Friday, August 19, 2011 Just Got a Whole Lot Worse

Quite a number of genealogy bloggers have commented on this announcement by on-line family tree provider, and seeing through the spin, have realised that has just got a whole lot worse.

Geni Pro Just Got a Whole Lot Better:
At Geni, our vision is to empower the genealogy community to create the world family tree, the single largest, most accurate, and comprehensive family tree in existence. Thanks to the efforts of our curators and power users, the world family tree is fast approaching 60 million profiles, and is more accurate, better sourced, and has less duplication than ever. And we’re just getting started.
The only surprise is that anyone was surprised.

Something similar happened a few years ago when MyHeritage took over GenCircles, and one can expect the same thing to happen with again other similar sites.

I once wasted two days trying to join, and in the end decided that it was fatally flawed, and decided not to bother (if you're interested in the details, you can read about that here — a flawed site | Hayes & Greene family history).

You can read some of the comments by other genealogical bloggers here:
A lot of people join such online family tree sites in the hope of collaborating with others in their genealogical research. But the model on which such sites operate actually hinders cooperation as much as it promotes it.

Consider the kind of thing that happens when people set up such a site. This is not what happened in any particular instance, but is rather the model, and it is the model itself, rather than any particular instance of it, that is flawed.

You start an online family tree site, but you have no data that will bring genealogists to it. So you offer to build people's family trees free and easy. Make it a Facebook "app" that will make it easy for people to invite their family members to join.

Some genealogists are attracted, and contribute their data. Others, who joined just for fun, or out of curiosity, or because they were invited by another family member, join in too. They don't have much to contribute to begin with, but some of them get the genealogy bug and start contributing.

Encourage people to copy from other people's family trees -- this makes it easy to claim statistics for lots of "profiles", though many of them are for the same person copied to lots of different trees, and linked to each tree owner's own ancestors or descendants or relatives, regardless of facts.

Make it even easier by guessing place names, even if the guesses are wrong. If someone types "Richmond" for where old uncle Fred was born, helpfully add that it was "Richmond, Virginia" rather than "Richmond, Yorkshire" or "Richmond-on-Thames" or "Richmond, Natal". By the time the original person has realised that it is wrong and corrected it, it will have been copied to half a dozen other profiles, which can then be added to the statistics of how many profiles are available, because they must be different, since they were born in different places.

Soon you have a lot of data, and you need bigger servers to keep it on, and more and more people are wanting to access it. You also need to hire people to keep the servers running, and by this time it has become a worldwide concern, and so you need shifts of people to keep the servers running day and night. Before you know it there is a large and growing staff who all have to be paid, and since there is now enough data to warrant it, you can now begin charging for access, and limiting the "free" users (who contributed most of the data that enabled you to get going) in ways that you hope will encourage them to pay.

But soon even that is not enough, because many of the "free" users do not sign up, so you have to place even more restrictions upon them, and eventually you begin charging them even to look at the data they themselves have contributed. The restrictions annoy even the paid users, who start losing interest, and instead of coming in faster, the money begins to dry up, so staff have to be laid off, and operations curtailed, and eventually it either closes or is taken over by someone with a similar operation, who buy it for what they see as the greatest assets, the data and the existing user base.

The price paid usually enables the founders of the site to retire, without having to do another day's work in their lives, while the poor suckers who contributed their data to make them rich now find that they no longer have access to their data, and realise too late that they should have kept it in a genealogy program on their own computer, and now they have to start again from scratch.

A fanciful scenario? Perhaps. But compare it with some of the online genealogy sites you know.

In saying this, I'm not saying that online trees are quite useless. They have a lot of uses, but they could be more useful if they operated according to a better model, and one of the things serious genealogists should be doing is giving thought to a better model.

One of the better such sites I know is TribalPages, and I even have my own genealogy on that site. It's not perfect, but it's better than some of the others, and here are some of the things that makes it better.
  • It gives links to other sites, which enables people to make direct contact
  • It gives a good explanation of how the site operates
  • It is under control of the owner
I have set up my tree on TribalPages in such a way that it is easy for people to contact me to collaborate, whether they do so directly or indirectly.

But so far the collaboration I have found in that way is nil.

Several people have asked me for a password to access my tree.

I tell them I only give access to known relations, and so ask them to tell me where they fit into the tree -- which member of the family they think they are related to, and how they are related to that person. I also explain (and it is also explained on the site itself) that I have much more and more up-to-date data than is shown on the tree, which I will share with them when they show me where they fit in, and then I will give them access to the tree.

A couple responded in a way that made clear that they were not known to be connected. Others, however, never responded, and I suspected that they were data leeches. They want to reap the fruits of other people's research, but they don't want to contribute anything of their own, not even the few links that will show how they themselves connect to the tree.

When I look at online trees, and see a connection to my family, I do my best to contact the person who compiled the tree. I don't like taking data without the compiler knowing about it. But it seems that very few people observe such courtesies, and that many online tree sites encourage people to copy without acknowledgement. And some of the people I have tried to contact have not responded. I still acknowledge if I have taken anything from their tree though.

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