealogy

Wide appeal does not necessarily connote beneficial quality. Fast food is sold on almost every commercial corner across our wide land and yet there are few who would argue that the health and welfare of our country has benefited from what is usually served up. With a few exceptions, adapting a product for the mass market is usually a sign that the product has become generic and available to the least common denominator of our society. While at the same time we put a premium on handcrafted works that take time, skill and effort.

In our rush to cater to the "beginner" in genealogy we are in danger of following the fast food industry into bland acceptability with little positive nutritional content. There is an even more ominous possibility, that that by dumbing down genealogy, we lose the ability to do the hard work of careful research altogether and that the equivalent of handcrafted genealogy will become the subject of museums and historical sites.

One of the first symptoms of the dumbing down movement in genealogy is a overly exercised concern for the "beginner." Those who focus on the "beginner" to the exclusion of recognizing the true complexity and difficulty of genealogical research, emphasize terms such as quick, fast, fun and easy rather than acknowledging that genealogy is difficult and time consuming. You can make an entry level path into genealogical research without destroying the utility of entire pursuit. By emphasizing the beginner at the expense of ignoring the seasoned researcher, you frustrate those who can legitimately contribute and end up frustrating those who are beginning.

Its easy to find online references to how easy and fun it is to do genealogy. Products are offered that promise to make genealogy "fun, easy and fast." The one hour TV program approach to life and work. There are even websites that advertise that you can "have fun letting the computer do the family history searching for you!" Another article asks the question, "How Do We Make Genealogy Fun for Everyone?" The only other word that is overlooked here is "free." How can you resist something that is fun, easy, fast and free? The problem is that genealogy can be fun if you define fun as sitting in front of a computer all day or slogging through rolls of microfilm, but it is not easy, fast and only elusively free.

Genealogy is fun, easy and fast in the same way eating at McDonald's is fun, easy and fast. Are we going to start building playgrounds at the genealogy libraries?

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with making it easier for beginners to get started in genealogy. The problem begins when the focus of the websites, programs and repositories moves so far into the fun and easy category that they forget who does the real work in the genealogical world. Are they providing a pathway for beginners to become experts or are they simply serving up the equivalent of french fries and cutting out the rest of the menu. What happens when the beginner wants to move on to more substantial research and can't cut a way through the fluff?


  1. Fast, easy & fun sells!

    How else are they going to sell it? Sign up and slog through detailed paperwork for the rest of your life? Lose your eyesight looking at microfilm? Put a crimp in your spine sitting in front of a computer all day?

    Maybe the FTC has to get involved. ;) In 2009 they forced Google to take down a whole bunch of sites that were selling products that promised 'fast, easy & fun' and took people's credit cards for a ride in the process.

    I don't suppose the genealogy world has quite sunk to that level yet. It's not like they're promising 100 lbs of weight loss overnight or making $12,000 dollars in your sleep every night working only 20 minutes a day having nothing but fun, fun, fun.

    They're just saying it's fun and easy to find your ancestors. And that's probably true up to a point. Most people don't know their families past their grandparents so imagine finding a great-grandparent!

    It can seem mystical and magical right at the beginning so no harm done. Like a lot of things that are given without effort boredom can set in and the initial excitement fades quickly. They're not promising you'll find ALL your ancestors in a 'fast, easy and fun' way. By the time reality sets in some of those people are long gone chasing the next promise of instant gratification.

    Or they're hooked and here come some new genealogy bloggers. Leaning on the others who sweat and celebrate over our brick walls.

    I'm not standing in support of the lowest common denominators of human behaviour, far from it, but marketers definitely play on them because it works!

  2. While "fast, fun, and easy" can sell, it sells people right into a path of eventual dissolution.

    When I started I got into the fast and fun of building a huge database from an incredibly large family tree I had been directed to. I spent hours caught up in the "mystical and magical" aspect of it all. Then came the throw-down reality check. It wasn't all true!

    I am just glad I found out as soon as I did, but I am afraid that many of the ones who come into this under the beaconing call of "fun and easy," they spend a great deal of time and even sometimes money (if they move beyond the "free" state) barking up the dead wrong tree. If we hide the fact that this is brain taxing, laborious, and challenging work, they will likely accept things at face value, spew forth myths as facts, and quit after reality slaps them in the face or take the hit and keep going in denial of inconsistencies.

    Precious few of those that come in seeking the "fun and easy" kind of experience in genealogy will make it to become quality, careful researchers. This is especially true, since the things that loured them in, are NOT going to help them take those steps to reaching a level of real in depth research!