Sunday, April 29, 2018
A Genealogical "Tragedy of the Commons"
Who would have thought that the quiet pursuit of family history undertaken by such retiring wallflowers as we genealogists are would one day become the buzz vibrating off the front page of newspapers across the country—no, make that around the world. I had already accessed at least a dozen reports as the news broke about the arrest of the murderer known in the 1970s and 1980s as the Golden State Killer—from news sources as notable as The New York Times and the Washington Post, and more local publications like those in Sacramento and San Jose, here in California. The courthouse where the drama came to a head is itself less than an hour's drive from my home.
Techniques which I have put to use for what I considered to be of private, personal interest are suddenly the talk of every news reporter, it seems. The procedures of genealogical research, and in particular the pursuit of genetic genealogy, are not concepts I'd expect the average person to want to read up on in the local newspaper.
But suddenly, this has become our new reality.
People had begun realizing that law enforcement had discovered what a trove of information could be obtained through genealogical websites—witness Debbie Kennett's warnings on Twitter after the Buckskin Girl's identity was uncovered—and now, it seems genealogy is not just for genealogists.
There's a lot to digest in what's been happening in the past half month. On one hand, more people are now interested in just what can be accomplished through genealogical research. Many of those people are curious for the simple—and commonly shared—desire to know more about their roots. Those are the people who thrive on shows like the upcoming return of the series Who Do You Think You Are?
But there are others. And those others aren't here rubbing elbows with us researchers because they want to figure out what grandma's maiden name really was. Some of them may have come to our table because they had altruistic intentions: finally discovering the identity of the family of a deceased John Doe to bring closure to the wearying wondering about whatever happened to a missing relative. Others feel their actions will be perceived by the general public as heroic: apprehending a vicious—and elusive—criminal and bringing him to justice.
When we realize that all problems—just like the people we study in our pedigrees—weave a well-connected web, we can see that the solution hailed by some can precipitate unintended consequences shunned by others as detrimental. The intricate connections require a delicate balance to meet needs without shattering rights.
Yet, if we don't take action to preserve this delicate balance—seeking solutions without detracting from necessary counterbalances—we run the problem of destroying the very tools we've created for our benefit.
In a way, the drama unfolding this past week with the hoped-for arraignment of a long-sought violent criminal may be just the trigger to instigate a downward spiral and perpetrate genealogy's own Tragedy of the Commons. Genealogists realize that, to advance their own individual research goals, it is best to pool their resources. This we have done, for instance, through supporting organizations which digitize the huge volumes of documentation we require for our research. We have also achieved the same utility through our ability to compare genetic data with each other. This, we do in search of unknown relatives who might hold the key to answering the genealogical questions which stump us. But when others slip in unawares to use that same community of support for different reasons, they detract from the common pool of resources set up for sharing by a community with a mutual goal.
The chill factor of realizing how the techniques we use have suddenly turned against our community—in that sharing is no longer seen as favorably as an option in mutually-beneficial research protocols—is not unlike that old tale of the Tragedy of the Commons. Our shared resource—in this case, GEDmatch.com—has now been freely used by individuals for their own, non-genealogical, purposes simply because they could be used that way.
Whether we see an exodus from the service on account of this week's news developments or not, we will surely see an impact. My hope is that the leaders in our own field will be insightful enough to implement mitigating solutions to prevent our shared genetic genealogy systems from deteriorating to the point that led to the tragedy of that original tale.