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

Friday, March 14, 2014

Family Trees: Unified vs. User Owned

One of the areas of genealogy that seems to engender extreme positions and a measurable amount of antagonism is the contrast between two perfectly valid and popular methods of displaying family trees online. The two polar opposites seem to be, on one hand, a unified, collaborative type of tree as opposed to a individually user owned and maintained family tree. Both have their adherents and both have legions of detractors. It is easy to give actual examples, a unified and collaborative model has been created by with its Family Tree program, while at the same time both and have opted for the more traditional user owned variety.

In a unified family tree model, all of the users have equal access to the data to add, modify, delete or merge existing information. In the user-owned model, the family tree is completely controlled by the user and cannot be modified, added to, or deleted by anyone other than the user.

From the viewpoint of a genealogists who is not affiliated with any of the three entities listed above directly as an employee, both models offer advantages and disadvantages. My personal position on the two different approaches is complicated by the fact that I have family trees on all three programs. I also have a long history of involvement at various levels with all three companies to a greater or lesser extent. In this post, I am not taking a position either in favor of or in opposition to any of the models of on line family trees. The idea here is to investigate as many reasons pro and con as possible.

There is a third position that still has a marked level of attention from genealogists and that is a complete avoidance of the idea of sharing a family tree online out of concerns about privacy and control. Here, I will present the issues that I perceive for each of the three different approaches to the online family tree issue.

Some reasons why genealogists do not wish to share their data online

As I discuss online family trees in general in classes and other presentations, I find a significant percentage of the greater genealogical community to have substantial reservations about sharing any of their research or data online. The primary expressed reason for this reticence concerns privacy issues. Underlying the privacy concerns is a fear of "identity theft." I have written extensively on both topics but, of course, many of the people with these concerns also have a very limited online presence and it is very unlikely that they read this blog or any other blog. There are a very few people who have extensive online activities, but still do not want to share their data online, but their motivation is usually quite complex. I think that the following factors, in the order listed, are the most common for failing to put a family tree online at all:
  1. Privacy fears
  2. Identity theft fears
  3. Concerns about disclosing untested and unproven information
  4. Concerns about losing ownership of the data
  5. Overall distrust of the Internet
  6. Lack of the technical skills and knowledge to upload and share files
It is sometimes impossible to determine which of these reasons lies at the base of the objections to sharing an online family tree and I suspect there is usually more than one reason. It is also clear to me that even though it is seldom expressed, the real reason most people fail to share their files online is because they have no idea how to do so.

Reasons for and against sharing genealogical data on a unified family trees

The reasons why someone would put their research on a unified family tree program are probably much more diverse that I can imagine. But here are some of the more obvious reasons.
  1. A lack of understanding of the difference between a unified family tree and a user-owned family tree
  2. The availability of a free vs. subscription website for hosting a family tree and specifically in the case of Family Tree, because it is free and not subscription based
  3. In the case of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the lack of any other option for providing names to the Temples for ordinances and because the FamilySearch Family Tree is sponsored by the Church
  4. A lack of concern about ownership or privacy
  5. An appreciation of the advantages of finding others who are working on the same family lines
  6. Experience with other online collaborative programs 
  7. The lack of feelings of ownership of genealogical data
  8. A belief that FamilySearch will maintain the data for a longer period of time than any other entity
The first and most often express reason why genealogists do not want to share their data on a unified, collaborative family tree is loss of control of the data. There is opposition to the whole idea of a collaborative model just from the aspect that someone else might "change my data." So here are the reasons I have identified that people have against a unified family tree:
  1. The fear of losing ownership or control of the data
  2. The inability to deal with the idea of having to compromise what they see as the correct interpretation of their data
  3. A lack of understanding of how a unified family tree model works
  4. A lack of understanding of of why a unified family tree model works. 
  5. A lack of awareness of the differences between a unified family tree and a user-owned family tree
  6. They have any one of the reasons for not sharing their data online in the first place
Reason for and against sharing genealogical data on a user-owned family tree program

There is some overlap in the reasons why people do not want to share their genealogical data online at all and the reasons why they do not want to use any particular program. But here are some of the reasons they share their data.
  1. They have a subscription to the program and simply put their data online because they think that is what they are supposed to do
  2. They do not understand the need for storing their data locally and use the online family tree as their primary data storage program
  3. They are not aware of the alternatives of the differences between the subscription based programs and those that are free
  4. They use the free portion of the subscription program and do not take advantage of the other features
  5. They see the advantages of programs that automatically provide research for sources and inter-tree contacts
  6. They want to share their data with family members and are not familiar with any other way to do this
  7. They want clear ownership of their family tree
  8. They see the value added advantages of the subscription services such as automatic source lookup features
  9. Other family members have family trees online and they wish to share information
Now to the list of reasons against having a user-owned family tree.
  1. They are unwilling to pay for a user-owned tree
  2. The have any one of the reasons for not sharing a family tree in the first place
  3. They fail to see any of the advantages or do not understand the advantages of an online family tree
What I find interesting is that there are some people who will change their mind and put their data online in a family tree after their questions or concerns have been answered. But there is also a significant group of genealogists who cannot be persuaded by any argument or education. 


  1. Mr Tanner,

    Doesn't the Wiki-Tree website have both, privately controlled, and a collaborative options?

    From what I have seen, Wiki-Tree has both.

    Just an observation.

    Great article.

    Thank you,


    1. Yes, there are attempts to address both concerns.

  2. I have participated in two different unified trees: WikiTree and Family Search. I have no issue with collaboration on a tree as long as the person adding to, deleting, or changing the data is identified or identifiable through a mouse-click or two. That identity component must also include a valid email address, or a messaging system within the tree site, in order to strongly encourage communication.

    For now, WikiTree seems to have the superior model with respect to actually facilitating communication. In comparison, Family Search is woeful in this regard.

    1. I certainly agree. If people can make changes they should not be allowed to do so without having contact information.

  3. I believe the best result a unified tree can hope for is a collection of smaller and bigger clusters of people. Lack of evidence or proof (of parentage, for instance) will ultimately prevent all these clusters to be interconnected. I am still confused about what the real benefits would be of a unified tree, however, and most of the reasons you give in favor of this kind of collaboration are circumstantial, rather than deliberate.

  4. "1. The fear of losing ownership or control of the data"

    I'm sorry but this bundles up several very different reasons, viz:
    1a The belief that "these are my ancestors".

    1b A lack of faith in the ability of the so-called collaborators to follow sensible research process. Examples are where people alter values without leaving any justification or without responding to the existing arguments on the site that document why the proposed, new values are nonsense or who do not respond to requests to discuss or collaborate.

    1c A lack of faith in the ability of the software to implement the collaboration process. Example - not providing a mandatory contact process. How can one collaborate with some who cannot be contacted?

    1d Inability of the software to convey any nuance of likelihood. For instance, there may be a probability that X is the child of A and B but also a probability that X is the child of C and D and a probability that X is the child of someone else entirely. I know of no software that allows for all three possibilities and collaboration naturally ends up with multiple possibilities.

    Items 1b and 1c are crucial and are dismissed far too often as being the same as 1a.

    I'd also add:
    7. A lack of awareness that the sensible thing to do is to keep a user-owned family tree at the same time as collaborating on a separate unified family tree. Does any supplier of a unified family tree advise that having two trees is sensible? Or are they all content to let people think that the unified family tree is the only tree you'll ever need?

    Also we have:
    Inability of the target software to accommodate all the data that the user already has. This applies to any online tree not just unified family trees. Example - FamilySearch FamilyTree is incapable of loading all sorts of data - notes against events, multiple baptisms, etc.

    Adrian B

    1. All very good points. I will address some of these issues in a subsequent post. Thanks.

  5. My frustration with my PUBLIC online tree on Ancestry is that I have shared many copies of documents, especially vital records, for which I paid a considerable amount of money over time. I see that lots of people are copying information to their PRIVATE trees, so they are taking information from those of us with PUBLIC trees, but not sharing what they know with the rest of us. Where is the fairness in that?

    1. Well, I can't agree with or help your opinion. Sorry. I have a different view. I share everything I do with no expectation of return and I do not care about fairness in this context.

  6. I have a private tree on Ancestry but there are 49 of us working on the tree. I have them all as contributors so they can change whatever they like in my tree.

    I see the private/collaborative model being choice number 3 here - I control who is collaborating on my tree and they are free to start their own tree elsewhere.

    I've also been updating my family's information on FamilySearch just because I've been getting so many questions about the data on there, and its just been a nightmare. So many people just change things with no control system. If I have a birth date in place, someone should not be able to change it to "WFT 1600-1650" which drives me insane. The other thing that drives me crazy is the lack of contact info most of the users have. My husband found a wealth of information from a contributor on the tree about long lost family in Salt Lake City. But because the user had no contact info, I had no way of finding him/her to discuss the family! How heartbreaking and irritating at the same time.

    1. This is a very good model and should be adopted by more people. Do you mind if I share the idea on a post with attribution?

  7. Aren't these just the same issues that might concern someone when "publishing" a creative work, whether fiction or non-fiction? Most people cannot afford to publish in the traditional form, and in the case of family history there is little in the way of software help to them. I'm thinking 'history' here rather than mere trees and lineage, and so I believe that there is an 'author' rather than simply someone has assembled publicly-accessible facts. Ignoring Wikipedia (much content of which is drawn from published sources), authors do not want their work stolen, or edited by others, or lost after their death.

    Obviously I cannot speak for everyone out there but I wonder how many genealogists would feel happy if there was a way of publishing their work that:

    a) Ensured their authorship was acknowledged, and allowed it to be cited by others.
    b) Ensured that their work would persist after they are no longer able to contribute.
    c) To allow other researchers to see their work, but not edit it. Their work could be connected to a central tree for indexing purposes but not 'assimilated' into the tree in order to keep its structure, or narrative form.
    d) To allow revisions of their work, and possibly the addition of tentative items that they don't want to expose until they're more sure of them.
    e) Allowed certain information to be disclosed at some point in the future (e.g. some respectable point after their death).

    I am assuming a lot here, based on my own situation, but I would be interested in any feedback. Implicit in this suggestion is that there is a middle ground between a simple "family tree" and some historical narrative. That middle ground is a structured representation that can be searched/indexed/explored without having to modify it, and yet can still be accessed as one-or-more narrative parts. [This is how STEMMA came about]

    1. Those are excellent goals to work towards for any online or even desktop genealogy program.