Thursday, November 21, 2019

Crowdsourcing and Photographed Person Identification: Here's When It's Problematic

You see this post all the time in facebook genealogy groups: "Help me identify X person in this photograph."

Sometimes it's a simple question asking if anybody happens to recognize, or have any clues about, a pictured individual. I like this type of social media post. It's a simple, dutiful step in the course of exhausting all possibilities, no matter how remote their chances of success. You never know who might be looking on, or if they might have the information the poster's seeking.

Another type of this post is stickier: the one asking if X person in Photo A looks like X person in Photo B. Although I understand the burning wish to identify people in mystery photos, this tactic strikes me as a poor one that can lead to perpetuating misinformation. Here are some reasons why.

1. In the absence of photo labels or other good evidence, asking strangers to compare physical similarities is inviting error. There is usually no way that this can be done with certitude, and trusting random people's well-meant guesses is ill-advised. Besides, how will you cite evidence for who is in these photos? "People on facebook seemed to think it was X?" How does that sound to you?

2. Many strangers in these facebook groups want you to succeed in identifying photographed people, and they'll often (and flippantly) tell you what you want to hear if the individuals being compared look even passingly alike. "Ahhhhh yes! I believe I DO see a resemblance." This sort of response literally kills good research with kindness. There'll be those who are more cautious, but who do impressionable/hopeful people usually choose to believe?

3. It's better to be uncertain than it is to be falsely certain about who is pictured in photographs. If you're doing genealogy in part to pass on precious information and research to your descendants, you do them a disservice by not guarding against this pitfall.

The best means of identifying people in photographs are rooted in historical evidence. Here are my guidelines:

1. How did you come across the photos? Who passed them on to you? Is this person pictured in them? These questions matter because of how direct a historical witness this person is and/or how direct of one you are. If the person bequeathing the photos to you took or is pictured in one/some, he/she is a close historical witness and must be cited in captions that should accompany these photos wherever they are posted.

2. If the person giving you the photos is somewhat removed from when they were taken and who is pictured in them, you must take care to trace the steps of how these photos came down to you, and who had them before the person supplying them. For instance, say that your grandmother is giving you a photo of HER grandmother (your great great grandmother) that was taken when the latter was young. Beyond the simple testimony of your grandmother pertaining to who is pictured, you should do all you can to ask her how she came to possess the photo, and what she knows about its history. This information should also be noted in captions, if possible.

3. Labeling photos is extremely important, particularly if you're a close witness to who is pictured in them and when they were taken. It is also necessary if your information is secondhand. Old photos are often small and delicate, but you should try to provide as much information on the backs of them as you can.

4. Educated guesses based upon sound knowledge and sources are fine, but these should also be clearly indicated as such. "Possibly Aunt Marge" is better than "Aunt Marge" when you don't know for sure. There is value in this kind of hypothesizing, particularly since subsequent information may be available to you or your descendants. Your educated guessing maybe provide others with important clues or corroboration. But there is a big difference between the inheritors of your photos trusting your surety and trusting your guessing. There's an equally big difference between them knowing they are trusting either or not knowing what they're trusting (or what to trust).

Remember, primary persons are the strongest historical witnesses, followed closely by immediate secondary witnesses. Seeking to find such people on facebook is all well and good. But when you're posting photos, asking random people to compare who is in them, and trusting their "matching" guesses, you've left the path of sound inquiry. Good genealogists don't let wishful thinking guide their research. 

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