In Which I Say “Geni” And “Crap,” But Not In The Way You Think

91834704_20b96f5af5_zSo, this week, there were some changes at GeniMaybe you heard about them (unless you’re one of the readers who is left over from my HR blog days, which…I mean, I don’t know why you’ve stuck with me so long, but have I told you lately that I love you?  Because I totally do).

Anyway, in case you WERE under a rock or are one of my beloved leftovers, I’ll give you the short version:  There’s this site called Geni.  It’s for online family trees, so you can share them with your living relatives.  I mostly have dead relatives, so sharing isn’t a big thing for me…so I never used Geni.  My understanding, though, is that they had a free version and a paid version, and after years of people adding content to their free accounts, the company is pulling many of the features so that they’re only available to paying customers.  They’re also making it so that paying customers can merge ancestors without permission from free account customers…so some dude can merge his (wrong) info about my great-grandma with my (right) info and totally screw things up.  They didn’t give notice, and they communicated it poorly, and there’s a great big uproar.

I’ve had trouble getting too worked up about this, because I’ve already ranted on how you need to think about what you’re doing when you’re spending hours generating content for a website you don’t own (are you listening, Find A Grave users?), because sooner or later they’re either going to disappear or try to make some (more) money.  It’s totally fine to use “free” sites if you’re okay with the consequences…but know that there WILL be a consequence at some point, because nothing is free.

But there’s no question that this was handled poorly by pretty much any standard.  You can’t do stuff like this without notice, and you can’t have strangers messing with people’s grannies, and you have to have some good reasons for people to try out your service so they can BECOME paying customers.  People will walk.  Of course they will.  I don’t know what they were thinking.

But the part that made my ears perk up was in the response to the riots, which Geni issued today.  In it, they explain that their vision was for a kind of a world family tree all along.  They don’t view trees as individual; they view them as part of their giant world tree.  It’s kind of a genealogical communism thing.  So, all along, people were spending hours and hours contributing content (and very personal content, because info about your granny is not like disposable Facebook update about the new shoes you bought).  This content, according to the company, wasn’t really theirs; it was for Geni, for its Great Big World Tree.

This is why you should never feed anything you really care about to a website you don’t own.  It’s a recipe for anger and heartbreak.

Here’s the thing I really want to know, though:

Am I the only one who gets hives at the thought of a Great Big World Tree?

Because even if somebody had one, I wouldn’t believe in it.  I’d put zero stock in it, no matter which company was putting it out there.  You could tell me that Elizabeth Shown Mills herself personally did the research, and I’d be like, “Bullpucky.”  (Hey, this is a family blog these days, pretty much.)

Anybody who’s been on the internet as a genealogist for more than 20 minutes knows that there’s a whole lot of crap out there.  Even great genealogists have branches that are shaky, that are speculative, that were done before they knew what they were doing.  I have crap in my own tree.  You do too.  There isn’t a force on earth that could keep a Great Big World Tree from being full of misinformation…and there isn’t a force on earth that could convince me otherwise.  Even if it COULD, I wouldn’t care.  I’m a genealogist.  I like doing research.  Seeing a big family tree has nothing to do with the thing I like to do, which is…research.  If you don’t need antihistamines and quarters for the copier, you’re doing it wrong.

Am I alone?  Am I just overly-cynical?  Is a Great Big Family Tree something any of you actually want, or would use, or believe is possible?

DISCLOSURES:  I got a giant t-shirt that says Geni on it for free at RootsTech.  I assume the guy who handed it to me worked for Geni, although it’s possible he could have been some random guy who wanted to subtly suggest that I need to lay off the ice cream or risk being as big as that t-shirt.  He’s probably not wrong.  Also, I DO have some family tree info on Ancestry, where I am a paying customer…but it’s not my primary tree, and I don’t put anything on there that I wouldn’t risk losing to Ancestry if they try to pull something shady later on (not that I expect that, because I actually like Ancestry).  I don’t object to online family trees, or to people contributing stuff to sites.  I do it all the time.  But stuff I really care about, I keep on my own computer, or on sites where I’ve paid to put it there and keep ownership of it…because if you don’t pay, you aren’t going to get a vote, and you risk people pulling stuff like this.  It totally sucks, but that’s just how it works.  In fact, if I had the skills, I would come up with some sort of plugin for blogs that let people put their trees online, so that people could totally own their own site AND get their research out there for sharing and collaboration.  I think that’s where the real business opportunity is.  Why isn’t there some smartiac out there working on that?

Photo by The Lizard Queen

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