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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.

 
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