A recent post over at Genea-musings about Ancestry.com’s latest ad campaign had me thinking about the beauties and pitfalls of those addictive, shaky little leaves. When I first joined Ancestry.com three years ago and began my first serious foray into my genealogy, those little leaves were my guide, leading me farther down the trail of what was out there and what was possible. I can see how easy it is for a beginner to go all Hansel and Gretel and not realize until they’re halfway through eating the shaky leaf house that it belongs to the wicked witch of the Tangled Genealogy Forest!
I’m fortunate in that I tend to be overly cautious (re: obsessive), and I tend to ponder at length (re: overthink) about most things before making an “irreversible” decision. This has turned out to be a wonderful trait to have as a genealogist! From the beginning of my Ancestry.com subscription, I was excited to see each green leaf bud on my tree, and I was eager to click on each and review it. But being the obsessive genealogist I am (perhaps that would make a good blog title…), I never wanted to accept them without being sure. This went for the actual records and the family trees. After questioning family or weighing evidence, the records would sometimes get added and other times get ignored. The family trees I was a little less rigorous with in the beginning – how can one resist adding a family tree shivering and shaking its little leaf at you like an eager puppy that just wants to be taken home and loved?!
But then it happened.
Going back farther in my family, more people’s trees started to connect. At one point, there were 6 or 8 trees that contained my family member, or so ancestry.com was suggesting. But on cursory review…Holy mackerel! That ancestor wasn’t born in 1802! Or in Wales! Or married to a woman named Mahala! Or…wait, was he? But then why does this person say he married a Kate? Did he marry twice? *cue skepticism* Wait…where’s the proof?
There wasn’t any.
That is to say, some of the trees had proof, some didn’t, and some were for completely different people. Their owners may have had sources, but they weren’t always included. And it all boiled down to my realization that these people…they might not… – *GASP* – They might not be MY PEOPLE.
Time for shock, outrage, betrayal, pitchforks and torches..?
Nah. After all, Ancestry.com is a product and a program. Computers aren’t perfect because their programmers certainly aren’t. So…
- Does shaky leaf mismatching make the program illegitimate? Nope. It’s made good suggestions, too, in places I never thought to look. It’s really quite intuitive. But it does make mistakes.
- Does it mean we need to be careful? Certainly.
- Do I think Ancestry.com needs to do more to shepherd newbies into genealogy? Yes. Definitely. Its accessibility draws people in. It’s the largest of such companies and one of the best at helping people get started. Being in that position, I think it has an industry responsibility to do more to stress responsible researching on its site. I realize there are articles and notes on the forum about this, but beginners may not be going there yet. They may still be caught up in the frenzied excitement of “Next leaf! Must. Click. It!” To that end, I’d really like to see Ancestry.com add some FAQs or a warning on the ‘Review Member Tree Hints for _______’ page in a sidebar or a top banner. Like…’Tips for Determining if this is your ancestor’ or ‘Think before you click…” Something like that. I think it’s reasonable, and such insistence on care will do more to help their reputation in the industry than hurt it with new members or complaints from the ‘shouldn’t this be perfect, I’m paying for it!’ mentality.
I encourage you to go over to Genea-musings and take a look at both posts done on the subject – it’s quite a relevant and interesting topic to ponder since it’s a question of professionalism and standards in our field. We want genealogy to be accessible to everyone, which is what Ancestry.com is accomplishing – but at what price? And how do more experienced genealogists assist?
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