Monday, November 18, 2019

To collaborate, or not to collaborate, that is the question...

...whether 'tis nobler in our minds to suffer the frustrations of shared online trees, or to take leave of their seas of troubles..."

Okay, enough mutilation of The Bard's beautiful words. But seriously, let's start to tackle the matter of Big Online Trees. Few topics seem to divide the genealogical community quite like this one. It seems that for some, these trees are the source of all evil. For others, they're a way of life. They have their passionate advocates (like James Tanner for the FamilySearch Family Tree), and their sworn detractors (just glance through reviews of some of them on GenSoft Reviews). Where do I fall? I'm solidly, if not uncritically, on the "To collaborate" side. Let me explain.

First, what do we mean by Big Collaborative Online Trees? Basically, each one is a large, internet-based tree to which anyone can contribute and edit the contributions of anyone else (the latter feature sometimes comes with a few restrictions). They're crowd-sourced projects designed, like Wikipedia, to "get better over time" as more people add profiles, sources, pictures, and edits. (That's the idea, anyway.) There are many collaborative online trees, but the largest ones include those at Geni, FamilySearch, WikiTree, WeRelate, and perhaps one or two others I'm missing. (I intend a future post that will discuss the pluses and minuses of each of these trees, but it won't happen for a while yet.)

Now, it shouldn't take you long to imagine the objections that such projects tend to raise. Perhaps you're wondering why I'm generally in favor of these trees, especially in light of my recent posts. I get the dissenting arguments; really, I do. Here are some of the main ones:

1. I don't like to waste time contributing to projects like these when my hard work can be nullified by other people.


2. These trees have a lot of shoddy work on them contributed by people who have low research and documentation standards.


3. I like to control my own tree and keep track of my own research on my terms.


4. I don't want people to see how bad I am at genealogy.

Heh heh, check.

5. Related to No. 3, I have limited time for genealogy and want to devote what time I do have to my own research on my software.


I don't disagree with any of these objections, necessarily. They all have merits. Occasionally, they have each sapped my will to go on contributing to collaborative trees. But I keep coming back for more because I think the "pro" reasons offered below are, collectively, stronger than the "con" ones.

1. The bulk of changes I see on collaborative online trees are for unsourced, lightly sourced, and/or pre-modern ancestor profiles. Can these changes, many of which are also unsourced or badly sourced, still be frustrating? Sure, especially on the FamilySearch Family Tree, where there is often a looser editorial culture (more on this some other time). But even there, the sources and data I add for recent ancestors on nearby branches (for whom I have the best information) very rarely get disturbed. For the most part, and especially on WikiTree, I see hardly any changes to the profiles I manage. This speaks to something important: chances are, you're a source-wielding authority mostly for your close relations. We should all play to our strengths. If you're perturbed that people keep making changes, even irresponsible ones, to your 1600s ancestors, first make sure they're actually your 1600s ancestors...then make sure that you can access, read, and analyze the primary sources pertaining to them. You can't? Oh, okay. Then maybe you should be focusing on people like grandpa and great aunt there in the first place.

2. I will admit to something: it is frustrating when I work hard to provide much documentation on a Big Tree profile, only to find that the bulk of profiles added (or added to) by others are unsourced or poorly sourced. But then I ask myself this: how are many of these contributors supposed to know what a well-sourced profile looks like if genealogists better equipped to add information hardly ever do so? Put another way, maybe these Big Trees would look better and make quicker progress if more of the savants chipped in and decided to be the change they want to see. Similar to how we'd all bust through brick walls tomorrow if even 10% of the world's men decided to take a Y-37 DNA test or higher, the Big Online Trees would take gigantic leaps forward, and we would all benefit greatly, if more "experts" decided to roll up their sleeves and help rather than scoff. Maybe they'd even discover that there are things they can learn and improve at by getting involved. (I guarantee you that many of these scoffers are not above "picking the fruit" from these trees when it shows up in their Google searches.)

3. When you share your work and put yourself out there, you further other people's research. This has a way of paying big dividends. I can't count the number of times I have been contacted by extended family as a result of my collaborative tree work. They saw what I posted on these trees and were prompted to provide me with more pictures, documents, and assorted goodies that I may never have come across otherwise. This reason alone justifies Big Tree participation. If you don't share with others, how can you expect them to share with you...or even know about you and your work? Cousin bait on Big Trees can catch big fish.

4. I'm reluctantly convinced by the genealogy pundits who say that you must keep your "main" tree on your desktop software program, where you have control over everything and can keep track of data properly. But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't also contribute to the Big Collaborative Trees. Possible response: "But I don't have time for both!" Answer: Yes, you do. We all make time for what's important to us, and sharing your research should be important to you. Why? Because your desktop software file data is no good to anyone if it stays there and exists nowhere else. Maybe some of us have heirs who will preserve and cultivate our research when we're gone, but I suspect that this is the exception rather than the rule. You really don't know what's going to happen after you pass away. We have all heard horror stories of pictures, documents, and other items getting thrown out once remaining family members start deciding what to keep and what to trash. When you share your work online in multiple places, you are providing a hedge against it ever disappearing entirely. (This is especially true when considering that the Big Tree sites often take great steps to back up their servers.) I ask you again, why do you do genealogy? If one reason is to preserve your work, then you must keep an eye on eternity. By this I mean that you must do what you can to make your family history endure. It should exist in multiple places, protected to the hilt from being lost to history.

In sum, don't let your elitism, fear, frustration, or tendency to put all of your eggs in one basket keep you from taking Big Online Trees seriously. I said in my last post that the internet is an indispensable tool for genealogy. Part of that indispensability is the opportunities it affords to collaborate. When we share our resources and expertise, we all stand to preserve and advance our research. Isn't that what this is ultimately about?


  1. I agree with your position. My biggest take is that I think the FamilySearch Family Tree has the highest potential to "survive" - be here 50 or 100 years from now. And as a wiki, it should gravitate toward accuracy over time.

    1. I agree! That is why, despite my issues with the FSFT, I continue to contribute profiles, documents, citations, photos, etc. there. Having done so for a couple of years now, it's clear to me that participating has very much been a net gain.

  2. Ryan, I'm enjoying your inaugural posts so far. I think i found you through Randy's mention. As you're just starting, I'll go back and start from the beginning. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you very much! I'm glad you're enjoying my blog.

  3. Just as MyHeritage is connecting information between Geni and FamilySearch and WikiTree, and programs like Family Tree Maker and RootsMagic are connecting Ancestry an FamilySearch, I think these online trees will eventually share everything as a big connected tree. We'll get there together.