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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Can we "Twitter" family history?

When I was much younger than I am now, it was common to "condense" books. The Readers' Digest had a whole series of these condensed books. If condensed books were still too much for you to digest, then there were Classic Comics. Now we have Twitter where comments are reduced to 140 characters. Do we want to reduce genealogy to a tweet? Is that even possible?

The real issue is the ascendancy of social media as the communication venue of choice for much of the younger population. For the past year, I have been conducting oral interviews for preservation in the Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University. Some of these oral interviews lasted as long as eight or nine hours. I guess that this experience makes it difficult for me to reconcile the limitations of social networking content with the need to preserve an adequate record. In addition, I am looking at a stack of books about genealogy including several extensive family history books. Most of these family history books, chronicling many generations of selected families, exceed 500 pages in length. Most serious genealogical researchers find that they are very quickly buried in paper.

Are we willing to sacrifice the rich content of our family histories merely to accommodate the limited attention span of the Twitter generation? Perhaps, we should consider how we are going to preserve family history in the light of the popularity of the program such as Snapchat. Here is an explanation of Snapchat from Wikipedia:
Using the application, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as "Snaps". Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps (as of September 2015, the range is from 1 to 10 seconds), after which Snapchat claims they will be deleted from the company's servers.
Certainly, we need to address the more serious question of how we are going to preserve the records of a generation of people whose main records in life are preserved in bits and pieces online. It might be helpful to realize that Snapchat reach the level of 6 billion videos per day in November 2015. Genealogists wring their hands over the loss of a few records in a courthouse, when we are losing 6 billion records a day after 10 seconds. Most users make no effort to resolve the problem of preserving their family records located on Facebook or other social media venues.

No matter what we think about social media, the issue of the evanescence of historical content is not new. We merely need to remember that all of the lifetime of conversations between our ancestors is forever lost. Perhaps, you have a copy of a telegraph message sent by an ancestor announcing a birth or death. The rarity of these messages is a graphic illustration of the problem faced in the future and reconstructing social media. Absent some spectacular method of reconstruction, I believe that virtually all of the content of the social media will be lost. For this reason alone, I would strongly limit efforts to expand the inclusion of some social media as a basis for "doing genealogy."

The reality of the present situation is that absent a concerted effort to move the content now presently available in the social media to a more permanent venue will result in its loss. Encouraging genealogical content to be shared in social media ignores this reality. We should be implementing pathways to allow those whose primary contact with the world is through social media to easily archive and preserve genealogically significant content. This is especially true where the content is primarily based on oral communication. We sometimes fail to recognize that much of the world's history is still contained in the minds of the family members. We need to be more proactive in capturing oral histories. We also need to recognize that much of social media falls in the same category as oral histories and will be lost absent our preservative efforts.


  1. Your premise is a good one, but comes up a little short on what the next generations, our grands and great grandchildren, are actually doing. Mine are not writing in paper journals. They are writing on family blogs. Their history is going to be digital, whether photos taken with smartphones, stories, journals, or documents. What someone needs to do, as one Memories engineer suggested at the July BYU FH/Gen conference, is invent a way to make URL addresses permanent. Now that could make someone a lot of money. As it is now, the only place that takes URL addresses on Family Tree is in the Create a Source Template. So that is where I am posting online histories/memories as sources. But .... living folks can't have sources attached to them on Family Tree, not even in Private Spaces. So we really need a way to post memories for living and deceased using URLs for things like family videos on YouTube, Blogs, Facebook, and things like that. Twitter is out as far as I'm concerned. But really ... "it's the end of the world as we know it", as the song says, concerning paper and how it is used. Kodak is dead. GPS replaces maps, and on and on. As I know you know.

  2. Great observations James! It's true that much of the newspaper reporting in the 19th and early 20th Century was the equivalent of current social-media details. However, they were preserved and are now searchable. I also agree that the longevity of current social media traffic is very uncertain, and it would not be a reliable way of reconstructing our pasts -- although I'm sure some people might feel worried if their descendants saw how foolish they were in those media. In fact, the longevity of all digital information is a concern, both in terms of permanent hosting and of potential damage (e.g. by an EMP) or corruption. This is more than just the loss of a URL, which is merely an address for that content. Because we have diverse media, our content will also be spread around, and there's no equivalent of, say, ISNI to ensure some grouping. Of course, that presumes that the associated material is deliberately "published" rather than simply being retained by, and for the purposes of, the host (e.g. FB).

  3. I began using Twitter several years ago for family history. Like you, I was very skeptical of its value and whether it could play any substantive role in shaping my family history. For me, Twitter has become less about documenting or creating comprehensive tomes that detail my ancestry (hardly possible when you're limited to 140 characters, and few users seem to use it for these means). It's more of an educational tool for sharing and following links to resources (how-to articles, infographics, pro tips, etc.) that inform and strengthen my genealogy. It's also a fantastic way for building a network amongst like-minded genealogists who engage in conversations that guide, challenge and strengthen research efforts. In terms of preserving those conversations... well, time will only tell.