In Which We Debate The Value of Great Big Trees Online

In Which We Debate The Value of Great Big Trees Online

by Kerry Scott on 23 August 2011

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This 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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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Jamie Swindells August 24, 2011 at 7:46 am

Chris isn’t here selling Wikitree as the best Website for genealogy because the truth is there isn’t such a beast. Each site has their own strong points and uses and some are just plain bad. We “the users” has to decide the best fit for our own use.

Much like there has been great cars build by people with no professional mechanical degree there has been trees uploaded built by people with their own personal knowledge that will have information in it no professional will ever have. On the downside their are those who slap the family together using whatever information they have making great leaps in logic that could (maybe) be true but then again not.

Wikitree allows me to share what I want with who I want. I can choose to merge or remain separate and I remain in control of my profiles. It allows me to control how my information is used and empowers me to keep it pure. I have to understand that this is within the realms of Wikitree and it’s use and that my data is under their control (I do not own the site). Rules can and will change and much like Facebook security some will like it and others will not – it’s up to me to decide if I wish to continue.

Wikitree isn’t the only site I use as other sites have other strong points but Wikitree is one way to resource information (and verify it). Most people want correct information and want to share their stories and research also.

Is there going to be one tree? Most likely not, but there can be people profiles that are correct, that can be connected to other people, that can be shared for others to see and try to answer the questions of who am I related with.


Brandy August 24, 2011 at 8:19 am

Yep, genealogy is a passion for many, for some it is a hobby of the moment. Most people who delve into building a tree want the quick fix and grow their tree as fast as they can from internet found information. This is only good if the data is verified. Otherwise, family mythology is born – just like playing the phone tag game.


Susan Tiner August 24, 2011 at 11:25 am

I started filling in my WikiTree tree then realized, in my case, there’s probably no real benefit in continuing. For the ancestors I’m truly interested in researching, I’ve already done the leg work via source documents and member trees, and obtained what information I could through private emails to distant cousins. There aren’t enough remaining living cousins to fill in the picture better, and the deeper research documents, e.g., divorce records, lead to more not less mystery. On the other side of the family, I’m severely restricted in what I can share.

And the idea of One Big Tree doesn’t appeal to me, so WikiTree isn’t a good match for me on that point either.

I’ve enjoyed the discussion though, and enjoyed checking out the site.


Kerry Scott August 25, 2011 at 9:34 am

That’s a good point; some of us have trees that we couldn’t share if we wanted to, because of various factors involving living people. It’s not always a case of not wanting to share.


Chris Whitten August 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

FWIW, the privacy balance is really what defines WikiTree. It’s been the most central issue in our three years of development: how to protect privacy so that living people can collaborate on private family history while still connecting this to broader collaboration on deep ancestry.


Kerry Scott August 25, 2011 at 10:08 am

I think that’s valuable if you have people to collaborate with (and most people do).

There’s a subset of genealogists, though, who come from abusive otherwise difficult families, where collaboration is just not possible or likely to do more harm than good. They tend to be less vocal (because it’s no fun to put that kind of thing out there), but they’re out there.

(Not that this is a big deal, because those folks wouldn’t be interested in a collaboration site because it just isn’t a tool they can use, so there’s no debate to be had…but it’s a more common circumstance than you might think based on what you read on genealogy blogs and stuff).


Connie Sheets August 24, 2011 at 11:54 am

I’m not quite sure how I feel about One Great Big Tree, but I do like the idea of an organized, more centralized, non-subscription place to post and discuss with other (hopefully) serious researchers documented information about certain ancestors. Right now, there are bits and pieces of information scattered around the net. I recently started posting one family on an Ancestry public tree, and just last week fooled around a bit with WikiTree for the first time.

People do not collaborate on Ancestry; they just copy stuff and endlessly propagate ridiculous errors.

The main problem as I see it is that sites like WikiTree can’t compete with giants like Ancestry. There are more than 80 trees for one of my ancestors on Ancestry (mostly wrong); he was not on WikiTree until I put him there, and not on or WeRelate either. Most people don’t even know that sites like WikiTree exist. Maybe that’s a good thing in that they will be cluttered with less junk, but I’m not sure how they can reach their potential if people aren’t using them.

While I doubt I’ll ever upload my gedcom and use one of these sites to store all or even most of my data, I do think WikiTree and WeRelate have potential that is not being tapped by many experienced researchers. Given the ability to include footnoted narratives, source citations, document images, and real discussions that everyone can view (and not just boring “trees” with not much more than names, dates, and places), that is a shame.


Kerry Scott August 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

Well, in fairness, Ancestry was small once upon a time. I found an old copy of a receipt from 1998 in one of my files. Apparently at that time I was paying $4.99/month for Ancestry, and they hardly had any content. One (or more) of these sites could take off if there is really a market for it.

One of the things that really dinged in my head during all of this discussion was a comment the CEO of Geni made on the Geneabloggers radio show. If I understood him right, he said that the goal of the big family tree (at least for Geni) was to have a Wikipedia-like thing eventually.

He pointed out that many, many people now use Wikipedia and their first stop in learning about something (not for hardcore research, but just regular people looking up regular stuff). He said that people made fun of Wikipedia for years, but the fact is that much of the time on many topics, the info there is reasonably correct, and that happened over time with many contributors who eventually increased the quality of many of the articles. When I stopped to think about it…he’s not wrong. I would never use Wikipedia for scholarly research, but for everyday looking-up of stuff that isn’t hugely consequential…yeah, I do, and I’m not disappointed most of the time.

So his vision is that this Great Big Tree on Geni is like that, but for humanity. When you want to look up who is related to whom, or who *cough* Katy Perry’s grandparents are, you go there.

That at least helped me understand why someone would want to build a Great Big Tree. I remain very skeptical about whether this is doable, because family trees are not like articles on Wikipedia about the history of Sesame Street…but at least now I have a better understanding of the reasoning behind all of this.


JL August 24, 2011 at 2:26 pm

There are a lot of companies trying to capitalize on the fad of genealogy by creating Great Big Family Trees. I don’t buy the altruistic thing about helping humanity and bringing families closer together. It keeps being said as if there’s obvious meaning in it. It’s a business and people see the dollar potential. Welcome to America.

Of course, FamilySearch has religion behind them and religious fervor will trump ordinary obsession any day.

The only thing that’s going to bring families closer together (another religious impulse, don’t get me started) is if they talk to each other and spend time together; you know, the living ones. And they could just as well be talking about baseball as talking about dead people.

I will admit to gaining ‘insight’ by going back one or two generations but after that it falls into the realm of ‘interesting’. I have a first cousin who signed The Declaration of Independence. It’s interesting. I’m descended from Scottish royalty a gazillion years ago. I wish I could use it to get a discount at the dental office.

I just found out that one of my x-great grandmothers, back in the 1500′s, got arrested for something or other; I’ve already forgotten what. It’s interesting, up to a point. It doesn’t do anything to make me feel ‘humble’ or ‘connected’. My ‘family’ couldn’t care less.

I’ve spent quite a few hours lately merging 300 of my closer well-documented ancestors to FamilySearch. My motivation for it is that I’m tired of seeing incorrect information about my family circulated and re-circulated ad nauseam. I attribute that to my compulsive neat-and-tidy nature, certainly not my desire to ‘connect the world’ and make me something other than the predominantly non-social person that I also am.

In five years of having genealogy charts on my website, they’ve been visited by over 10,000 people. I’ve been contacted by less than 10 of them. Is it possible that at least some of the other 9,990 have done nothing but copy verbatim? I don’t claim that it’s 100% correct but does anyone care? How much ‘humility’ and ‘connection’ can you get out of being hunched over a keyboard copying names and dates off a website?

The merging to FamilySearch is done directly from within Legacy Family Tree. I don’t have to re-enter any data; I simply click an arrow and off it goes to the other side. The chance of me re-entering data on a multitude of other sites, or even one, is zero. Maybe the correct information will eventually find its way from FamilySearch to the other online trees for those who care for whatever reason.

So far I haven’t clicked the opposite arrows and taken anything from FamilySearch because I want to contact the contributors first. I did contact one person regarding the spelling of the name of the wife of one of my great-granduncles. The answer I got back was that everything he put out there was from Ancestry trees. That’s suspect, obviously, and probably typical. I got the name from the daughter of … so I put my opinion back on top.

And on it goes. The further afield I go, the more people I’ll need to contact and I’ll do that if I have the time and inclination in between the necessities of my own daily survival. Because it can be interesting.


Kerry Scott August 25, 2011 at 9:48 am

Oh, JL. I love how you always make me look like a ray of sunshine. :)

I’m totally fine if money is the motivator. I don’t think money is a less legitimate motivator than altruism, and it’s a whole lot more reliable.

As a practical matter, though, I think it’s a mix. I mean, I’ve been paid to go to work at every job I ever had. Money was always my primary motivator to go to work, and always will be. But I also did things out of altruism, (working evenings and weekends knowing I would not get paid for it, forgoing bonuses and raises when times were tough, staying in one job because I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch during a difficult period even though easier, better-paying jobs were available, etc.). Humans are hardly ever motivated by just one thing.

I also think anyone who is purely motivated by money is probably not selling to genealogists. We’re cheap, we’re fickle and we’re cranky. We talk smack about every single company that sells to us. As customers, we’re a huge pain in the ass. Who the hell would want to hang out with genealogists if they weren’t at least a little bit into dead people?


Chris Whitten August 25, 2011 at 9:59 am

Thanks, Kerry. I was debating whether to defend myself on this.

I figured I made it pretty clear in the guest post that WikiTree is for-profit. I probably did go over the top with the dreamy mission stuff in my reply to your “why do you aspire” question, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.


JL August 25, 2011 at 11:32 am

Sorry. Just playing Devil’s advocate to the ‘dreamy’ stuff. Still not interested in Great Big Trees, though, if I have to send straighten-em-out emails to all the junk collectors. Too many other things to do. Perhaps if Great Big Trees REQUIRED a source otherwise the Save button doesn’t work. Doesn’t matter if the source reads Tree on Ancestry, we’d like to know. It could be a real time-saver.


Kerry Scott August 25, 2011 at 11:37 am

I like that requires-a-source-to-save idea a lot.

Chris Whitten August 25, 2011 at 11:57 am

WikiTree does this sort of thing by default:

Jill Schmill was born on August 23, 2011. [1]


* JL, firsthand knowledge. See the Changes page for the details of edits by JL and others.

[1] Entered by JL, Aug 25, 2011

Since a large portion of WikiTree is private and about living people, first-hand knowledge is often all that’s available.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith August 24, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Thank you both, Kerry and Chris, for taking the time to post your discussion. I think it contributed to a better understanding, for many of us. For those who really don’t care, it would be best if they would just go do their thing, and not bother to clutter our discussion threads. Thanks, again!


Chris Whitten August 24, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Thanks, Dr. Bill! :-)


JL August 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Dr. Bill, since your comment immediately follows mine, I’m going to guess it was pointed at me. What exactly do you require me to ‘care’ about in order to save myself from your Almighty Banishment?


Rondina Muncy August 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I agree with Kerry that I just don’t get anything out of “Great Big Trees.” However, I do think having a place to collaborate with relatives on a tree in a “safe” environment where information can be controlled is good. (I say this without ever having uploaded anything to the Internet from my research to sites like WikiTree or Ancestry.) So I went to WikiTree, registered, and looked around. For some reason I got the idea that the people on the site were posting at least some kind of source for their information. Maybe they had never heard of Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills, or The Chicago Manual of Style, but at least a tidbit of how they know what they are posting to be true (at least in their minds) was required. Nada. I also didn’t see anything that jumped out and said “SOURCE.” What’s worse is that I realize that these fine people may come to the WikiTree table bringing the “knowledge” gained from all those incorrect trees over at Ancestry and uploading with their GEDCOMs. After all, to some people the number of times a “fact” is published on various trees may equate to truth. Without some kind of requirement, outside of personal knowledge, that a person existed, was related, was born, died, married, owned, did whatever … I don’t see this as an advance.


Chris Whitten August 24, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Hi Rondina,

It looks like you haven’t made any contributions, so I presume you looked at a few profiles that strangers created? Some of these are indeed very low-quality. Many of them. Maybe even most of them. But that doesn’t mean some WikiTreers don’t make quality contributions and get a lot out of their participation.

Another thing to note is that earlier contributions were made before many of the changes to encourage sources and footnotes. I started WikiTree three years ago in a very rough form and have been steadily growing it in collaboration with users who give me feedback. It’s not perfect. It never will be. But I could introduce you to a lot of people who already enjoy it and feel like they get good things from it.



Scott Phillips August 24, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I found this an interesting exchange and even better comments.

I love to collaborate, but only with someone who is as serious as I am about the quality of the findings and the documentation.

Bigger is not always better.

I collaborate on a site that is open to my family and a few researchers. It is private and secured. Almost all of the research was primary and done by me. I do not want to throw it open to just anyone to do with what they may.

And please do not tell me these big tree/wiki tree/wiki wrong information junk tree ideas are for the good of humanity. They are for money …..

I spend no time on tree sites. I prefer content-rich sites where I can find the information I need for my work.

Just my two cents.

Onward To Our Past,



JL August 24, 2011 at 6:41 pm

A cousin contacted someone on one of those Great Big Trees Online recently to inquire about sources and was told, “Jesus, I don’t know where I got it from, I get stuff from all over the place.” I guess we can discount that one.

Great Big Trees Online may offer the occasional hit amongst the 99.99% of misses and maybe that’s what they’re there for. I mean, besides the money.


Jamie Swindells August 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Not really a good experience…but I’ve also gotten an answer that my mother’s aunt is still alive and remembers that person well. She’d be glad to talk to you.
I guess one bad source doesn’t mean 99.99% is bad but I’ll give you that 50% is questionable….so it’s up to you to sort out the good from the bad.


JL August 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm

I have no intention of sorting out Great Big Family Trees Online. Even in my short time at New FamilySearch I already find myself sending email to someone who keeps changing info on people I think are well-sourced the way they are. His first response was that he got the info from Ancestry trees. I’m waiting to hear back on the second round of changes. If people want to do battle at nFS with Ancestry trees vs first hand sources, I’m pulling back inside my fort and will not come out again.


Jamie Swindells August 25, 2011 at 6:23 am

I would agree with you that is not a source. Nor is the trees posted there a source (of which some of mine are included) to be accepted as fact.
They are only a tool but the source information has to follow for each piece of information. This requires the hard work that most people are not bothering with thusly errors can and will creep in.

Jamie Swindells August 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Well this article certainly stirred up a hornets nest of comments, feelings and more shocking polarized views of the world of family trees. Maybe I just don’t take it seriously enough. It started as a hobby for me and as such I interviewed older relatives, took copies of older pictures, made a few mistakes. What was first recorded on paper then became entered on a computer program, expanded upon and then shared with a chosen few, in the family, who did the same thing. was my first experience with an internet site that allowed me to share my findings. What a world that turned out to be as I met some very nice people (one professional) who were very interested in my family research as I had the best information of all – first hand knowledge. I was tutored in documentation, sources and tracking stuff down and yes still mistakes happen. I have spent a lot of time going over my family weeding out the problem areas, marking some with firsthand knowledge while allowing some as just making sense but not verified.

I use (and it is me using) sites like ancestry, Wikitree, government sites, librarys and anything else I can get my hands on to research and take the information from which it came (using a lot of common sense along the way). If there was a referance source , like census, I collected that too as my source not the information from which pointed me there. Each of the sites has its good point and bad much like people and I’ll take the good over the bad anyday.
Yes it’s still a hobby and I do like meeting lost family, resolving adoptions, sharing pictures of a Dad that the child didn’t have but another member did and solving a few mystery’s along the way. I consider it more meaningful than sitting down playing a computer game(though beating a friend at backgammon trumps) and I still enjoy helping others.

I think each site will stay if they remain true to being honest to it’s members about their intent and the sites that misuse that trust will not survive.


Linda Schreiber August 24, 2011 at 8:10 pm

I suspect that a real ‘One Big Tree’ is a pipe dream, but a few of the sites that speak of this, and try to work on this, are excellent tools, with different strengths. WikiTree and WeRelate are two of them.

Speaking as a non-pro, long concerned with doing it right and rigorously, but with life getting in the way [Most of the genealogy community....] :

Are there errors posted in trees? Yes. And there are mechanisms for discussing, correcting, sharing sources, collaborating on analyses of data, either on site or privately. This is far better than adding a ‘post-it’, and hoping someone will pay attention to it.

Are there missing sources? Yes. 1. Some, certainly, because the researcher has neglected sourcing altogether. 2. Others because they may have the sources, but have not fully documented the sources in their gen program , and tend to treat these uploaded databases as working files, cousin bait, incitement for challenges, questions and discussions. [mea culpa]. 3. Others because they have a great many years’ work collecting information and connections, and were sloppy on sourcing in the way-back. [mea culpa].

But there was an sloppy error I had on an early [1600s] ancestor, and through discussion, and source sharing, at WeRelate, I got this fixed for myself, and spread the correction online wherever I could.

And there was a great uncle that I met a couple of times, and knew little about. One of his granddaughters was googling on a totally different subject, with no interest in genealogy, and put his name in the search…. The WikiTree data I uploaded showed up in the search. She now knows a great deal about her family history, and is interested in going farther on her own lines, and I have photos of the man I remembered.

There is an everywhere-on-the-net error in one of my lines that I have been able to correct, with sources, at both places.

I have made other connections at WikiTree, as well. I’m glad it exists. I’ll get back there when the weather changes [Cold-genealogy. Warm-gardening. Sorry....]


Rondina Muncy August 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Chris, I typed in several different names and took a look. (Me? Start a database? Only if it’s a spreadsheet needed for analysis.) I think that if someone wants to use the site and collaborate with their relatives–it serves that purpose. Just like a personality test, you get back what you put in. (I love the entry for the year of death, but has no idea where he died. Not even a tombstone?) I wish that each place where information could be placed had a big, fat “SOURCE” beside it. That still doesn’t stop people from typing in “WhatsHisNames Tree,” but the user would be forewarned.

In the mean time you have people who want a place where they can share information without having it messed up by the general public. I expect there will be a certain percentage of folks who will not only enter information they obtained using original or derivative sources, but they will also go to the trouble to cite those sources. (Not that this makes for a total analytical picture.) For someone searching the same family, this will be like finding the golden egg and the goose at the same time. And maybe they get the idea that this is a better way to do it and pick up the habit. Someone has to get the ball rolling.

So I change my mind. It’s an advance. Sort of. It depends on what people do with it. And a lot of that is how big the word “SOURCE” is displayed. (Hint, hint.)

I’m think I’m a bit less cynical about motivation. Although you have to make money to support yourself, I don’t think that the motivation behind this kind of project is self-serving. You are trying to give people an alternative to having their hard work mauled. You are giving us a solution to a problem we have complained about for years. I’m not worried about you going private and taking the information with you. I do wonder what happens if you get run over by a the proverbial bus or if this thing really takes off and needs more money to run then you can provide. And I still agree with Kerry. One Big Tree is just too big to get my arms around.


Connie Sheets August 25, 2011 at 9:58 am

I had a major epiphany a few days ago when I was playing around on WikiTree: I don’t see the value in the “Tree” itself, which is why I’d not be inclined to upload a gedcom. I do see the value in the way it is set up to allow for posting fully documented biographies of ordinary, long-deceased people. There really isn’t any other place to do that, except in personal blogs and websites, which end up being very scattered and not always easy to find.

I’d also like to note that this and related discussions tend to focus on collaboration with cousins. I’m not much interested in that anymore (except to reconnect with second cousins I knew as a child, and the occasional third or so cousin who has family photos I don’t have), mostly because I’ve been at this so long it’s typically a one-way street in terms of sharing. However, what I haven’t seen mentioned is the opportunity to collaborate with other researchers, who may not be related, but who know about my ancestor’s neighborhood/locality and his FAN club (friends, associates, neighbors).

I fear that, because there seems to be such an animosity to online “trees,” many experienced researchers are overlooking this potential. It’s even an opportunity on some level for “peer review” of our work. Not everyone can be published in NGSQ, but everyone could put a documented biography of an ancestor on WikiTree or WeRelate.

I haven’t done that yet, but I’m thinking now that maybe I should consider it.


Chris Whitten August 25, 2011 at 10:06 am

Connie, I love what you’re saying here.

We’ve tried to make WikiTree useful for this.

Please keep in touch. I’m chris –at– If you ever have questions, comments, or suggestions I’d like to hear them.


Kerry Scott August 25, 2011 at 10:11 am

Oooo. You have a point. I hadn’t considered using it for the FAN club thing, although I use that approach a lot (in fact, I have a tendency to get so gung-ho on the FANs that I spend more time on then than the people I’m actually related to).

I like the peer review idea too. In fact, that’s an upsell opportunity for one of these tree companies…to have professional genealogists take a look at your tree and make suggestions or point out where you’re weak. That could result in actual paying jobs AND a valuable service.


Randy Seaver August 25, 2011 at 10:24 am


The closest to what you desxribe is the Footnote Pages which are free to create and edit. You can add facts, notes, images, stories, etc. You’ll have to put sources in the notes though. I’ve created several pages for my parents, grandparents and military service veterans. Go to for examples. Search for Isaac Seaver (1823-1901) or Lyle Carringer to see two of mine. You do have to enter the information by hand, although copy and paste is your friend.


Chris Whitten August 25, 2011 at 10:26 am

Randy, you can do all that on WikiTree pages too.


Elyse Doerflinger August 25, 2011 at 11:21 am

Let me start out by saying that I’m one of those super enthusiastic and optimistic people – I’ve pretty much always been that way. And since I’m a 20-something who loves to learn about dead people (even dead people I’m not related to), I’m pretty weird. I asked for a freaking filing cabinet for my 16th birthday and a 3-in-1 printer/copier/scanner for my 17th birthday.

And when I started getting interested in this whole genealogy thing, I was one of those name collectors who grabbed names, dates, and places left and right. I read DearMyrtle and Dick Eastman and heard about sources, searched for a couple of census records, and still didn’t “get it”. It wasn’t until I really immersed myself in the genealogy community that I started to realize what I had been doing wasn’t genealogy at all – but name collecting. I still cringe when I see all of the mis-information I spread all over the internet.

With that said – it was through the help of the genealogy community, newly discovered cousins, other researchers, etc that taught me how to truly do genealogy. I learned from the community – and I think other people can learn from the community. Education is key and always will be key.

There will always be misinformation on the internet. There will always be name collectors in the world. No matter what anyone does, it will always exist.

But there will also always be people who are out there who are willing to guide, educate, and teach others about how to cite their sources, find documents, and tell the story of their ancestors. There will always be people who cite their sources, search for documents in the darkest depths of archives and courthouses, etc.

There will always be two sides to the coin.

While I believe that WikiTree is striving for an ideal, I work for WikiTree because I am also striving for that ideal – and I’d do my job whether Chris sent me a paycheck or not. Do I believe WikiTree will ever be one gigantic fully sourced tree where everyone is connected? Nope. But do I think it is an ideal worth going after? Oh yes. Go on our Facebook page and read what the users have said – how they connected with a new cousin, how someone found one of their WikiTree profiles through Google, etc. Go on the quotes page and read about it.

Will I probably ever have close family members on WikiTree? Probably not. The majority of my family doesn’t really care – my dad even jokes that I’m undoing the hard work of my ancestors by digging up all of the stuff they worked so hard to hide. And the portion of my family that does care is completely computer illiterate. They still have AOL and use dial-up and get flustered easily and say stuff like “I’m too old for this crap!”.

But I still use WikiTree. Not just because it is cousin bait, but because I’m hoping I will discover a new cousin – even a very distant one. I’m hoping that I’ll find that cousin with the family bible or the pictures I’ve never seen or the story I’ve never heard. I want to connect that with cousin. I want us to share and show our sources and collaborate and come up with new ideas and make that ancestor feel fresh again. WikiTree is the perfect platform for that – easy to use, lots of privacy controls, and easy to share if I want.

The Big Tree thing isn’t for everyone and it also never will be. And that is OK too.

(Sorry for the super long rant like comment)


Elyse Doerflinger August 25, 2011 at 11:53 am

Just to be clear – no one *has* to educate anyone else – that part is a choice. I was just sharing my personal experience in the genealogy world, in face-to-face time at conferences and society meetings to the online world in geneablogging land, websites, and email exchanges.

But I’m also one of those weird teacher types (working on my teaching degree and credential) and I find joy in educating people.

The Big Tree isn’t for everyone – and that is perfectly fine.


Lester September 12, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Well said and I believe that you make good points.


Susan Clark August 25, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I can’t imagine uploading an entire gedcom to any of the One Big Tree sites, but I have used WeRelate to post information I’ve found in my research that is not widely available. Using these sites to share well-researched information or trees (especially those which correct widely used inaccurate information) seems like a win/win all around.


Andy Hatchett August 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

WikiTrees, and other online tree sites, should not “encourage sources and footnotes”- they should bloody well DEMAND them.

In addition each GEDCOM submitted should be checked for genealogical impossibilities BEFORE even being accepted on the site.

That alone would weed out 90% of the junkology on the web and stop all the namegathering treebie clickologists dead in their tracks.

The first site to institute such a policy will gain the undying gratitude (NOT TO MENTION THE SUPPORT) of all serious hobbyist genealogists but the professional genealogical community as well.


Michael Ross January 7, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Extremely well said. I use WikiTree, but this is a continuing frustration I have with the site. They’re not serious enough about quality.


Lester September 12, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Great feed back Andy. I will admit that I just started building or should I say transferring and moving my tree info over into wikitree but only as a secondary and backup source for my research. I will not pin myself down to any single source for information. I am for the most part an user and most likely will remain as such. But, that being said, I also am very interested in the additional sources and facts I have been able to prove by incorporating my research with wikitree. Are they different? Yes. Am I confused right now? Yes, until I get the hang of things and learn how to use it just as much as I had to learn how to use My primary input on this is to say, I am learning how to add my facts on wikitree with very little help from others without feeling like I am bothering them. There is one rule I have for myself, I will place nothing on wikitree unless I know for a fact I can back it up with the documentation which I already have for my facts and sources on When I get better at wiki then I will start adding my records to my wiki account for necessary support and documentation. If anyone on wikitree needs proof I at least will have it for them if they request it and I can either give it to them or let them know where and how I came about it. I wish everyone could back up their work but as it has been said through out the many comments in this discussion, there are those who are only name junkies and have no clue how to do research. Have a great day and I do support your opinion in this matter.


Sue Adams September 28, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Just found this blog, so I’m probably coming to the discussion long after everyone else has forgotten it. Here goes anyway.

I am not convinced that the Big One Tree tree sites are an effective way of doing research using cousin bait. The ratio of duff contacts to worthwile contacts is just too low.

Back when Genes Reunitied only cost as fiver or tenner a year, my Dear Old Duffer (an affectionate term for an older relative who does not get it) uploaded a GEDCOM of my database. A first DOD politely replied to each person who made contact, saying ‘Sorry, we are not related’, until he got a query he could not answer. Then somehow, I got lumbered with answering all the contacts. In the two years that my data remained on the site, there were lots of contacts, but only three or four produced any new information and only one shared original documents.

About 18 months ago, I published some of my research on my own website. The traffic to my site is tiny, Google Analytics says 259 unique visitors ever. None-the-less, to date, four people have made contact claiming to be related. One was not, but the other three were, produced new information and two have been a goldmine for original documents.

Publishing my own website forced me to write a coherent account that I can defend. Although I did not include citations online, I excluded material that was not adequately sourced or otherwise dodgy. Now, I have enough material to justify a re-write, one I have made sense of it all.


Lester September 12, 2014 at 1:36 pm

I sat here and read through most all the discussion. Very good points made on both sides pro/con to the “Big Tree” idea. Would it be helpful? I believe we all would agree yes, as long as control is maintained. I for one use for my primary base to park my tree. Most of my research has been through them as well as making contact with family members who have been doing research for over 50 years. Fortunately I have had a couple or so teach me the values of research quality and not worry as much about quantity. I am chipping in due to the conflicts many find with habits on ancestry. Some do throw a tree together and snatch and grab at any possible clue with out verification to its truth causing a misleading clue to family history. I as well find family members inundating their trees with false leads making it difficult for others to use their hints. However, I have found some I can trust. This is true on any site or web link any of us use. There are those you can trust with their research and then there are those you need to run from. I will say so far, in the short time I have been trying wikitree, that they are requesting us to be very careful not to duplicate records insuring the cleanest most accurate tree possible. For that I applaud wikitree. I have yet to find any particular site which provides the best/worse scenarios for sources. Let us all remember that it is up to us to make sure by verifying our facts before we jump in with both feet. A guess without a good amount of facts can throw a monkey wrench into any ones research. I personally have had to go back and change records I later discovered were in question. I do not think I need to tell anyone just how annoying and troublesome this can be. One main point I wanted to make is this, DO NOT use someone else’s family tree as a primary source for your research. If you can trust them and you know for a fact they have facts and records to back up their research then you should be alright. If they are building their tree primarily from the entries or research copied from other trees you will find yourself in a big mess with many errors. I will point one rule out which was taught to me in the very beginning when I started. Use Census Reports, government documents -example- birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates and so on for your final judgement in making your decisions. These can and are found in numerous ways available through others research. Occasionally if you are serious enough, you will find your self taking road trips to libraries, City Halls and graveyards to get your own information. The expense will pay off in the end. No one will ever be able to accurately build their tree for free. This is a cost of time and money depending on how wise you handle your time and effort which you put forth into this type of hobby. I hope everyone can understand my long winded explanation in the effort to simply say, I will not refine myself to just one venue for research. If you are serious about this type of work then you will most likely agree with me and stand by the old saying “Do not put all your eggs in one basket”. No Ancestral website or program has all the answers. Thank you for your time if you read this entire message. Lester


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