Genealogy and Social Networking – a Perfect Partnership

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

For every genealogist who functions adventurously at technology’s cutting edge or just rides the crest, there are many more who paddle happily in the gently rippling backwaters until the more adventuresome get all the “bugs” worked out. Before I retired, I rode the crest, as librarians continually explore new forms of online communication to improve the provision of information to their customers. Without that impetus, I am far less adventuresome. While I have been reading about social networking opportunities and viewing demonstrations of resources like Second Life, it was only recently that I have finally acquiesced to the requests from a couple of friends and joined Facebook. I immediately realized that while participation is easy and fun, it is incredibly time consuming. In short, it is addictive. One of the best benefits for me is the ability stay in touch with friends that I see only once or twice a year at genealogy conferences, as well as friends from life-before-retirement and family (my son thinks it’s startling to chat online with me late at night). Now I wonder why I didn’t do it earlier!

My Facebook experiences have prompted me to learn more about the world of social networking. I have just finished reading Drew Smith’s Social Networking for Genealogists, new this spring from Genealogical Publishing Company. This book discusses topics such as RSS, message boards and mailing lists, blogs, wikis, podcasts, collaborative editing, virtual worlds, and more. Each section clearly describes its topic in a manner equally useful to those with more online communications experience and the less technologically savvy. Each chapter ends with a summary of steps for getting involved with the specific topic under discussion. After reading for only a few minutes, I began to write notes to myself about new ideas applicable to this blog, others to which I provide content, my Facebook participation, and a newsletter I publish. I came away from the book with a new sense of energy; it is one that I shall certainly return to again and again. I highly recommend Social Networking for Genealogists to individuals for their home collections. Libraries will want to include a copy in the genealogical section, but should also have circulating copies available.

The following interview with Social Networking for Genealogists author Drew Smith is reprinted from the April 21st issue of’s Genealogy Pointers [GP].

GP: What is social networking?
DS:  Social networking is the use of online communication tools to interact with other people about shared interests.

GP: How/why did you become interested in social networking in its various manifestations?
DS: I have always been interested in the use of computers for exchanging information. In the 1980s, I worked for an academic computing department at a university, where I helped several faculty use an online message board system as a way for their students to communicate with each about course-related content. When I became involved in genealogy in the early 1990s, I immediately saw the value of mailing lists and message boards for helping researchers find other researchers who might have the answers to their questions.

GP: Once people get together via social networking, do they try to meet each other in person? In other words, is social networking more intentional and interest-driven, or is it more relational?
DS: A lot depends upon the focus of the social networking. For instance, some social networking is about making new friends who share a common interest and meeting up with them at a music concert or a sporting event. Some social networking is more about professional networking, where people might meet up in person at a professional conference. And with other social networking, it’s enough for people just to have others they can talk to online about their interests.

GP: Have you dabbled in social networking in disciplines other than genealogy?
DS: When I worked for a university computing center, providing support services to students and faculty, I discovered how useful it was for me to keep in touch with people at other universities who had the same job I did. Later, when I became a full-time university instructor, I used forms of social networking to keep communication flowing among my students. As a librarian during the past few years, I’ve quickly come to realize that librarians are in the forefront of many social networking tools, because librarians look for new ways to share information.

GP: What seems to be the biggest payoff for genealogists who network?
DS: Genealogists were among the very first social networkers when they began using mailing lists and message boards. Before then, the only good way to get your research questions out in front of others was to publish them as queries in newsletters and journals. Now, genealogists have an enormous array of social networking tools that get their questions out in front of countless people, and make it so much easier to collaborate on research projects.

GP: Can you give us some examples of the time- or money-savings results you or others have experienced from social networking?
DS: One of the things I have enjoyed most in the past few years is the production of a weekly podcast on the topic of genealogy, “The Genealogy Guys Podcast,” with co-host George G. Morgan. This is another form of social networking, because our listeners are encouraged to e-mail us with their comments and questions, and their e-mail to us often forms the content of later episodes.
     Not surprisingly, I talk about my own family research during the podcast, and in one of those episodes, I discussed the cemetery in which my great-great-grandmother was buried in New Jersey. Soon after, I received e-mails from two different listeners offering to go to the cemetery and take pictures of the gravestones. One of them later did and sent me dozens of digital photos of the primary stone, plus a side of the stone that listed my great-grandparents and my grandfather.
     In another episode, I mentioned a restaurant that my late cousin had invested in, near Sand Diego some years ago, which I had discovered while searching in a database of California alcohol licenses, and I soon received photos of the inside of the restaurant showing where my cousin actually sat!

GP: Why did you decide to write Social Networking for Genealogists?
DS: although many genealogists have become computer-literate in the past decade, I felt that their use of the Internet for genealogical research was primarily limited to exchanging e-mail, searching free and commercial databases, and using Google.  Some had discovered mailing lists and message boards, but I suspected that many were put off by all of the strangely named new tools that had sprung up in the past few years, such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, Flickr, and so forth.
     In my opinion, computer technology comes in waves. First, in the 1980s, genealogists discovered the value in using personal computers.
     Then, in the 1990s, they discovered the value of the online world, with e-mail, Google, databases, and personal websites. Today, the discovery that genealogists should make is that there are a bunch of new tools that make sharing research information easier and more fun.

GP: Are there myths or other mistaken notions that genealogists have about social networking that prevents them from getting involved?
DS: Absolutely! First, there’s the myth that social networking is mostly used only by teenagers and twentysomethings to talk to their friends. Or that blogs are mostly just people ranting about politics and religion. Or that podcasts and video websites are nothing but music and pop culture.
     Second, there’s the myth that when you use a social networking site you have to share a lot of private information. In fact, there’s usually not much more you have to do other than create an account under whatever username you want, with a valid e-mail address that you don’t have to share with others. If you add additional information about yourself, it’s entirely up to you.
     Third, there may be worries that social networking sites come and go and that a lot of time invested in one site might be lost. But many of these sites are owned and operated by some of the biggest names in the online world, such as Google and Yahoo. They aren’t likely to close up shop tomorrow.

GP: If you were to rate social networking as a genealogical methodology, do you see it as more of an add-on, more for fun, or something central to one’s research?
DS: Social networking can be a lot of fun, sharing your successes with other genealogists and making online friends all over the world who are as enthusiastic about doing research as you are. But it’s more than just fun, and more than just an add-on. It’s a modern way to extend your reach as a researcher to the widest possible audience. Efficient, effective researchers always look for ways to discover what other people have already learned, to avoid unnecessary expenditures of time and money. Social networking tools can link researchers to each other in countless ways, whether it’s shared interest in a particular surname, location, ethnic group, or methodology. Social networking tools provide new ways to teach and learn. Today, we find it hard to imagine doing research without e-mail, the Web, and our personal computers. In a few years, we’ll find it hard to imagine doing research without social networking tools.

GP: Why do you believe that social networking is the wave of the future for genealogical research?
DS: We have to remember that genealogical research is just one type of information-seeking behavior, and by seeing the general direction that people are moving in to find the information that they need, we can see the general direction of the future of genealogical research. After all, the general population is moving to more portable computing, from desktop computers to laptops to netbooks and handheld devices. We see people moving from reading printed newspapers to reading news sites online, to reading customized news feeds from many different news sources. And we see people going online to see the opinions and experiences of others before they buy something.
     Social networking builds upon mobile computing, customized information, and collaboration. Genealogists are like everyone else; they want information wherever they happen to be, customized just for them (in their case, information about their own ancestors). And they are dependent upon other researchers and volunteers to help them get it more quickly and more easily.



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