Dick Eastman is wrong

On second thoughts actually no, Dick Eastman is right. The other title is just grabbier.

On third thoughts, maybe he’s both right and wrong.

The man who is wrong. Or right.

What am I talking about? I’ve just heard Dick speak on the future of genealogy at the wonderful Clare Roots Society conference in Ennis. (In case you don’t know, Dick is the prime guru of North American genealogy and has been for more than two decades. His slides for the talk are here. ) At the nub of his predictions was the idea of collaboration, in particular the notion of sharing research and connecting it with the research of others.

This isn’t a new idea. Twenty years ago it was already clear that making your tree available online was a very good way of attracting people interested in the same interconnecting families, thereby flushing out mistakes, new connections and earlier branches. The network effect was and still is at the heart this idea: as more people do it, it becomes exponentially more useful. I’m all in favour of it.

What has changed in those two decades is the rise of the social media behemoths, FaceBook, Google, Twitter … All operate under the same implicit deal: give us information on yourself that we can sell to advertisers and you can send email, message, stay connected for free. You’re paying nothing, so you’re the product, but people aren’t stupid and they know that’s the deal.

When it comes to genealogy, Dick seemed to be enthusing about genealogical social media. The crucial difference is that he makes the presumption it will happen on already-existing genealogy sites such as ancestry.com, findmypast and myheritage.

But hold on. They’re all subscription sites. So we’re supposed to pay them to host the information which makes them more valuable to us? That’s one heck of a business model:  the customer pays to supply the raw material that the company sells back to the customer.

MyHeritage offers to host your family tree.

To me, this sounds more like a three-card trick or shell game than a service.

Dick is right, I think, that the sheer scale of network-creation now happening will make collaborative genealogy more and more important. He’s wrong, I hope, that this will be done through the subscription sites.

Ireland’s public-service approach of making genealogy information free online already puts us gloriously out of step with Anglo-American commercial genealogy. There are signs that collaborative genealogy could turn out the same way – IrelandXO is just one example of a number of groups in Ireland already combining local history, genealogy and community volunteering to knit the descendants of emigrants back into their extended family.

On the giant scale that now seems possible, these could turn out more like the free-but-data-mined approach of Google and FaceBook than the walled reservations of ancestry.com or myheritage.

So Dick is wrong, but maybe only about the Irish.

9 thoughts on “Dick Eastman is wrong”

  1. How do you thing IrelandXO is working out? I signed up because I know what towns 2 of my gg-grandparents came from (Nenagh in N. Tipperary and St. Johnstown in S. Tipperary). But I’ve never posted anything and gave up even visiting because it seems that when people do, they are just directed to sites like to other sites like rootsireland.

    1. It’s still early days for IrelandXO, it’s very young but it has great potential. I love that it’s volunteer based, I think with time it will be hive of knowledge.

    2. I had an excellent experience with IrelandXO. I posted several questions about my search and received a fast response with more information than I had requested. A few months later an unknown cousin saw my post and responded. We were able to make a connection and are now collaborating to solve our blocks.

  2. I think online genealogy collaboration is a growth industry and has enormous potential not just for unravelling family genealogy, but for creating communities with common genealogy interests. This type of success is evident with geneabloggers, various FB groups and the worldwide friendships formed, especially among bloggers.

    The problem with subscription sites is that (1) it requires $$ and (2) to a large degree it requires a long-term commitment or lose your data and (3) while it opens records across the world, often they are available elsewhere at $0.

    In terms of Irish research, I agree the Irish (and Australian) models are wonderfully free to consumers. It has to be said that until recently Irish research was not nearly as readily possible for many people. I think FindMyPast deserves enormous kudos for their targeted expansion of Irish record digitisation.

  3. I think that Ireland Reaching Out is a project with huge potential as John and others have stated. However, you have to engage with it. For those who were disappointed with its earlier website, it is now more interactive. Please take a look. Thanks John for making the valid point about the subscription sites which hold all our free information which we have found (with or without them)but require us to continue to pay them in order to progress forward. I would hope that Irish Genealogy would see the benefits of making as much information freely available as possible in order to encourage people to make the visit to Ireland.

  4. Promising and very informative . I personally need directions as how to use these great sites. I seem to misread and then get lost. Time and practice I think. 😊

  5. I hope the future of genealogy is not up a tree. I often read criticisms of tree content. In order to improve the content of big collaborative tree research you would need people to act as editors or administrators to make judgements on disputes. It would become more objective, less personal and less satisfying. I dislike the idea of centralizing people’s family history.

  6. I have an Ancestry subscription for many years mainly because if I give it up I will not be able to
    see all the information that I have saved over the years. I would like to be able to have my family trees I have on Ancestry be copied/transferred to other sites such as FamilySearch.org, so other people that cannot afford Ancestry would be able to see also. Does anyone know how to transfer
    the trees on Ancestry to Family Search?

    1. I believe all you need to do is setup an account at FamilySearch and import. To be sure, once you have a FamilySearch account, do a live chat on the website (available 24 hrs a day). The link is in the upper right corner of the page.

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