Sunday, February 9, 2020

Back to the Count

You know how it is when one takes a vacation: after you get back, you need a vacation to catch up on all the work you couldn't do while you were gone. But now—finally—after all the stacks of mail have been opened and attended to, the laundry pile has been reduced to a more moderate level (laundry is never done), and the work duties caught up on, it's time to get back to keeping track of that research progress.

Of course, I have a good excuse for my poor showing in January: I was out having fun at research libraries and conducting oral interviews with family members. Now that I'm back to a regular schedule, it is reassuring to see progress resume on those four family trees I've been compiling.

Since my focus in the past two weeks has been on tracking down some missing Gordons, naturally, my mother-in-law's tree would see the benefit, since Gordon is a surname on both sides of her family. And the numbers bore that out. In the past two weeks, I was able to add 323 names to her tree, mostly of Gordon collateral lines from the Perry County, Ohio, area. Her tree is now up to 17,704 individuals.

Now that I've shifted focus away from my own mother's tree, it likewise showed that impact in the biweekly numbers. I was only able to add nine new names to her tree, which now stands at 20,311 individuals.

Until I get to those Twelve Most Wanted ancestors who figure in either my father's or my father-in-law's trees, don't be surprised to see activity on those two lines to remain at one great big fat zero. Right now—as it has been for months—my father's tree stands at 658 individuals, and my father-in-law's tree is at 1,584.

Every fortnight, I also track additions to the DNA matches for both my line and my husband's line. As one might suspect, given the recent news of downturns at major genetic genealogy companies, our incoming DNA matches have slowed to a dribble. Where I used to see number roaring along at a brisk pace, they now come in at the lowest level of double digits. The only exception is for MyHeritage, where in the past two weeks, I gained ninety one matches, and my husband received 112. Perhaps it is that company's international reach which permits them to continue such an increase, week over week—but don't be fooled by the raw numbers. In past years, our matches from MyHeritage far exceeded even those counts.

Perhaps it may seem as if I am harping on this issue, but I am very concerned about this situation. My concern, however, is far different than that of an analyst, seeking to bolster sales numbers, or the stockholders, wary of decreasing value of their investments. My focus is on the waning condition of what used to be genealogy's culture of open sharing. Even in a nearly worldwide collective of avocational researchers where once we operated in an ethos of cooperation, we've been permeated with an aura of distrust so foreign to this community.

While I mourn the decrease of the interpersonal aspect of genealogy, we all can still work to counter that trend. And, of course, I need to continue focusing on the research goals I've set out for myself for the upcoming year. As long as the research gets done, that progress will be seen. Counting makes it more visible, which fuels the encouragement to keep on keeping on.


  1. Many questions come to mind when reading your posts about genealogical web sites. If I may , let me ask two here:

    1) What do you yourself think are the ultimate reasons for the slowdown of new DNA-testers? (Your concerns ARE different from the stockholders', but corporations needing profits and genealogists needing a new generation of researches eager to share - in the end need the same thing: new blood.)

    2) Why do so many, if not most, DNA test-takers never build a tree? Or lock their tree?

    1. Hmmm, Lisa, much to think about in these two questions. As for the DNA slowdown, many of the reasons given in the news reports I mentioned are likely considerations: price point, saturation of "early adopter" market, increasing cost of finding additional customers--but looming largest is likely the complicating factors leading to lack of customers' trust. Broken promises by some organizations coupled with a rapidly-evolving set of new applications (especially that of forensic applications in an age of plummeting trust in government assurances) loom largest in this set of possible causes.

      Still, in your second question may lie hidden some hopeful signs of a way beyond this sales stagnation. Actually, the two scenarios you mention--DNA customers who never build a tree, versus those who do but lock it to public access--reveal two different markets. While the latter, having a tree but keeping it from view, likely represent those who are experienced in genealogy but either have privacy concerns or the age-old notion that their "work" of coupling dates and locations with their ancestors' names represents copyrightable efforts, the former group is, to me, the more exciting of the two groups.

      Those who don't--yet--have a family tree posted anywhere may be people who have been attracted to the notion of ethnicity revelations via DNA, but certainly haven't yet seen themselves as family historians. Here, the question might be explored, What would it take to convert these customers into avid genealogy hobbyists, at the least? Our local society, for instance, has taken up that opportunity by offering courses on how to understand and better use those DNA results, including DNA matches, with promising responses.

      Of course, some such customers may only have taken the DNA test at the prompting--or incessant cajoling--of another relative (the one who would be the one who could build that tree). Or perhaps was someone persuaded by one of those simplistic commercials. Perhaps such customers will never build a tree--or perhaps they would, if the entry cost for a subscription to the tree-building portion weren't so prohibitive to them.

      At any rate, my gut feeling is that some of the no-tree people may be younger people. That they are interested in their roots is a promising sign for us. It may just be that the price point at which they are willing to jump in and participate in genealogy--or whatever other barrier they perceive to swallowing the whole package--is higher than what they are willing to sacrifice right now for any perceived benefits. In that case, finding out what *that* segment of customers really wants, and how to cross over that barrier, would be helpful--if the DNA companies would find it still profitable enough to pursue such answers. The problem is, maybe it isn't still worth their while to figure out the answers to that problem.

  2. You've given such a thoughtful analysis of my questions! Thank you. You have a way of thinking out loud, so to speak, that is very instructive. Each scenario you present seems likely to be part of the problem of the drop off in new users. And I'm sure they all add together. My own hunch follows what you wrote in your last paragraph: the sales on DNA kits make the initial toe-in-the-water act easy and fun. Then the yearly fees are so expensive most people just abandon the whole thing.


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