Facebook for Genealogists

Facebook, a social networking website, passed a milestone in February: it reached the five-year anniversary of its launch. Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, then a sophomore at Harvard University, with the original idea of keeping in touch with his college friends. The site quickly took off, with many Harvard students joining, then students across the country. Five years later, the site has expanded its horizons beyond the youth culture of its beginnings. The company now claims that the Facebook Web site has 175 million active users globally. Zuckerberg wrote in January 2009 that “This includes people in every continent — even Antarctica. If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia, and Nigeria.” Almost half of the active Facebook users use the site every day.

But, beyond the breathy hype of the website’s founder, of what value is Facebook to genealogists? It provides the ability to share notes, photographs, event invitations, and information of specifically genealogical interest, allowing genealogists to connect with each other, and with other family members. For many, this can provide a way to quickly and easily share information about their research with their families, especially with people who think they are “not interested” in genealogy.

Facebook is more than a simple social networking site. In addition to all of its social networking features, it functions as a framework for the creation and dissemination of information. The site has evolved to include not only programs designed by the people at Facebook, but also programs designed by others that run within Facebook and share information with other Facebook applications. This is both the power and the risk of Facebook, as I will discuss later.

People come to Facebook for a number of reasons: to connect with old friends or long-lost family, to share pictures, event invitations, jokes, Web links, and video clips with friends, old and
new; and to talk to one another, and present themselves almost as a kind of brand, sharing in their Facebook profiles their favorite books, movies, and places, their religious outlook, political affiliation, and hobbies. Lately, they are sharing answers to a series of questions about what they did in high school, what their goals are for their lives (and which of them have been achieved), and “twenty-five random things about me” which, of course, seldom seem very random. My wife has an unusual surname, and for her, Facebook has been a place where she has found potential relatives she would not have found any other way.

The fifth most popular application on Facebook is “We’re Related,” a creation of WorldVitalRecords.com. “We’re Related” allows one to see all of one’s family who are on Facebook, along with a description of the relationship with each of them (for example, “sister’s brother-in-law”). It also allows for the creation of a genealogy database (either on the site or via GEDCOM upload) to share with anyone on Facebook. (The GEDCOM import feature — which would allow you to export an entire genealogy database from your favorite soft ware package and import it into “We’re Related” in one fell swoop — has been problematic. It has worked at times, but as of this writing is not working and is under a major re-development effort.)

Many nationally known genealogical researchers, speakers, and writers are on Facebook. In addition, a variety of societies have set up pages there. A random sampling includes the California Genealogical Society and Library, NGS, and the North Carolina Genealogical Society (for which I admit I am the webmaster… one of the twenty-five “random” things about me). You will also find magazines, such as Digital Genealogist. In addition, many blogs and podcasts are represented, including The Genealogy Guys Podcast. Software vendors also make an appearance. Fans of The Master Genealogist have set up a page; the company RootsMagic has one as well. And, in a kind of fun-house mirror sort of duality, there are even Web sites, such as GenealogyToday.com, RootsTelevision.com, Ancestry.com, and Footnote.com.

It is important to remember that Facebook is a social, not a personal site. Genealogists should conduct themselves as if any of their Facebook communications could become public, since they could, through a variety of means (i.e., sharing by Facebook friends, system failures, or security holes). So, you don’t want to post your grandmother’s secret fried chicken recipe if you indeed want to make sure it remains a secret, even if you’re only sharing it with your closest friends.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of power in the Facebook site. I have been quite impressed by the work being done there by a group called Unclaimed Persons. (The group also has its own Web site at UnclaimedPersons.org.) It posts information about people whose bodies wait in morgues to be claimed by family members. Members of the group on Facebook do pro
bono research to try to locate the lost families of these persons, and then direct their sourced research through the Unclaimed Persons administrators, who pass the information on to the coroners’ offices. In many cases, Unclaimed Persons research has allowed coroners to contact families who have wondered if they would ever know the fate of a brother or father or sister or mother. The connection between Facebook users and the applications, pages, and groups they have joined, gives them a single Web site to log into to participate in the Unclaimed Persons eff ort, as well as many other activities.

Some might be concerned that Facebook could become a time drain, a place for genealogists to waste time they could be using to further their research. There is definitely a risk that you could end up playing more than your time budget allows. If, for example, you beat my wife at Word Challenge, you and I, and my wife, will all know you’re spending too much time playing games.

As with any tool or the Internet itself, it is up to each individual researcher to manage his or her time and focus on reaping the benefits of that tool. One could easily spend the bulk of a day on Facebook sending out virtual gift s to friends, but one can also fi nd out about events and societies and keep up-to-date with a variety of blogs. One can connect with family members who do not think of themselves as genealogists, and share successes and challenges with one’s research peers and friends.

Probably the biggest concerns voiced about Facebook over the years have been about privacy and security. Among the most serious issues is that Facebook allows applications almost unfettered access to the materials you have posted. At one point, pressing the down arrow key or entering a period in the search box would produce a list of five profiles related to the Facebook user who was currently logged in. People assumed that this was a list of the people who had most frequently visited one’s profile. The list became known as the “Stalker List.” Eventually, Facebook said that the list was only intended to be used by the Facebook soft ware to quickly navigate users to profi les that they were likely to visit. Because there was so much confusion and concern about the list, it was removed.

While many of these issues remain, especially the openness of your profile to Facebook applications that you choose to use, Facebook has made serious gains in terms of making its site more secure and private. They have given users more per-application access to control over what is shared with those applications, and what gets posted to your profi le from interactions by you or others with those applications. As the saying goes: caveat emptor. You should actually read the privacy notice on Facebook, and use the privacy settings available to control security and privacy to the extent that you can. Keep in mind that it is a social, not a strictly private site.

Keeping those issues in mind, I believe that the benefits of Facebook are compelling. Applications such as “We’re Related,” as well as genealogy focused groups and pages, bring a wealth of connections to genealogists. With 175 million users, a lot of your current relatives are on Facebook, and the ones who have been hard to find are probably easier to locate here than elsewhere.

Originally published in the NGS Newsmagazine, Volume 35, Number 1, April–June 2009. Revised and updated. Posted by permission.