Sunday, November 1, 2015

Working Smart?
Or On the Verge of Junk Mail?

There comes a time when a researcher borders upon the feeling of being overwhelmed and hits upon what is surely the ingenious discovery of processing efficiency.

Face it: I have 940 matches in my DNA files—most of them, thanks to those prolific colonial American roots of my mother (with, so far, 5,865 in her tree, up 197 from the previous check, half a month ago). Even though his was a later arrival on the immigrant American scene, my husband is now up to 533 DNA matches—some of those maternal-line Germans, after all, got an early start in this immigration business, too. (His mother's tree sports a total of 2,375 names, an increase of 107 since the last count in October).

Despite those many supposed distant relatives in our DNA accounts, we're not making much headway on confirming connections. In the last half month, I managed to send out contact emails to a mere five matches. On the flip side, I received none. Not one. Neither from my husband's ancestral connections nor from my own.

If I'm ever going to make progress with these alleged cousins, I'm going to have to get a grip here. Though the numbers go up oh, so slowly each week—since my last count in mid October, six more matches were added to my DNA results, and four to my husband's—they do eventually mount up. I'm not even keeping up with that upward statistical creep.

Last week, I encountered something unusual: five people matching a specific segment on the same specific chromosome on my husband's results. I've run into something like that before—but in that case, all the individuals had one administrator handling their accounts. Each was part of the same family and had been asked to participate by an impressively motivated genealogical researcher.

But this time, the case was different. None of the five individuals were linked to the same email address. While two of them shared the same surname, the other three didn't match that name—or any of each other's names, for that matter.

I could have sat down and composed a letter, send it individually to each one—with the requisite editing to personalize to each lone recipient—or I could try something different.

I went the "something different" route. I sent a group email. Surely, I figured, if each one matched each other, as I could plainly see in my chromosome browser (shown below, with each colored bar in the diagram representing one individual's match relative to my husband's on that specific chromosome location, as provided at Family Tree DNA), then each one of them already has the others' information in their own records, as well.

My thinking was that if all six of them matched the other five in the group, then if we put our minds together to figure this puzzle out, the synergy might yield faster results for all of us. After all, we are talking matches around the level of third cousin. That can't be too challenging for the likes of genealogists!

On the other hand, I had my doubts. Somehow, getting the hang of hitting "reply all" instead of "reply" seems to be foreign to some people. This might not work, in the long run, thanks to a mere clerical technicality.

More than that, however, was that vague sense of becoming a genealogy spammer—you know, the junk mail junkie who thinks that all one has to do to curry up business is buy a gigantic mailing list and churn out tons of email hype.

I didn't want to become "that guy."

To make matters worse, I have, actually, been the recipient of one of those group are-you-my-cousin email letters. When I received it, it was...well, let's say it was a less than satisfactory experience. It came across as demanding—here, now you have my information (lacking the exact name on the test results, of course), so look yourself up and let me know how we connect—and in the end wasn't even a productive approach. Well, at least not for me. (As I discovered, once I figured out whose test name belonged to the writer and looked back in my own records, I had already emailed this person—individually—quite a while back with no satisfactory outcome. It was as if that person hadn't even bothered to acknowledge the request sent the first time.)

So I can hardly believe I decided taking this route would be forgivable by others. But I did.

So far, two of the recipients were gracious enough to respond. One was an administrator for someone else's case—which is fine; after all, that's exactly what I'm doing for my husband's results. Each seemed willing to work together to find the joint answer to our relationships.

The other three? No answer so far. Which makes me vacillate between wondering how many DNA test recipients are in this because of the genealogy and how many just want to chase those colorful map diagrams of where they "came from" sometime before the earth's crust really cooled.

Worse, those two silent ones make me worry that I'm coming across like a spammer. Too impersonal. For something as private as our own DNA readouts, does it push the envelope to invite a group to put their heads together collectively to muddle through the joint connection?


  1. Really, Jacqi, I think a lot of people jump on the DNA testing out of peer pressure. DNA and genealogy -- it's all the buzz. Better do it. And then they find out it's not that easy to interpret results. I'm not as educated on DNA as you, but I have figured out the basics. With my dad's DNA, I have 2 "exact" matches with 0 step and another at 1-step. Matches at more steps than that are not worth my time. Now, mtDNA I do not get at all, I admit. So my point is, it is likely the people who do not contact you first and the ones who do not respond are probably overwhelmed and have no clue. They probably thought a DNA test would crank out a family tree.

    1. Yes, it takes a lot of work to get up to speed on DNA testing possibilities, but hey, I always thought, if someone could figure out this genealogy stuff, then learning about DNA can't be all that challenging.

      Maybe I'm wrong.

      For your example about your dad, that's dealing with Y DNA testing, while my examples are all based on autosomal DNA. That's the range of cousins estimated at a level of up to sixth cousin.

      Following through on contacting matches is entirely different based on the type of test, in my view. Like you, I wouldn't bother following up on anything other than "exact" matches (0) for Y DNA. That would be the same scenario for the mtDNA, which is the matrilineal process, just like the Y DNA is the patrilineal side. Even so, I've got one "exact" match on my matrilineal line--the one I call my mystery cousin--for whom we cannot find a nexus, even though we've both diligently pushed back to the early 1800s, so far. Both the Y DNA and the mtDNA tests reveal what some people call deep ancestry, and I don't take that moniker lightly.

      I think genealogy enthusiasts much prefer the autosomal DNA playground. Those are the more immediate relatives--and yes, sixth cousin is much more immediate than the 1000+ year connections that can be revealed by those other tests. But even so, with an inventory of matches stretching far beyond 500, it is cumbersome to communicate with them all.

      However, great point, Wendy. I like how you put it: "probably thought a DNA test would crank out a family tree." Puts a new spin on "Automated Genealogy." (With apologies to the Canadian website, for which I'm actually quite grateful!)

  2. I would copy and paste the same email separately to them all. But that is just me...I don't send the same email to people except maybe you and Iggy:)

    1. Yeah, that would be me, too--at least for the most part. We'll see if I get any hate mail over this one. I hope not. But it sure would be nice to develop a system to sort through this flood of matches more efficiently.

  3. I think perhaps it is a matter of "email out of the blue" and an increasing "spam intolerance" --

    I get 10s and 100s of spam emails daily - god knows what I toss out without even looking - I just don't have the time - nor do I care.

    1. That's what makes me cringe to think of it...

      I'm hoping people who purchase DNA tests are invested enough in the process to look out for subject lines about DNA matches. But I certainly wouldn't want to add to that burden of spam emails!


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