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

Friday, September 20, 2013

Will you be left behind by FamilySearch Family Tree?

I am really amazed at the level of antagonism towards a program on the Web. It is just a program and a very well designed program at that. Some of the comments I have read over the past few days would make Family Tree to be something threatening and dangerous. Some even suggest that the program be abandoned. I guess that this comes from the fact that it is basically revolutionary and outside of the normal boundaries of genealogical experience. It appears that at least some of the comments were made in response to my previous posts discussing whether or not you can own your genealogy.

Just to give some idea of the level of antagonism to the program, here are some of the types of words used to describe it: dysfunctional, a mess, inaccurate, and unworkable.

FamilySearch Family Tree is exactly what it is claimed to be: an analog of the real world human family tree. Each node on the Family Tree is a place holder for information about a real person. Whether or not such a program is "possible" is a moot point. It is not only possible, it is operational and functioning very well. I believe the reason it is revolutionary and threatening to the status quo in genealogy is complex. In a real sense, Family Tree, will ultimately destroy most of the historic isolationism of the genealogical community. Additionally, the program threatens the control of the traditional genealogist over the data they claim to own by virtue of their research efforts. Traditional existing family trees are not a threat because we all know that they are unreliable and, for the most part, unsourced. But here is the FamilySearch Family Tree with hundreds of thousands of sources going online to support its conclusions concerning relationships. Why do genealogists feel threatened and antagonistic towards a program that promotes the inclusion of tens of thousands of sources every day?

I think that at least part of the answer is that previously, genealogists could be secure in the their conclusions, essentially because there was no one to confront them with alternative solutions to the ancestral problems. Their security lay in isolation from other competent researchers. The chance of meeting someone else who was even moderately competent on any given ancestral line was remote. There was no way for anyone to find another researcher working on the same remote line. Family Tree changes that paradigm and substitutes one where confrontation between the researchers is inevitable. Recognizing this either consciously or unconsciously, the traditional researcher feels threatened by the prospect of finding out that their conclusions are challenged at the least and possibly wrong. It is much easier to stand on the sidelines and claim that the Family Tree won't work. The irony of this attitude is that the possibility of actual confrontations are extremely remote, no less remote than they have been historically. Even in the most throughly researched lines, the number of researching genealogists is vanishingly small. The traditionalist's fear is misplaced and inappropriate, but real none-the-less.

For my part, as soon as I understood the nature and operation of a wiki-based program, I was convinced that it would work to untangle the most complex relationship issues imaginable. There may be limitations to the effectiveness of the program, but there is no doubt that it will do what it is supposed to do as long as it follows an open access pattern. The years of bad genealogy cannot be erased in a day, but over time, if allowed to do so, the Family Tree will become as accurate as it is humanly possible to be. Will this lead to acceptance? Not likely. There will always be detractors who will disagree and continue to claim that a unified family tree is impossible.

The real question is whether or not any particular researcher will accept the challenge of Family Tree or turn away and refuse to take advantage of its inherent strengths. Despite its current limitations, which I am quick to point out, by the way, fundamentally, it does what is designed to do. I am not singling out any one commentator or researcher, I am merely expressing my conclusions and my own opinion about the FamilySearch Family Tree. My comments are aimed at the detractors as a whole, not at any one person. If anyone person decides to take my comments personally, I cannot prevent that from happening. In reading long exchanges of comments, I find few, if any, writing in defense of the Family Tree. Why is that? I have been working steadily with the Family Tree now for going on two years. Yes, I find problems with the data. Yes, I have found changes made that were unsupported. But in this whole time, I have yet to feel threatened by anyone changing "my data." In fact, some of the errors that needed correcting were my own from previous submissions. I speak from experience and I am not standing on the outside refusing to put "my data" into the FamilySearch Family Tree. I must also mention again, that I have been working on a similar program, the FamilySearch Research Wiki, since 2008 and yes, there have been problems, but I feel sorry for anyone who does not appreciate the vast amount of useful information that has already been accumulated.

Interestingly, much of what I put into the Family Tree is used as the basis for demos about the program. If there is some flaw or problem with the basic concept of the program, I would expect the researchers to come forward and express their concerns in terms of reasoned criticism, not simple name calling and expressions of genealogical ownership. I say: good job FamilySearch and thanks for a wonderful opportunity to break out of the narrow isolationism of the past.


  1. I have been astounded by the level of anger I've heard directed toward Family Tree in my local Family History Center. I feel like I should check every now and then to see that the ladies aren't actually foaming at the mouth when they start talking about Family Tree.

    I've taken to tuning them out, so I'm trying to think what I've heard them complain about lately. I think your explanation is correct. They own their family lines, and anyone who touches their lines has committed a property crime against them. It's like someone broke into their house and stole their computer and carried off their filing cabinets. They feel violated and robbed.

    Getting over this objection may have to be like Moses in the wilderness. Some of these people may never make it into the Promised Land, and things are going to move forward with or without them.

    So, what people don't realize is that right now Family Tree is like the Old West. The settlements have begun, and the people with vision are going to be out there building homes and making the roads and establishing the businesses (i.e. correcting and sourcing family lines) and they're the ones that are going to own the water rights (i.e. be seen as the original contributor of the data, and an expert on that family line).

    People who don't get on the ship will find that they're left scratching out a pittance on a dry lot somewhere east of town.

    (And now I've mixed one too many metaphors and will stop before things get any sillier.)

  2. From one who is outside the LDS, so I could be totally off-beam on this...

    Seems to me there are 4 components to worry about. The software, the data, the process and the management of the change. (Oh gosh - Change Management - dropping into management speak - but Change is what it's about.)

    I have no idea what Change Management was done within LDS to implement FS FT.

    The data - when I do a query in FS FT on Robert Bruce, b1274 (exact on Robert and 1274) (i.e. Robert I, King of Scots), it gives me 42 results. Doing a query on medieval data may be unfair - but people do put this sort of thing in. How long would it take to unravel and merge all that lot? Maybe a better idea (said with 20/20 hindsight) would have been to have started FS FT with empty.

    The software - two of those "born exactly 1274" were born 1724. Which bit of "exactly 1274" does the software not understand? Who thought that anagrams of dates were a valid way forward?

    Also, repeating myself endlessly... I would quite like to load my data into FS, not least because others have to pay to see the detail if I load it into Ancestry. But I can't load a GEDCOM. Or rather, I think I can if I go via AF or PRF but how do I keep it up to date without duplicating my data input? And without synching someone's errors back into my database?

    Process - we know what will happen. Someone will spend ages correcting stuff. And someone who discovers that they've lost their line back to medieval times as a result of the correction, will go back and reinput the garbage because they think AF or PRF are sources. That's not so much being proprietorial over data as being proprietorial over the work they've put in, that has been destroyed.

    And if you only have one copy of your conclusions and you've loaded it up into FS FT and it gets "corrected"... What are you going to feel?

    Now, it may be that all of this is exaggerating special cases - but this is how many people will think. And if (IF) people have been bounced into using FS FT with inadequate Change Management then this is exactly how Amy's ladies will feel. Whose responsibility is the management of Change? Not theirs...

    I think people have serious and justified _practical_ concerns and those practical concerns feed the minds of the "She's my ancestor so get your hands off" crowd.

  3. James - this is hands-down, my absolute FAVORITE post from you. I too am just shocked when I see so much antagonism - and it can be communicated quite strongly too. Your post title sums up my overall perception of what will happen to those that are not understanding the paradigm-shift behind FS Family Tree. I may not have posted as much as I'd like, but I, for one, am a very strong proponent of both FamilySearch Family Tree and the Wiki. :-)

  4. There are a lot of people who just do not like change, they want things exactly like they were before. Before they complain about someone changing their tree they should research to see if what they had "forever" was in error from the beginning.

  5. One of people's favorite reasons to come into FHCs here in Utah, we've learned, is to use FamilyTree and have staff nearby to assist them when they need help (as opposed to using it at home).

  6. James - a wonderful post!. Appreciate your summary of the recent and pending updates to this software.

    It's interesting to see attitudes about this new tool. I'm a volunteer at a local Family History Center (am not LDS). I feel very welcomed at my site. This week I was mentioning that I'd reached out to others working on my same line via the WATCH feature. The person I was speaking to was worried that this must have led to an online argument about the single tree. I explained our discussion had been very collaborative ending with agreement that we'd share information on the tree and offline and would work together to flush out these family lines together.

    I do think there is a lot of work to be done cleaning up the huge piles of duplicate data in Family Tree and adding many missing people. But every week I seem to have access to a group of new source data that can be connected to a person and helps me work towards solving some of more of my complex family tree puzzles. Personally I'd rather do that work openly and collaboratively with others than only privately at home. (That doesn't mean I don't also keep a personal copy of my tree at home where I work to resolve issues I haven't resolved enough to share.)

  7. I only have two comments on this.

    1) It is a completely, PERSONAL decision as to whether or not you want to share your material or not! Completely personal and any decision a person makes is FINE!

    2) For religious reasons I have no desire to hand over my ancestors to the ownership of the LDS church. That is just me and an issue that constantly gets ignored here. But so be it.

    I really think it is high time to STOP trying to shame everyone by demanding that there is only one 'right' way to do genealogy.

    1. I don't believe I have ever said there was one right way to do genealogy, so I can't imagine why you would feel shamed into choosing just one way. I also do not see this as a "religious" issue. I suppose you can ignore Family Tree for any reason or no reason. But I hope you do not spend a huge amount of time researching an ancestor, only to find after a few years that all the research had already been done previously by others. Good luck.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I don't think we should abandon 'Isolationism' as a wholly bad thing James:

    From the adverse reactions, I think it's fairly clear that a balance is needed.

  9. I am with Claudia and Taneya and all the forward-thinkers on this subject matter. As for the naysayers, it's okay if they want to keep their work locked up but not okay to criticize others who like to share. FamilySearch Tree will probably be the only free, online repository for genealogy for years to come. I have been a beta tester for two years and truly did not have much hope for it. But now it's working great.
    I also like that you can add an unrelated tree to your account.
    As for the problem of duplicates, all online collaborative programs have duplicates issues.