Thursday, June 09, 2011

Keeping in touch: social media and genealogy

One of the problems of family history research is keeping in touch with other family members and researchers. It's a lot easier now that it was a generation ago. Computer networking and internetworking have given us a lot more tools for keeping in touch than were available 30 years ago. The question is, which tool is the best for the job?

Social Networks

Nowadays most people think first of Facebook, and possibly other social networks, like Orkut and MySpace, but Facebook has become the best-known one.

I look through some of the families in my database, people I entered years ago, and see that the children who were 9 or 10 years old then are now in their 20s and 30s. They may have married and have children of their own. I make a new discovery about earlier generations of the family, and want to being the latest generation up to date. How do I find them if they've moved from the snail mail address I wrote to in 1989, or the e-mail address I used in 1993 bounces?

I look in Facebook, enter the names of the children, and chances are that at least one of them is on Facebook. I look at their friends, and chances are I find cousins.

A case in point is my mother's first cousins in Scotland. She met them for the first and only time when her mother took her there in 1913. After that it was exchanges of Christmas cards and family photos, and when her mother died in 1946 even that stopped. Twenty years later, in 1966, I went to the UK to study, and made contact with one of my mother's cousins and when she came on her first overseas trip since she was three years old, we had a sort of family reunion in Glasgow, and visited the family graves in Girvan in Ayrshire.

Ten years later I was married and had become interested in family history and so wrote to the cousins and asked for details of names and dates and places, and in the 1980s entered those into a computer program. In entering them, I saw that some were missing, or may have grown up, and I wrote again, and people sent photos of the teenagers who had been toddlers when I first met them. Then my mother's cousin whom I'd stayed in touch with died, and there was a family quarrel, and we lost touch again. But I enter the names of the ones who were toddlers in 1986, and find that some of them are on Facebook, and look at their friends, and find other cousins who are also on Facebook.

So Facebook is an excellent tool for getting back in touch. It's what it was created for, and what it does best.

But the creators of Facebook want you to use it all the time. The more you use it, the more advertising revenue they get. So they try to make Facebook do everything, or at least give the impression that it does. So they have "applications", including seversl genealogical ones, that encourage you to use Facebook as the base for all your Internet activity. The problem is that there are too many genealogical applocations, and most of them aren't very good. And if you enter your information in one of them, and your cousin is using another of them, you'll be duplicating work in a very wasteful way. Many people start entering stuff, and then lose interest and go and throw sheep, and when that palls, raise chickens in Farmville and so on. Much of it makes lots of money for Facebook, and for the third-party application providers (many of whom are simply getting your information and that of your friends to sell to advertisers, spammers etc).

Some have created family "groups". When they start, there is often a flurry of activity, and when it dies down, it's hard to even find the group again.

But there are other tools than social networks. Social networks are good for getting in touch, but not so good for keeping in touch. Facebook's algorithm for what it shows you of what your friends put on Facebook is a mystery known only to the owners. You may put some information on Facebook that some of your friends will see, and others will not. The chances are that the ones who are most interested will miss it, and the ones who are least interested will have it shoved in their faces.

Message Boards

One of the tools you can use for genealogical queries is message boards. These are usually divided either by surname or by geographical area, or sometimes by subject. Examples are Rootsweb, and Curious Fox.

There are some knowledgeable people out there, and very often they can help with queries. The queries show up in search engines, and so you might find that someone comes across your query years later, and has the answer. A problem is that there are too many message boards in too many places. You can't keep track of them all, though search engines do help.

If you post queries on message boards, though, don't just ask for help. Look at other people's queries to see if you can help them. You yourself are among the knowledgeable people out there, and might know things that no one else does.

Message boards can also be places for sharing information, like documents and family trees. Rootsweb allows you to put in the text of documents like wills and the like.

Mailing lists and Newsgroups

One of the older tools is mailing lists. Mailing lists have been around from the early days of the Internet, long before the World Wide Web, and are still useful.

Recently we discovered a couple of researchers into the Ellwood family who enabled us to link to other people's research. Bingo! Eight generations of Ellwoods in one fell swoop. Nine, if you count the Dobson branch, which goes back one generation further.

With eight more generations going back, the circle of people who might be related expands enormously. In the past we've been in contact with Ellwood researchers and have had to say that we see no connection between their family and ours. But now there is a much greater possibility of finding links. So suddenly there is a flurry of e-mails to different Ellwood researchers. But we write to one person who writes to another who replies to my wife, and my wife Val and I are forwarding e-mail messages to each other and forwarding the replies we receive, and it is very confusing. The answer is a mailing list. Send one message to the list, and all members see it, and they can all see all the replies too. If you're an Ellwood researcher, and are reading this, you can find out all about the Ellwood list here. There are also forums for Bagot, Cottam, Devantier and Growdon. Enter your surname(s) of interest in the search box on those sites, and see if there is one for your families of interest. If not, start one.

If you have your own Internet server, you can start your own mailing list right there, but if you don't, there are a number of public list servers: YahooGroups, Rootsweb and GoogleGroups, for example.

Rootsweb is specifically for genealogical mailing lists, so it is a good place to start looking to see if there is a list that covers your areas of interest.

Yahoogroups offers some additional services that are useful to genealogists, such as a home page for the group, with facilities for exchanging files, posting photos, creating databases and more. These facilities make it especially useful to genealogists -- members of the group can post GEDCOM files for others to download and comment on. You can create a database of stray and unlinked family members, and so on.

Googlegroups is the least useful of the three, but it does provide links to some genealogy newsgroups, which some may find useful. Many ISPs have stopped providing access to news services (though usually not reducing their fees for the reduction in service). But there are also free News servers, like Eternal September. It is better to access newsgroups like soc.genealogy.britain with a proper newsreader than through GoogleGroups. If you don't have a proper newsreader you could always try Free Agent, which, if you upgrade to the paid version, also doubles as an e-mail reader.

So, to summarise, then: use social networks, like Facebook, for getting in touch, but use mailing lists for keeping in touch with other researchers and serious research work.

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