FamilySearch.org's Family Tree program is a "unified family tree." That being the case, what is a unified family tree? The basic idea is to create a single, collaborative family history resource where various types of pertinent family history documents, photos, stories, and other associated materials can be archived and viewed by anyone interested in the family. Further, the idea is to extend this collaborative family history to the entire world and include all those who have ever lived. This may seem to be a rather overly ambitious project but modern technology, particularly the development of the vast online network we call the Internet and more particularly, the development of the type of program that allows an unlimited amount of information to be organized in a workable fashion called the wiki program, has now enabled FamilySearch to create such a structure.
The main limitations of such a program involve primarily the accumulation and maintenance of such a vast amount of information. Secondarily, the information must be managed in such a way as to make it accessible to anyone interested in contributing, correcting, documenting or merging duplicate information. So far, FamilySearch has been extremely successful in creating such a structure. In order for the Family Tree to be useful it has to be accessible. Because of the wide dissemination of the Internet, accessibility is no longer an issue. For example, if the Family Tree were still limited to some sort of paper based system, it would reside in one location and only be accessible to those who went to the location to consult with the family tree. This was the case when FamilySearch accumulated the vast collection of family group records now contained in the Family Group Records Collection, Archives Section, 1942-1969.
Presently, the FamilySearch.org Family Tree contains more than one billion records and on the FamilySearch.org website there are more than 3.5 billion names in searchable records and many more on microfilmed records with an estimated 20.6 billion names.
The hallmark of a unified tree should be and is that the records are completely accessible to every individual. The reasoning behind this accessibility is rather simple. The individuals recorded in the unified family tree have multiple descendents. Each of those descendents should have an equal opportunity to add information, edit existing information, delete or correct inaccurate or inappropriate information and explain existing information. In this regard, Family Tree has succeeded.
Unfortunately, those who come and view the Family Tree, seldom have the perspective of what is being accomplished. There are a number of obstacles to the concept of a unified family tree that arise as a result of social, cultural and personal interests. One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome is the concept of "my family" as a closed unit. It is difficult for most people to conceptualize the idea that the entire human family is interrelated. This is a popular "liberal" topic about there being a human family. This concept is both politically and socially popular in the abstract but extremely difficult to implement at the personal level. In addition, it is apparent that individuals have a tendency to claim ownership of anything they produce or are significantly involved with. Conflicts over the accuracy of the historical data in the Family Tree are usually reduced to differences concerning the opinions of the various family members based on their preconceived ownership interests.
Users of the Family Tree have a tendency to view changes to the tree as "threats" rather than opportunities to collaborate. Family historians in particular have not been particularly collaborative in the past. Most family history research is conducted on a highly personal level and collaboration has been extremely rare. For example, over the past 30+ years of my own family history work, I have had only very sporadic and superficial collaborative involvement.
Accessibility implies change. There is no question that the content of the Family Tree will continue to change. The changes come about as result of increased interest as well as diligent addition of source records and other documentation of the program. Some of those individuals involved in family history dismiss the program as trivial. Their assessment is entirely attributed to their previous experience. They include the FamilySearch Family Tree with the other individually-based family tree attempts online. There is no question that the Family Tree is an entirely different endeavor.
It will be extremely interesting during the next few years to see how the Family Tree evolves.