After writing my thoughts on the impact of collaborators on my personal family history research progress—and thanks in part to inspiration arising from reader comments—I want to revisit that topic. This time, though, I want to take it from a different angle: the “social” angle of online research venues.
In particular, let’s look at Ancestry.com, since I just got to spend a weekend frolicking through my family data there.
I think most people have a handle on what Ancestry.com has to offer. Most people presume it is an online opportunity to post one’s personal genealogy research, and concurrently a way to grow those results by tapping into the wide variety of searchable data resident in the Ancestry system.
The more people who post their family trees to Ancestry.com, of course, the more resources—in the form of matches—available to other Ancestry.com users.
Once an Ancestry.com member encounters that magical “match” moment, there are a number of ways to connect with other researchers. Ancestry.com has the mechanisms in place to make those collaborative connections.
For instance, I can immediately send a message to the other member, explaining why I think we have a link.
Or, I can utilize a function Ancestry.com calls “Member Connect,” by clicking on the “Connect with members” button on the right column under the heading “Recent Member Connect Activity.” Or, a “Member Connect” tab at the top of the page, under the ancestor’s profile section, brings me to a page that more fully explains the functions available:
Member Connect will help you stay in touch with other members who also happen to be researching your ancestors. You'll be able to contact them, share research and be notified when they add new content about your ancestors to their family trees.
A third way to collaborate is through the “Comments” tab, once again at the top of the timeline, just under the ancestor’s name and above the timeline section. Anyone may leave comments on any individual in your Ancestry.com tree—if your tree may be seen publicly by those other Ancestry.com members.
And yet, how many people utilize these three functions of Ancestry.com?
Here we have the near-equivalent of a social media outlet custom designed for genealogy buffs, and yet, outside of the message-a-member feature, I’ve yet to have had anyone come alongside any of my five family trees posted on Ancestry.com to connect, make comments, or collaborate.
Admittedly, I haven’t returned the favor, either.
It’s as if each of us—among all those posting over thirty eight million family trees on the site—could be talking. But won’t.
Knowing the program has these social resources embedded within it, imagine the boost we could give to our own research—and the benefit we could share with others pursuing our same lines.
Instead of sitting in isolation like monks in a secluded ivory tower, diligently copying down data from ancient repositories, we can reach out and digitally connect with other researchers—talk to them, compare notes with them, even plan research strategies to divide and conquer those remaining puzzles and family mysteries. And in the talking, we’d be doing it with people who are already pre-selected for sharing the same specific focus we have. Talk about the ability to zero in on the target.
And yet, I suspect there is something holding Ancestry.com members back. What could it be? Is there a reticence in going up to a “stranger” who is researching, say, our great-grandparents’ line, and mentioning, “Say, I have that missing photo I know you’d love to have.” Or, “Are you sure you haven’t mistaken this John Jones for his cousin with the same name?”
Would that be just too forward a thing to do? On Ancestry? If so, why? Wouldn’t we say something like that on Twitter? Or Facebook? Or on those long-standing genealogy forums of the nineties?
I’m thinking Ancestry.com has a feature that would serve so well as social lubricant for us genealogy aficionados—and that simultaneously terrifies those very members.
Can that reticence be reversed? What do you think? Have you ever used this feature at Ancestry? Has it made a difference for you in your research?
The only downside to this scenario comes from the possibly unintended consequences of widely promoting those free two-week trial periods. To put it bluntly: when I find a match of a family member shared by my line and someone else’s tree on Ancestry and I go to send that researcher a message, only then do I see the note that the person’s online activity has not occurred on Ancestry.com for maybe the last month. Or perhaps even months.
In other words, that researcher’s stint was over the minute those two free weeks lapsed.
Other than that, all of us who are Ancestry.com members may be sitting on a versatile collaborative feature that would be infinitely more helpful if we actually pulled it out of the proverbial tool kit and put it to good use.
Above left: Fifteenth century Scriptorium, as represented in this drawing from the Project Gutenberg e-book of William Benham's Old Saint Paul's Cathedral, London: Seeley and Company; New York: Macmillan, 1902; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
N. B.: While I've discussed the commercial entity, Ancestry.com, in this post, there is no connection between the author of this post and the company referenced, other than as satisfied customer.