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.