03 February 2014

Commentary: NYT asks "Are you my cousin?"

Have a look at this opinion piece by A. J. Jacobs from the New York Times. It's a good read. The focus is the rewards and risks of mega-family trees, like Geni.com, which compiles input from anyone who cares to contribute.

Geni is popular placing fifth among genealogy websites according to the GenealogyInTime top 100 list. It claims over 100 million profiles, unchanged from three years ago.

The NYT article highlights the fun of finding links to famous ancestors using Geni. It turns out the article author's wife’s great-uncle’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s uncle’s wife’s son’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s brother’s wife’s nephew is former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Isn't that impressive!

Where I part company with the article is the latter part of the sentence "Traditional genealogists demand rigorous proof of every relationship, but the new, less cautious genealogists argue that we have to work with probabilities."

Working with probabilities does not mean being less cautious. If anything it reflects a considered approach, being more cautious in our claims and acknowledging that in even the most rigourously researched relationship there's a chance of error. That's entirely different from the entertainment approach, throwing caution to the wind, compiling a mega-tree rag bag of careful research, fanciful opinion and unenlightened adoption of other's work where you conclusion is only as strong as the weakest link..

Thanks to Eric Dodman for the tip. The image is a snippet from a larger illustration in the NYT article by Jim Stoten.


Eric said...

I would like to thank Richard L Schaper husband of my wife's fourth cousin for giving me the tip

Persephone said...

I joined Geni.com a few years ago at the invitation of one of my husband's cousins. It seemed a good way to share information and another handy place to stow documents. It was only last spring that the full implications of "collaborative trees" -- such at those at Geni, My Heritage, and Family Search -- finally hit me. I blogged about it at the time: http://postitnotesfromhades.blogspot.ca/2013/06/geni-out-of-bottle.html

I would now warn fellow family researchers off joining such sites. It's too late for me; you can resign your membership at Geni.com, but (this is important) *your tree remains with them*. I have heard similar horror stories from other family researchers.