Wednesday, November 23, 2016
The Genealogical Enigma
An enigma is something that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand. From my perspective in answering questions day after day about the FamilySearch.org Family Tree, I think that for most users, the Family Tree is or has become an enigma. Almost every day that I help patrons at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, I am faced with people who are intensely upset with the Family Tree and cannot understand why FamilySearch does not "fix the problem." The problem they perceive is that some irrational person is wrongfully changing their ancestor's details and family in the Family Tree and the person making the changes refuses to acknowledge any attempt to communicate or resolve the errors being entered. Sometimes I have this situation thrown at me multiple times in one day even with comments on my blogs and emails.
What is going on here? The underlying problem is an inability of the people using the Family Tree to understand its true nature and the method that is being utilized to resolve over a hundred years of randomly contributed, unsupported and unverified genealogical data. Very few people have any experience with a collaborative program such as a wiki. Historically, as I have written many times, genealogists have worked in isolation. Nearly all genealogists are still fixated on their "own" family tree. They have no concept of the interconnectedness of the Family Tree and very little, if any, of the promotional efforts for the Family Tree emphasis the fact that whatever you put in the Family Tree can be modified by any one of the millions of other registered users, even those that are not remotely related to you.
As a user of the Family Tree you are interconnected to every other person on the family tree and every person using the family tree can add or edit the existing information about all of our collective ancestors. The challenge is the network not the data. We are only now beginning to realize that everything around us is being connected in one vast internet. Everything from toasters to cars to banks to stores to toys to TVs to our medical records to our insurance, to our country and to our world. When I go to a store, I expect to have the cashier accept my credit card to pay for whatever I am purchasing. I also expect that at the end of the month, the credit card company will automatically take money out of my bank account to pay the bill. If I am traveling, I expect to make a reservation for an airline or a hotel and show up a month or so later and walk onto the plane or into the hotel room. The examples are endless. We are connected.
Why are we surprised that genealogy has moved to connectedness? Why do we think that we can control the network? The Family Tree is a network of people jointly working on the same data. Of course, we can choose to pay our bills with cash. We can refuse to use smartphones and computers. We can drive old cars without bluetooth and listen to what is left of broadcast radio. But that world is nearly gone. My family is getting ready for the Thanksgiving holiday and doing most of the communication about arrangements with text messages. Why do we think genealogy is any different?
For years now, I have spent a major part of my days directly working with an international connection to thousands of people around the world. I have watched with anticipation the day when we could begin to incorporate all of the combined information out there in private sources about my family. If someone chooses to ignore the opportunity to collaborate, the tragedy is that whatever they have learned and accumulated over the years will be lost. Putting you own information in your own "private" program merely guarantees that what you have done will be repetitious and probably inaccurate. Interconnectivity will perforce continue to increase. All we can do if we ignore the inevitable is to remain in an eddy or backwater and in the end have all our work be forgotten.
Here is the reality in a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose you have been working for some time on "your genealogy." You believe that you are the "only" person in your family who has this interest. You have few computer skills and feel very comfortable keeping all of your "research" on paper. In a real sense, you are doing what genealogists have done for over a hundred years. What you do not know is that you have a relative, who you have never met and whose existence you do not suspect, that is researching exactly the same family lines you are so dedicated to researching. One day, you are working in a large genealogy library and you happen to talk to one of the other patrons about you most vexing research problem. To your surprise, you find out that the person with whom you confide in is a close relative and is working on exactly the same family line, but has done much more work than you have done and in fact quickly shows you that you are working on the wrong person. How do you feel? I have actually seen this happen in the last few weeks at the Brigham Young University Family History Library. Exactly like I describe it with this "hypothetical."
Why does this happen? How do we prevent these people from, in effect, wasting their time by doing work that has already been done by others? That is the main question resolved by the Family Tree. The whole idea is to allow everyone the opportunity of learning what everyone else is doing. Wrong or right. Careful or sloppy. Ignorant or learned. Everyone. The frustration expressed by so many comes from their inability to function within the online, interconnected environment. We no longer can operate in our fantasy world of isolation and ownership. We have to adapt to working in an environment where everything everyone thinks or does is instantly shared across the entire world.
I recently met with a relative who had a huge accumulation of information about some of our shared ancestral lines. She spent a lifetime gathering this information from around the world. Because all that she has done is sitting on paper copies in nice three ring binders and not shared on the Family Tree, our family will be doing all that work over again and will keep doing it over and over until it is ultimately shared and those doing the work take the time to look at the Family Tree. The tragedy is that my relative is unresponsive either to my requests for copies of her work or offers to help put the information on the Family Tree to prevent duplication of her lifelong efforts.
The Family Tree is the solution, not the problem.
The promotional efforts concerning the Family Tree are laudable, but they miss the point. Do we want every person in the world to have their own car and drive it exactly as they wish even though we all drive on the same network of roads? There are some places in the world that this happens and I am still recovering from driving in those places. In fact, I live in one now where people do not observe traffic signals and constantly run red lights. I have to adjust to survive. To some extent, we recognize that to avoid collisions we have to have at least a modicum of traffic regulation and rules. Now we come to the Family Tree another extensive network, just like our roads. We now tell all our users how easy it is. How anyone without any preparation or instruction can instantly find new family members. Aren't we creating the same chaotic situation that occurs when unregulated and uneducated people are allowed to drive cars on the roads of Utah Valley? Aren't we going to have a few crashes? There you go. I am seeing the crashes on the Family Tree every day and I am supposed to provide the first aid for the victims.
Are we still going to keep telling new genealogists or family historians to get their own program or start with paper? Both of these are still options as long as they share everything online on the Family Tree. We have the rules of the road for the Family Tree. How about starting to educate the people as to how the Family Tree works and the rules of survival that are already in place?