Friday, July 26, 2013

Two Lessons I Learned
From the Fax Machine

Tonight, once again, those who love their genealogy and their social media will be gathering online for a “genchat.” Tonight’s topic will be “Putting Flesh on the Bones: Telling the Stories.”

Despite the fact that that topic is my very heartbeat, this is not why I bring up genchat for today’s post. I actually don’t want to take a look at the potential content of the upcoming event as much as I want to examine something inherent in the very process of “chatting” by social media.

Specifically, I want to examine what makes the process of using social media work.

Now, I know this will seem very rudimentary to you when I say this, but right now, I am overwhelmed with the thought that the utility of any given social medium is utterly dependent upon the number of people that goes into making that medium social.

In other words, if you don’t have multiples of individuals willing to participate in utilizing the utility, the utility becomes useless. It may take only two to tango, but in order to sashay with social, your circle needs a number of a larger magnitude.

The problem is some trends seem to keep themselves cloaked in invisibility, which perpetrates the illusion that “nobody is doing it.” And when it comes to anything employing social media, that is not the image you want to project.

Here’s what I learned from the history of the fax machine, and what it taught me about getting people involved in the work of developing “the next thing”—whatever it may be.

Flying Under the Radar

If you are planning an event that you don’t want to have publicized, it may be all well and good to fly beneath the radar. But if you want others to join in on something that you find to be beneficial, you are faced with a dilemma. If others don’t participate with you, you may not, by yourself, be able to achieve the goals you had hoped to realize for the event.

Sometimes, that has worked to people’s advantage. Remember the Stealth Bomber? The American strategic bomber was designed to achieve undetected penetration of sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. It flew under the radar.

Same thing with the fax machine. I first learned about that unexpected aspect of the fax machine when I read Chuck Colson’s book, The Body. Mr. Colson spent a good amount of time describing what went into the back story leading up to the disintegration of the “Iron Curtain.” Apparently, although the censorship strictures within the eastern European countries were well established, they were set up on the assumptions of communication methods already in place. When fax machines became widespread in those countries, they evidently provided people with a way to bypass the usual control points and communicate more freely, user to user. We’ve seen the same scenario repeat itself more recently in countries of the Middle East via Twitter, beginning with the phenomenon dubbed The Arab Spring.

To bypass any control point or headquarters and link, node to node, in a network of like-minded people, any technology that facilitates that sort of connection will grant participants the ability—at least for the moment—to fly under the radar.

There is, however, one crucial secondary requirement.

You Can’t Have Just One

This was the predicament that handy inventors—like those who developed the modern fax machine—realized about their situation. While the technology of the time allowed the developers of the fax machine to come up with an amazing capability, it would remain amazing only in theory until one vital thing happened: a second party installed a fax machine.

Think about it: suppose you were one of the early adopters who jumped right in and shelled out kazillions of dollars for a prototype of this new invention, so you could fax a document whenever you wished.

Who would you fax it to? Remember, you are one of the very few in the world already in possession of this technology. Most likely, anyone you’d want to fax to had not yet even heard of the thing.

The same predicament faced the early adopters of email. And cell phones. And any other gadget that enables two-way connections. Whether you want to fly under the radar, or shout your message from the electronic rooftops, however you do it, you can’t have just one. You need a sender. And a receiver.

How This Applies to Us

Ever think about how doing genealogy sometimes requires more than just one? Granted, genealogy is a solitary pursuit on many levels. We sequester ourselves in libraries and trudge through the grunt work…alone. We sit at our computers and scroll through lists of data…alone.

But, oh, how our eyes light up when we get an unexpected email from a cousin we never knew we had! Or when we receive a forum response giving us just the clue we needed to break through a brick wall. We’ve learned to go to conferences and join local genealogical societies because we realize that sometimes, it’s just better to do this genealogy stuff with others. We are, after all, social beings.

There are so many new tools added to the communications arsenal that are ready to exploit for our research purposes. Some of them we use regularly for everyday purposes, never thinking how they can be adapted to assist us in our genealogical quests. Other tools, however, could increase our effectiveness, once we learn to put them to good use.

But many of those tools, just like the fax machine, are only beneficial to us if more than one person is using them.

Why do you think I’ve posted articles urging people to consider using Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media outlets? If we use them, but don’t have anyone to communicate with, it’s no better than hollering into a tin can when the string on the other end is connected to…nothing.

So, what did I learn from the fax machine? I learned that if I want to use one, I need to go out and become a fax machine evangelist. I need to convince others to start using a fax machine, too. If I want to become a fax machine sender, I need to find others—many others—who will be willing to become fax machine receivers.

The beauty of that dilemma, of course, is that once others become willing to be that receiver, they too can also become senders.

And, in the end, we can all start talking with each other. And connecting what we know with the ones who want to share it.

Like on genchat. Tonight.


  1. That's an interesting perspective. Imagine a "FamilyHistoryBook" site similar to FaceBook... where it would be easier to link up with like minded folks searching in the same directions as you are.

    1. What I love, Iggy, is that people are already using Facebook for that very thing. There are certainly Facebook pages for specific counties and cities (like the Chicago Genealogy site I so appreciate). And if there isn't one for some of the surnames I'm researching, I hope to someday set one up on Facebook. Ditto the genealogy circles on Google Plus. Some of these resources are so helpful. That's "crowdsourcing" genealogy!

  2. Nice pep talk! I am feeling in the 'social doldrums' lately and a new spark would be nice!

    1. Sally, I always find genchat to be invigorating. It's the next best thing to getting out for a cup of coffee with friends who are passionate about the same things!

  3. I totally agree with you. Social media is changing the definition of "the marketplace" or "downtown" or wherever people used to go to find other like-minded people. I like the way hashtags sort people into interest groups, and also the trial-and-error aspect of who you meet.

    Somehow, people will find out where the "action" is and converge there. Lately I heard some surprisingly large percentage number (can't remember it) of the proportion of new marriages that start on social media. Food for thought.

    Sorry I couldn't make genchat. I love doing that.

    1. Oh, Mariann, I was sorry you weren't there, either. A question came up and I thought of you at genchat last night.

      It is interesting, as you mentioned, that the simple device of a hashtag is indeed how people can now be sorted into like-minded groups. Or at least, it becomes the device with which we can find those like-minded people, ourselves.

  4. You are forward thinking and on the cusp of all the new technology! I felt like a dinosaur yesterday searching microfiche for obits:(

    1. Sometimes, microfiche records are the only way to get some information. It isn't all instantly accessible at the touch of a fingertip!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...