Beware Those Addictive Shaky Leaves

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?

© 2011, copyright Genealady & JustFolks


Comments

Beware Those Addictive Shaky Leaves — 7 Comments

  1. I completely agree. You tend to get a feel for which of the researchers have reliable information in their family trees, and which don’t, but it takes a good deal of time and research to verify their information. I’ve found that I will not even touch a tree that does not have sources. When I do, I find that they’ve copied their information from me or one of my relatives, so they don’t even have anything new. On the rare occasion that an un-sourced tree has new information, I’ll email them before I think of adding the person, or I will put a note that in the fact description that says “unverified” – that helps me find mistakes later, or keep the record in perspective so that I can work to find alternate sources of verification.

    • I think those are good strategies, Charleen. I have a section of ‘possibles’ in my notebook, or ‘check this out’ for facts I’m not sure of. Nothing gets added to my tree until I’m sure of it, and I usually just look at other trees for research ideas if they have a source I don’t. I wish I could turn off the ‘tree matching’ as hints in ancestry permanently, in fact.

  2. I was so thrilled at the leaves at first, also. But then when things got strange, I started double checking. Unfortunately, I really didn’t know what I’d checked out and what were things I had blindly added. Is there any good way, besides starting all over, that I can begin to fix some of my family facts and some of my family faux-pas?

    • I wish I knew of a way, Rochelle! I’ve still got things to learn about ancestry.com, even though I’ve been using it for three years as my main family tree software. That said, your solution might be dependent on the size of your tree. If you remember vaguely the families or lines you added on to, you can go in and delete events, facts or individuals by hand. Each will need to be done individually, I think, as there’s no ‘mass delete’ feature, as far as I know. If your tree is larger, you’ll need to take your time with weeding out the wrong things and think about evidence as you go along; when you pick up a line to research, look at everything on that individual and say, how do I know that? Do I have a document that proves it? If not, or if the only evidence ancestry.com cites for that event is ‘family tree’, it might be worth tossing it out or labelling it unverified until you can check the tree or find your own source. These are the things that make research logs so important. I just need to get more in the habit of using them myself!

  3. I am in agreement that those shaky leaves can be so deceiving. When I first started on Ancestry I got carried away and didn’t always check as carefully as I should.
    I have had to go through a lot of names to determine if they truly belong, and I have found some the keep spreading an error.
    One of my suggestions for Ancestry, if I find something that might be consideration, to put it in the shoebox, but allow me to make a note on why I want to considered it, and a way to search the shoebox other than the order items have been added.

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