Genealogy Changed Dramatically in 2016. I Can Prove It.

4261060942_5b6956fc00_bYou know how I got into genealogy? By voice mail.

It was the early 1990s, and I had just moved to Milwaukee. I didn’t know anyone there, I’d never been there, and I had no connection to the state of Wisconsin. I got a job, and the job came with a (corded, landline) phone, and the phone had voice mail. It was very fancy.

I had an elderly relative send me a letter saying that I did have a connection to Wisconsin. She said my third great-grandparents were buried in West Bend (an hour or so north of Milwaukee). Then she died, so I couldn’t ask her more. I found West Bend on a (paper) map, then drove up there. I didn’t find the cemetery, but a nice lady at the McDonald’s told me there was this thing called a historical society. I was 21, so the existence of historical societies was not really on my radar screen. I got their number (from a paper phone book), I called them, and they called back. They left a voice mail.

The voice mail told me where my grandparents were buried. Then, this: “We have a lot of other stuff on your family too. There’s a big thick file. You should come up here and take a look.”

They did, and I did, and…well, here I am. I did research for a few years, and then they invented the internet, and I did research for a lot more years. I’m on the tail end of the generation of genealogists who started out using paper and microfilm and Soundex. My timing was perfect, because I got that experience, and then I got the internet. I have lots of friends who came after the internet, and in some ways I envy them. They have no idea how hard we used to have to work. Mostly, though, I’m glad I got the olden days experience.

Then they came up with DNA testing. I first tested at 23andMe in April 2010, and I’ve been enjoying it ever since. I love working with DNA. When I started using it, though, I already had nearly 20 years of genealogical experience.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but that’s no longer a thing. If you’re wondering why most of your DNA matches don’t have trees or a list of surnames or any of the other standard genealogical icebreakers, I have the answer. It’s because they did DNA first. The fastest DNA growth is at AncestryDNA, and most people who test at AncestryDNA are not genealogists (yet). 

Don’t believe me? Here’s how I know.

I review every single one of my new AncestryDNA matches. That site is by far the most active site for me in terms of new cousins, so every day, I eat lunch at my desk and check out my new matches. (Side note: I don’t recommend this. It trains you to be hungry whenever you see the AncestryDNA match page. I’m like Pavlov’s dogs. It’s ridiculous.)

It seemed like more and more of my new cousins were new to, and I wanted to get a sense of whether that was really the case. In September and October 2016, I kept track of each new match’s “member since” date. You’ll see this when you click on your match, right below her username. It’ll say “Member since [year], last logged in [date].”

I had new 645 matches on AncestryDNA during this two-month period. That, by itself, blows my mind. I’m not a Southerner, I have very few known colonial US roots, and I’m not a member of any other endogamous populations. 645 new matches in two months! It’s wild.

But the real news was this: 60% of those new matches joined in 2016.

Here’s the complete breakdown:


Here’s what it looks like in pie chart form:



That’s a lot of red. That’s a lot of new people who don’t have a tree because duh, they’re brand new.

I think this means we’re going to see a huge shift in genealogy-land. Those of us who write and teach are going to have to adjust our approach in a big way, because our students started with a swab, not a stack of papers. They’re coming from a completely different direction, and there are a lot of them. This crowd is way too big to ignore. They also represent a huge opportunity, if we’re smart enough to figure out how to approach it.

Family historians at all levels are going to have to get over the concept that you need a tree to be able to figure out the match. If that’s your only way of getting started, you’re not going to get very far, because the majority of new matches are too new to have a tree. It’s just not realistic. If they do have one, it’s probably full of errors, just like ours were when we’d been at this for only a few months. If you can’t figure out how to google the username, look ’em up on Facebook, compare to other matches, or stack ’em up in a chromosome browser, you’re stuck. Genealogy is about building the tree, not having the tree handed to you. That part isn’t even new; it’s always been that way. It’s nice when there’s a tree, but there isn’t, find a way to move forward. Trust me, it’s not that hard. You can do this.

We also need to make sure we’re treating these newbies in such a way that they don’t log off and leave us in the dust. Being friendly, approachable and gentle with new matches can go a long way toward turning these people into genealogists, not just people who took a DNA test once. We have the opportunity to pull them in, but we also have the power to push them away. Let’s recognize that, and make good choices.

I’m really excited about this. I had a sense that there were a lot of new people, but I didn’t realize the scale of the shift until I started tracking it. I think this is at least as big as the time when we all started moving online, and I feel very fortunate to get to be here for another huge change in genealogy. It’s like being part of the Oregon Trail era, but way more inclusive. Plus, no dysentery. Yay!

Note: I have no connection to, other than as customer since 1997, which apparently makes me a little old lady now. I do, however, have a connection to Family Tree University’s Virtual Conference, where I’ll be presenting on how to deal with those no-tree DNA matches who turn out to be adoptees and others with unknown parentage. It can be done, and I’ll show you how. You can get $40 off registration by using code EARLYVCWINTER. I’ve been at this conference since 2011, and it’s awesome, because you don’t have to leave your house. You should go. 

Photo by C Slack



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