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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How Online Family Trees Affect the Genealogical Community

I received the following question from a comment,
Can you please explain what you mean in particular by "diluting the subject to the point where you can't find it anymore."
I made the comment that one effect of online family trees was that they were "diluting the subject to the point where you can't find it anymore." I thought this to be somewhat obvious, but apparently it is not. Then, as I thought about it, I realized that the concept was really at the core of the issues with online family trees. It corresponds to the old saying, "you can't see the forest for the trees" meaning you can't see the whole genealogical picture because of the interference with the details of each of the family trees. 

Let me summarize some of the ideas floating around concerning the family tree issue as follows, perhaps with a little bit of repetition:
  • Everybody has a "right" to maintain their "own" family tree, on paper, in a local program or online or all three
  • We all need to do our "own" genealogy
  • I can maintain my family tree on my own and I don't need to share it with anyone
  • I am in the process of researching my ancestors and I don't want to share the information until I am sure I am correct
  • I don't want people messing with my data
  • I don't need to look at all the family trees online, I can just ignore them
  • I think online family trees are valuable because they may lead me to a connection I was unaware of previously
  • Having your family tree online is like an advertisement asking for connections and help from unknown relatives
  • I see no need for a local family history program if I have everything online in a family tree
  • You absolutely need your own local program to be able to "correct" errors in the online programs
  • Unified family trees solve the issues of online family trees by forcing everyone to collaborate on the same program
  • I keep my online family tree private, I don't want any one but those relatives I select messing with my data
  • Online family trees are totally unreliable and a menace to the genealogical community
  • Online family trees are the essence of the genealogical community
OK, I think you get the idea. Every idea expressed in this list has its defenders and detractors. Meanwhile millions of additional "family trees" are uploaded regularly. In fact, the existence of all these trees has taken on a life of its own and likely constitutes "genealogy" or "family history" for the vast majority of people involved. In other words, for the people with the online family trees, that is all there is to genealogy. You put your family tree online and you are finished. 

There will always be a segment of the community that ignores the rest of the community and claims self sufficiency. I mean any community, not just genealogy. If you choose to do so, you can ignore almost anything; politics, economics, ecology, whatever. Even if you ignore or even strongly disagree with something like global warming, what if you are wrong? What if the issue is overwhelmingly important? In genealogy, we have a tsunami of online family trees. General consensus among the "educated" genealogical community is that most of what is there is garbage or copied from other trees. Most of the genealogists I talk to will admit that sometimes there are gems of information buried in the mass of the information online, but most find it difficult to sift through the mass of information to find anything useful. 

Maybe you don't see this as a problem. I happen to think that this is the biggest and most serious challenge to the identity of the genealogical community right now and in the future. One example. has over 70 million members (70,777,468 to be exact as this post is written). Can you begin to imagine what is in all those family trees? 

How do you know whether or not all of the "brick wall" issues you are so worried about are not solved somewhere in that huge agglomeration of names, dates and places? How do you know you are not wasting your time looking for information that is sitting in that huge pile of information?

The answer is simple. You can't. Can you seriously dismiss all of those 70 million plus members of one website as irrelevant to your own research? How many of them do you think you are related to? I mean seriously, due to pedigree collapse, don't you realize how many of them are probably relatives? 

Do you see why I think this just might be a problem or challenge or issue or whatever you want to call it? 

As involved "genealogists" we think we define what is and what is not the genealogical community. Maybe we are a marginal ineffective footnote to what is really going on? We had 12,000 or so attendees at RootsTech 2014. That turns out to be about .00016 of just the members of one genealogical website.


  1. All information no matter whether it is online, in books, in census returns, civil registers, parish registers, heralds visitations or wherever should be questioned and checked before accepting it.
    The age of the internet does not change that basic rule.
    It is as valid today as when I started in the early 1950s.

    The wealth of family trees online does not detract from family history research it add more possibilities to it, anyone who thinks otherwise has not learnt how to research.

    Each online tree adds clues to possible ancestors, note clues; they do not give the researcher ancestors but clues that a subject one a tree might possibly be an ancestor.
    It is then up to the researcher to find the evidence to back up the supposition.

    1. Are you seriously advocating searching all of the user trees for clues? Think about that.

  2. Thank you for your reply to my question, James.

    The core of your thinking appears to be, "Can you seriously dismiss all of those 70 million plus members of one website as irrelevant to your own research? How many of them do you think you are related to? I mean seriously, due to pedigree collapse, don't you realize how many of them are probably relatives?"

    So it depends on what one's objectives are: locating all living relatives, or . . . . ? And what one wants to use huge tree-sites for. Perhaps better search engines and more server-power would be on your wish-list.

    1. At least that might help. There is more to this issue than just the implication of the numbers. I think it redefines what we mean by family history/genealogy.