In Which We Debate The Value of Great Big Trees Online

iStock_000013699506SmallThis is the second in what has turned out to be a two-part guest post extravaganza from Chris Whitten, the owner of WikiTree.  The first part was here, and it stemmed from the comments in this post about the whole Geni thing from last week.  This one is actually pretty much a copy-and-paste from an email exchange Chris and I had.  The questions in bold are the ones I asked him, and his answers are below.  The only editing I did was to add links to the names of people mentioned, and to fix my typos.  I still don’t think that the Great Big Tree is for me, partly because of some issues unique to my own family/research, and partly because I think this might be like religion or ice cream flavors…everyone has a favorite, and it’s cool if we don’t agree provided we aren’t being jerks.  Although if peanut-butter-and-chocolate isn’t your favorite flavor, you’re wrong, or possibly you have some sort of weird taste bud disease.  You should see a doctor or something.

Anyway.  Here it is.  Read it and let me know what you think (and thank you to Chris for spending two days basically writing my posts for me…dialog is awesome, and you’re a brave dude for doing this).


Why add my tree to a Great Big Tree?

I should start by clarifying that WikiTree isn’t really a Great Big Tree. That’s what we aspire to be. We dream of creating a single, shared, worldwide family tree that would connect us all on one Great Big Tree of Humanity.

The reality is that WikiTree is and always will be an imperfect collection of partially-overlapping, partially-shared trees. Merges on WikiTree are controlled by Profile Managers who make independent decisions. If you and I are first cousins, hopefully we will merge and share profiles of our grandparents. But this is not automatic, and our entire trees aren’t merged. Each merge is independent and consensual.

This distinguishes WikiTree from some “Borg Tree” sites, as Tamura Jones calls them, where your tree will be assimilated whether you agree with particular merges or not.

Why do you aspire to that?  I mean, why do you feel like that’s a good primary goal, rather than, say, offering a robust family tree management system (similar to desktop software like RootsMagic or Family Tree Maker) that is online?

Speaking for myself, personally, I think that growing a shared family tree is a noble and inspiring mission. It motivates me. It gets me out of bed in the morning.

Even though a complete worldwide family tree is an impossible ideal, every step towards it is a step worth taking. It makes it easier and easier for anyone to discover their roots. And this is a good thing. Knowing where you came from is humbling. It gives you a sense of history and a connection to the past. And it brings families closer together. So, I feel that helping people discover their roots is a worthwhile mission, and insofar as I can contribute to that, I’ll be doing something good with my life.

When I say “people” here, mind you, I’m not really talking about genealogists. Genealogists know their roots. Yes, we can all learn more, and I don’t mean to discount the importance of all the various tools that are out there. What we’re doing with WikiTree really amounts to trying to stand on the shoulders of what genealogists have been doing for decades using other tools. All I’m saying is that it’s the “sharing with non-genealogists” part of WikiTree that inspires me on a personal level.

So why should a genealogist contribute to a shared family tree?

On a shared family tree, sharing your research and adding to your own body of knowledge can’t be easily separated. They compound on each other, and can lead to a snowball effect.

Many genealogists initially come to WikiTree looking for information. Genealogists are usually in “research mode” so this is natural. They might find a tidbit or two on WikiTree right away, but the truth is, as a conventional research source it’s pretty weak. At best, it’s a secondary source. It’s only meant to reference primary sources.

The payoff won’t usually come until after a genealogist decides to make an investment. You can start with a small investment, just by adding a few ancestors, or make a big investment by starting with a GEDCOM upload.

The first beneficiaries of the genealogist’s investment are likely to be their close relatives. WikiTree has careful privacy controls and is designed to be user-friendly for anyone. So it can be a great way to let family members enjoy the fruits of what may be years of labor on the genealogist’s part. These relatives may never become genealogists themselves. They may never contribute much to the shared tree (maybe some photos or personal memories) but many genealogists are like me and get a reward just from the sharing, especially when it’s with loved ones.

The shared research is also likely to benefit some distant cousins you don’t know, but this depends on how deep the ancestry is that you’re sharing and how public you make it. Your tree may immediately connect with others, or it may attract people who are doing research on Google.

Here’s where the investment may start to pay off for you as a genealogist. The distant cousins who find your research may have done research of their own. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether what they’ve done is a legitimately useful addition or just junk name collecting, but undoubtedly you’ll want to check it out. If they’re a close enough cousin they may even have family photos you’ve never seen. That’s happened thousands of times on WikiTree and I’ve enjoyed that benefit numerous times myself.

Oh, and by the way, some of the connections you find may not be directly genealogical. One neat thing I experienced: I’ve been contacted by the children of two shipmates who served with my grandfather in the Navy in World War II.

I’m not anti-collaboration, and I don’t think most people are either. But working together with distant cousins and merging trees are two very different things.

That’s a good point. The above basically answers “Why collaborate?” not “Why collaborate on a shared family tree website?” If you already agree with the benefits of sharing research, the relevant questions then become:

1.) Is WikiTree a good place to put your “cousin bait?”

2.) Is WikiTree a good place for collaborating with cousins, in addition to just attracting them?

Regarding the cousin bait, I think it’s worth pointing out that nobody has to choose just one method. Many WikiTree users have other lines in the water at the same time. Many use other collaborative sites, blogs and private websites, surname discussion forums, etc. None of these are mutually exclusive, and WikiTree is free.

More to the point, WikiTree has proven its effectiveness as cousin bait. Experienced genealogists have reported connecting with distant cousins and breaking through brick walls. There are a few anecdotes on our quotes page and a couple new ones in our release from last week. Here’s an interesting one: Bloggers Dr. Bill Smith and Randy Seaver found a connection to each other through WikiTree.

There are technical “SEO” (Search Engine Optimization) reasons for WikiTree’s effectiveness as cousin bait. A lot of it just comes down to our unique privacy controls. They allow you to make the maximum amount of information public, while still keeping private what you want to keep private. There’s no other system like it. This also enables a related networking feature: our family tree widgets for bloggers.

Theoretically, after you attract a cousin with your WikiTree bait you could take your conversation to private e-mail. You could exchange what you know and then you could each integrate the new information into your respective desktop programs.

However, here are some of the ways it would be better if you and your new-found cousin did the collaboration on WikiTree.

First of all, this is part of the snowball effect I mentioned before. If you collaborate with cousins on WikiTree, you’ll be creating more cousin bait, which will lead to collaborating with more cousins, which will lead to more cousin bait, etc.

A more direct benefit of shared-tree collaboration is that you don’t have to duplicate your efforts. In an advanced collaboration, this could mean splitting research tasks. But on a more basic level this could simply mean not having to transcribe all the information your cousin gives you. If she enters it on WikiTree, all you need to do is check it over. Transcribing and integrating your cousin’s data can feel especially futile when she’s giving you collateral information on her connection to your shared ancestor that she’s continually updating. Let’s say her grandfather is your grand uncle. You probably want to see photos of him, see where he lived and who is children were, and keep all this connected to your great-grandparent’s family history, for the sake of posterity. But she should be maintaining this, not you. On WikiTree, she can be the Profile Manager for these profiles and just include you on the Trusted List. Chances are that it’s not just you who’s interested in what this second cousin is adding. Your siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. might all be interested. With WikiTree you don’t need to forward the e-mails from your new-found cousin or wait for the next family reunion to tell people about it. If they’re on WikiTree they’ll get weekly updates in the same way you do, telling them exactly what’s been added to the profiles that they care about.

If this new-found cousin adds more information two years from now, you’ll probably ask “Who is this woman, again? How are we related?” On WikiTree you can click to her profile and look at her tree (if the privacy settings and permissions allow it). Or you can do it with one click our Relationship Finder. It will automatically find your first common ancestor (in this example, your great-grandparent), display your relationships to that ancestor, and show you the name of your relationship (in this example, second cousin).

Here’s another convenience. Let’s say you get a nibble from some cousin bait you posted on a surname forum. Somebody replies and says, “Hey! You’re related to Joe Schmoe?! I’m from the Schmoes of Moe Town. How are you related?” You might be used to writing out all this in e-mails, but it’s much easier if you can point to URLs on WikiTree where they can see it. The Privacy Controls ensure they can’t see more than you want them to see. If they’re family, you can add them to the appropriate Trusted Lists.
A lot of the benefits of collaborating on WikiTree only become clear when you’re talking about close family members. Let’s say one of the reasons you want to use WikiTree is to make sure that your nieces and nephews can have convenient access to your research. Now let’s say one of those nephews goes ahead and adds a profile for his mother, your sister-in-law, and then your sister-in-law goes ahead and adds information on her parents and grandparents. This might end up connecting to a distant cousin on her side who has done genealogical research. You probably don’t care about all that, and you don’t need to be on any of those Trusted Lists, but your nephew certainly does. You’ve done a wonderful favor for him and his descendants by helping grow an integrated tree for both sides of his family.

Junk trees are a problem across the Land of Genealogy (not just on WikiTree, but everywhere).  People don’t intentionally put stuff out there that’s incorrect (usually), but the trees with crazy-wrong stuff (people giving birth to children born before the parents, 110-year-olds serving in the Civil War, etc.).  What is WikiTree doing to help its cluefree users to understand the importance of comprehensive source citations, verifying “facts” from others, and other basic tenets of good research?  In other words, what are you doing (or planning to do) to ensure that this Great Big Tree is not so diseased that it has to be chopped down?

Yes, this is our great challenge.

Everything on WikiTree is a work-in-progress. WikiTreers are constantly working to improve the content, and our team is constantly working to improve the infrastructure. Nothing is perfect, but we try hard to make sure that everything is “in a constant state of perfecting,” as Thomas MacEntee once put it.

When a new profile is created we automatically insert a Sources section and a starter footnote that demonstrates how to use them. We also put an instructional tip right next to the editing box so it’s hard to miss. We’re working with Thomas MacEntee on a more advanced system that will enable easy template-based insertion of different types of source citations, so you’re prompted for certain information if it’s a book, other information if it’s a website, etc.

Part of the reason we brought on Tami Osmer Glatz as our “Cousin Connector” was so that she could be available to answer to questions and encourage good genealogical methods. When it comes to merges, conflicts are inevitable. This cousin has one date for their ancestor. That cousin has another date. Who is right? The answer, and the way to diffuse the conflict, is almost always based on sources.

Also, our wiki model emphasizes the free text editing space on profiles instead of just fixed data fields. Part of the reason for this is that it enables more careful explanations. It’s a good idea to choose a date to put in the birth date field, for example, but you can mark it as uncertain and use the text editing space to explain what you know, what you don’t know, what you suspect, why you suspect it, etc.

Our Wiki Genealogy Honor Code has been helping to encourage positive collaboration. Establishing and publicizing that was a good decision.

One important change that’s coming down the pike: the ability to track pending and rejected merges, and even more significantly, the ability to connect two profiles that probably represent the same person but aren’t ready to be merged.

There’s much more we could do, and much more we will do. It’s a challenge that we’ll always be working on.

What if I just plain don’t want to add my trees to a Great Big Tree?  If I only want an online place to store my trees and maybe use them as cousin bait, should I join WikiTree?  In other words, do you want customers who aren’t into the Great Big Tree?

In a word, no.

I could say yes, thinking that it would encourage more people to try WikiTree. Once people try it and see how much control they have over the privacy and level of collaboration, they might be much more comfortable with the whole concept.

But the bottom line is that collaboration is what WikiTree is all about. Collaboration is our raison d’etre.

Sure, you could get cousin-bait benefits without allowing any collaboration, but by doing this you’d be hurting the community in subtle, unintentional ways.

A lot of good people are contributing their valuable time and effort to WikiTree. Collaboration is hard, but they persevere because they believe in the mission of a shared family tree. This community is the heart of what we’re doing. As an organization we need to focus on supporting them. If I encouraged you to participate and not share, I’d be undermining them.


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