Saturday, April 11, 2020

Pie-In-The-Sky Musing: A Restricted Collaborative Tree

If spending weeks and months waiting out a pandemic isn't the time for idle imaginings, I don't know what is. I've actually had a genealogy-related one for a while that I've been mulling more in recent days. In short, what would a restricted collaborative tree look like? First, what is a restricted collaborative tree, and why would one be desirable? Read on.

The big online collaborative trees that we have now, including the FamilySearch Family Tree, WikiTree, and Geni, are ones to which anyone can contribute with few real restrictions. Yes, each has their set of codes and rules, and Geni even has a subscription fee. But provided these modest conditions are met, anyone can jump right in. This has elicited the criticism from many in the genealogy community that the bad work of the masses (i.e. carelessly providing dubious information and little to no sourcing) terminally limits these ventures as serious research projects, and weighs down positive contributions. To a certain extent I share this criticism. It can sometimes feel as if careful, time-consuming work added to these sites is quickly drowned out by a mass of shoddy content.

These sites' strongest defenders would say that their trees are designed to slowly get better over time, as more sources get added and as contributors continue to modify all of the data. They point to Wikipedia as an example, and suggest that the solution to bad work on these trees is to fix it with good sourcing and other practices, rather than complaining and throwing one's hands up. Again, to a certain extent I agree.

However, I can't help but wonder something. What would a Big Collaborative Tree look like MINUS the chronically irresponsible users? It would doubtless be a Much Smaller Big Tree, at least at first. But I'm curious how quickly it would grow, and how much better its overall quality would be. What if such a tree's users could have their participation revoked for habitually not citing sources etc.? Think of it: an online collaborative tree where EVERYONE directly involved uses quality sources, adheres to style guidelines, provides reason statements, and crafts meticulous citations. Such a tree could be visible to anyone, but it wouldn't be subject to just anyone's changes.

To be sure, there would still be problems and disagreements. Academically/genealogically skilled people are not more immune to squabbling than other people. (If you doubt this, check out the book reviews and correspondence sections of academic journals. Pettiness and viciousness often grow in direct proportion to intellectual pride.) But I'm confident that there could be an effective moderation procedure. Such a tree could perhaps allow for multiple, well-sourced/reasoned solutions to be presented for particularly knotty problems. Some sort of system could be put in place that gauges scholarly consensus and still allows for outlier perspectives for each contentious line or ancestor profile. This tree would definitely be very detail-heavy.

Who would participate (or who would want to participate)? And how would they be invited? I imagine that a few curious professionals, as well as a host of skilled hobbyists, might at least try things out. Participant screenings could be done in one of several ways, or in some combination of them:

  1. By invitation only, beginning with a small initial set of founders and spreading to individuals that members trust and have seen in action. 
  2. By application. Anyone who wants to contribute to this tree must submit a filled-out questionnaire, some sample work, and perhaps answers to test questions. 
  3. Anyone can begin contributing, but if they are found to fall short of the site's clearly stated directions and standards, their membership will be revoked, in which case they could reapply for inclusion at a later date. (This is the most draconian option, but I don't see such a tree existing properly in this case without some people losing membership because of poor work.)
  4. Even those denied the role of direct participant could submit requests for edits and sources to be added and analyzed, with credit given as appropriate. This would recognize everyone's contributions while maintaining the integrity of the tree by limiting its number of hands-on users. 
The business of starting such a tree would seem to be a more formidable obstacle than deciding how people become (and remain) members. Since all of the current, major collaborative trees depend upon mass participation to subsist (either for religious or financial purposes), their managements must encourage it. A Restrictive Big Collaborative Tree may initially have to be patronized by one or more interested parties if it limits its users to skilled hobbyists and professionals. However, I'm confident that such a tree would soon be able to fund itself. Why? Because I believe that a Big Collaborative Tree prioritizing quality so aggressively would become extremely valuable. It would eventually generate many page views because nothing attracts attention like something very interesting and very useful. I can say with certainty that, even if I were deemed too under-skilled to directly participate in building this tree, I would track its growth with great excitement.  

Of course I would continue to use my two preferred collaborative trees: WikiTree and The FamilySearch Family Tree. But it would be fascinating to track the Restricted Tree's progress alongside theirs, and to note what each may do better than the others. I would imagine that a Restricted Tree might initially create some animosity in the genealogy community, especially among those denied the opportunity of involvement. But I still hope the experiment happens one day. In academia, we have peer-review and other editorial screenings before any of us can publish in respected outlets. If genealogy is still in search of more academic recognition (as suggested by the work of Elizabeth Shown Mills and others), this is a venture that some may want to consider.

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