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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Are Online Family Trees a Substitute for a Local Desktop Genealogy Program?

For some genealogists, online family trees are anathema. I am guessing, but the number of genealogists who abhor online family trees is probably only an insignificant, tiny percentage of the "genealogists" who have their family tree online. With over 71.5 million members on alone, plus the millions more on and other online family trees claiming huge numbers, such as with over 77 million, it is more than obvious that online family trees are "genealogy" to most people interested in their ancestry.

So why the antipathy towards family trees? Errors and bad genealogy. Right now I am looking at my family tree, for example. Here is a screenshot for illustrative purposes:

The arrow points to a suggested invitee to help "complete my family tree." The name, identified as a "great uncle" is Ralph Carum Tanner who is further identified as a "son of Henry Martin Tanner and Eliza Ellen Tanner." This claimed individual is well known to me because he does not exist. I have searched every possible record and no one by that name exists. I am also extremely well aware with elaborate documentation of each of the children of Henry and Eliza Tanner. He is not their child, if he exists. How do you get rid of this type of unsupported information? The answer is that this fictitious person now lives in hundreds of family trees online.

Apparently this core problem with family tree programs is no disincentive to the millions of online users. So, one of the most common reasons given for having your own independent desktop genealogy program is to provide a "clean" copy of your pedigree so that when the rogue online family tree users start messing up everything, you have someplace to go to get "good" information. This reasoning is based entirely on the idea that the genealogist making this point is always and completely right. What if each and everyone of these millions of online family tree users had all of their data in their own program. What difference would that make to the accuracy of the overall online family trees?

How would everyone having their own program on their own computer help with the accuracy of the existing online family trees? Wouldn't the desktop programs simply mimic the online family trees? I believe they would. The hard core genealogists take the position that they are right and all the online folks are wrong. This may or may not be true. Let's suppose I have my genealogy in three or four online programs. Isn't that back up enough? Why do I need another copy of the same information on my own computer? Especially if I don't know enough about genealogy to tell if there is a fictitious person in one of my families.

Technically, you could define genealogy to the point that your were the sole person on the earth who was a qualified genealogist. I think those who consider themselves to be genealogists are going to need a new way to "prove" that a person needs a local desktop genealogy program.


  1. "Why do I need another copy of the same information on my own computer?"

    You don't. But perhaps programs on your own devices can support research plans for various groups, evaluation of quality of evidentiary information, summaries of kin-neighbor-associate groups as they lived and migrated, or other elements not handled well, if at all, in tree programs.

    Of course most internet-hosted trees, for good or ill, originated in desktop programs' files. No program can guarantee accuracy of data interpretation or conclusions.

  2. It seems the recent denial of service attack on Ancestry and their notification of closing a number of sites perhaps has not struck a chord with some in the USA.

    Perhaps this is a good time to remind everyone to back up their data.
    Be aware that other website providers will close their door over the coming years.

    I would remind everyone that it is not sensible to keep their primary tree or data on a website.
    Best advice is to always compile and keep your data on your computer at home and only keep copies of the information on line (or in the cloud).
    Never rely on the cloud or online sites to either keep backups of your data or indeed give you time to copy your data before they close.

    Many people host data on Ancestry sites which are being closed down, and though they have until September to back up or copy their data to their own computers or other websites many are finding this is going to be an immense task, which they might not complete.


  3. "Why do I need another copy of the same information on my own computer?" Because it isn't the same information - using a fully GEDCOM compatible desktop program I can record more information than I've seen (so far) in the online trees.

    Want notes against events? Want sources against non-vital events? Want multiple baptisms? These are examples of the sorts of things I see lost from one or more of the online trees. Unless anyone knows different.

    In reality, of course, the crucial distinction is not between online and offline trees but between single-user-update, invited-user-update and crowd-sourced (a.k.a. crowd-corrupted) trees.

    1. I don't think the issue can be couched in terms of what online programs have for features or do not have. I think the issue is one of security. But many people view the issue in terms of features and ignore the security issues.

  4. For what it's worth, it appears that the recent Ancestry DDoS attack has prompted a number of our customers who "only" had their tree online (presumably with Ancestry), to buy an actual genealogy software program.

    1. There seems to always be some good from all bad things.