Saturday, July 25, 2020

Getting Social

As long as we are all still cooped up at home—and have enough time to get back to some family history research—I may as well carve out some Saturdays to do a review of social media which have turned out to be helpful for genealogy. This week, I'll start with some thoughts on Facebook—one social media stop where almost everyone seems to have an opinion.

I have heard a lot of people say that they avoid using Facebook at all costs. Granted, it can be wearying to voluntarily subject oneself to the constant drone of political complaints. Even though our local genealogical society maintains their own Facebook presence, because of this down side, so many members of our society won't avail themselves of the content our group posts on Facebook. And yet, in those havens of peace within the swirling angst of the general public square we know as Facebook, there is a way to zip in to our own dedicated place to communicate specifically on the topics we are concerned with the most.

The key is to seek out what Facebook calls "groups." Unlike pages, which a user needs to "like" to (hopefully) receive updates, groups need to be joined. Groups on Facebook can either be public or private—and actually, there is a third category called a secret group—and permission to join is controlled by an administrator of the group. The beauty of that arrangement is that it gives control to those who started the group, so that posts on the group will be only those which keep within the framework of the group's purposes. No spam. No off-topic posts. And hopefully, no unrelated drama.

The genealogy world has, of course, discovered the utility of groups on Facebook. If you go on the Facebook website and enter "genealogical society" in the search bar, for instance, then select the sub-category "groups," you will come up with a multitude of options you can join. There are so many genealogy-related groups on Facebook that Katherine Willson, who regularly updates a list of such resources, provides a free guide to genealogy resources on Facebook which runs upwards of four hundred pages. And that's just the ones in English. For Canadian resources, including French language Facebook groups, Gail Dever of Genealogy à la carte offers her own directory. And Australia has their research champion in Alona Tester, who offers a guide specific to Facebook resources for Australian genealogy.

With all those resources to choose from, as you can imagine, the sheer number is overwhelming. With that in mind, here are some tips for helping to navigate this social jungle. First, utilize the search bar at Facebook to pull up groups of specific interest (for instance, search "genealogical societies"). Then, once the group list is assembled, take a look at the description of each group and review the requirements for joining.

Once I've narrowed my choices even more, I then look at the statistics offered for each group. In the group listings, Facebook provides some helpful details. First of all, they provide the size of the group, as well as the average frequency for posting. Perhaps that doesn't seem pertinent to you; after all, a topic is a topic, no matter how small the group, right? Well, it depends. If I want instantaneous help finding the name of a commercial building in Chicago which got torn down during the Depression, I want to ask an active group which is full of like-minded researchers. Asking a group of ten people may not get me the answer I need, but a large and very active group will be more likely to help.

Some Facebook groups are quite large—such as the Pennsylvania Genealogy Network, which boasts 13,000 members. Some Facebook groups are very active, such as the Jewish Genealogy Portal, which claims to have 120 posts a day. Once again, selecting a group should be based on your own research needs. Continuing an affiliation with a talkative group might be just your style, but for others, the avalanche of information may wear a member out.

On the other hand, don't think that just because a group is small, it won't be worth your time to join. After all, just how many people out there can be interested in the genealogy of one particular county? But if it is that distant county your ancestors left a century ago, but you can't travel there now in the midst of a threatening pandemic, this would be your perfect outlet for virtual research.

Many local genealogy societies use Facebook groups as an outreach to help researchers living beyond their area, but are, by reason of their subject matter, only going to draw in a limited group of people. However, don't assume that your specialized topic will always result in a small group. The Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society Facebook group, for instance, draws in eleven thousand participants with an average of twenty posts a day.

Once you find a Facebook group that interests you, and you have been accepted into the group, you can not only post comments or questions about your specific research interests, but you can also search internally in the group for keywords that might be of interest to you. Just click on the search icon to the right of the group's own task bar.

While I have yet to see Facebook groups for genealogy get to the level of camaraderie of the old genealogy forums—the interaction seems somewhat more frenetic and not as conducive to the deep dive of subject matter as forum posts were—that is perhaps a function of the current audience. After all, we can extend our reach around the world for instant genealogical gratification with a quick question which zeroes in on the right geographic source. That's exactly how I found the family in County Cork who descended from the sender of the abandoned photograph album I found in an antique store near my home: I posted a question in the Cork Genealogical Society's Facebook group. I had my answer within twenty four hours.

There are other resources for those of us who want to connect over social media, but Facebook is the most prevalent. Using Facebook's groups can shield you from the extraneous material that makes so many people shy away from that communication channel, while allowing a researcher to target the specific groups of people who would most likely be interested in sharing a conversation about your latest research project. Don't just limit yourself to one resource, though. There are others which may suit your communication style much better. Next Saturday, we'll discuss another social resource: Twitter. 


  1. I belong to a local page on Facebook. Some people were posting pictures of houses in town at the turn of the century and one lady posted a picture that included her great grandmother in the photo. I commented that her great grandmother and my great grandmother were sisters. A week later we met over her rubbermaid tub of family photos and I found the first and only two pictures of my great grandmother that I had ever seen.

    1. That is such a wonderful outcome, Miss Merry! What a treasure! You never know what you will find in someone else's pile of unlabeled photographs. Thanks so much for sharing that story. It is so encouraging.


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