Saturday, November 14, 2020

Trifling with True Believers


When it comes to labels, the term "true believers" may carry baggage. Nevertheless, whether seen negatively or positively, those who are vocally committed to a concept, a cause, or even a product are a powerful force to reckon with.

Over the years in the genealogical community, we've encountered some product-oriented changes which have raised a hue and cry. We depend on the various tools which streamline family history compilation, and when a tool proves useful, the only acceptable change is true improvement. Witness changes to the product lines at Ancestry, especially those for genetic genealogy, and the outcry when such decisions were perceived to be a step backwards.

Lately, another DNA testing company, 23andMe, has been the recipient of the outcry over retracting some product features. Whether genealogists are indeed the majority of the core constituency at 23andMe, I can't tell, but they comprise a committed and vocal customer base—"avid users," as genealogy blogger and speaker Shannon Christmas has graciously called them.

Like a similar decision last summer at Ancestry DNA, 23andMe announced their decision, weeks ago, to cut the maximum number of DNA relatives to an arbitrary 1,500 matches. This, understandably, had some genetic genealogy bloggers—Roberta Estes, for one—concerned about negative impact on customers. Customers had felt their longstanding good will shown toward the company through such actions as voluntary participation in scientific surveys had been violated—not to mention, realized the impact on their main reason for testing in the first place.

Fortunately, as did Ancestry last summer, 23andMe realized the people they serve through the sales of their product are not "just customers," but what can be called "true believers" in not only their product but their mission. A company may not realize—or may have forgotten—who actually comprises their core constituency until a crisis point such as this, but having crossed the line, they know now.

What has been heartening about the latest move by 23andMe—although they are far quieter about this than I'd hoped to see—is their willingness to work to make a compromise which will step closer to a win-win resolution. A recent blog post by Shannon Christmas detailed a brief company statement which appeared early this month in the 23andMe forum. 

To view the statement in the forum, you will need to be signed in to your own 23andMe account, although a facsimile of the announcement may be viewed on "Through the Trees," Shannon Christmas' blog. Basically, if you, as a 23andMe customer, wish to retrieve the data lost upon the reduction in match count, you can contact their customer service through that forum entry. The company is performing a beta test to revise how they handle the issue, and are requesting fifty customers willing to volunteer to work with them on testing that revision.

For better or for worse, customers are becoming an integral part of product development and revision with their feedback throughout this ongoing process. How can it be surprising that products enthusiastically endorsed by that core customer base at their introduction can be revised—or even disappear—without as energetic a response? Once the genealogy community found its voice, we apparently haven't, since  then, been afraid to use it.


  1. I admit I find 23andMe very difficult to use - or rather, it's difficult for me to glean information from it. I can't even worry about the 1500 cap.

    On a different front, I thought their Family Tree feature would be nice. But I finally wrote their help desk and asked how can I make the Family Tree show that my grandmother's brother married my grandfather's sister. A very polite responder told me that no, there is no way to do that. That capability would be an improvement in my mind.

    1. I've run into a similar situation, Lisa, in that their tree-generating program does not seem to have the capacity to recognize half-siblings as such, or to differentiate them in tests from other close relatives. I have read that the company is working on that issue, so hopefully they will also address your type of situation. And yet, we have to keep in mind that, as common as "double cousins" and intermarriages of cousins might have been in past eras, we have no calculations which can help sort out endogamy issues, for instance. Perhaps this is where the field takes on more of the aura of an "art" than a science.

  2. Yes, I understand, in my non-scientific way, that they cannot nail down degree of kinship exactly, genes doing what genes do. I have many matches whose siblings don't match with me at all. On all the platforms, I see matches counted as "half", which I know for sure are "full." I can work with all that, and decide for myself if their calculation is mistaken.

    The reason I like Ancestry's pedigree tree better than 23andMe, is that I can place an individual in my tree wherever he may show up, even if it is in several lines. Easy as pie. Love Merge; love Colored Dots; love the ease of viewing Notes and sorting matches in various ways. The big thing Ancestry is missing is a chromosome browser with DNA segment details. If they added that, they would be a Practically Perfect Platform.

    Just joking, kind of. Nothing is perfect this side of heaven. But I do appreciate how easy Ancestry is to use.

    1. I think you and I both have a weakness for color-coding, Lisa! And there is much more of a sense of control with the family trees at Ancestry--not any way at all to indicate half relationships at 23andMe. Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses, though I heartily agree with you on one detail: having a chromosome browser at Ancestry would be great. Still, "shared matches" does help somewhat to make up for that lack.


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