First thoughts: Wikipedia and Ancestry.com

Since I had to take Lucas to school anyway this morning, I decided to stop by the office for some focused time, pneumonia be damned.  Unfortunately, 90 minutes into my productive e-mail session, Fang texted to warn me about the newly falling snow and to suggest I get on the roads sooner rather than later.

Fang clears snow from the car

 Every once in a while, I feel really bad for dragging Fang to Boise.  To be honest, this was not one of those moments.

The result was another day on the couch with the laptop, TV playing in the background.  Despite the distracted recuperation, I made some progress on a piece I promised to write.  It’s another reflection on how the public does history, in line with the chapter I wrote last year, only this time I’m looking at how the historical sausage gets made at Wikipedia and Ancestry.com. As you might imagine, I’m observing that each site’s process and product is inflected by gender. My research into women’s contributions to Wikipedia has uncovered a trove of misogynistic comments about how more extensive participation by women would ruin Wikipedia.  As much as they unsettle me, such sources also warm the cockles of my dark academic heart.

Mostly, I’m interested in how Wikipedians and Ancestry users (Ancestryans?) collaborate or come to consensus, how they perceive and use primary and secondary sources, and how they view and establish expertise within their respective digital communities.

Have you ever contributed to Wikipedia or Ancestry?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your experience.  If not, I’m curious as to why you haven’t participated on these sites, as they are incredibly popular in the U.S.  (Businessweek reports that “genealogy ranks second only to porn as the most searched topic online.”)

Comments

  1. Fang in the snow – CLASSIC! Never thought it would look so odd. Good to see him in action.

    I contributed to Wikipedia just once. It was on the Edward R. Murrow entry, which I was reading after viewing the film, “Good Night and Good Luck.” It was all in order when suddenly, I came across an entire paragraph that was alarmingly off-the-rails with hate-filled fabrications. We’re talking obvious things like Murrow loved Hitler, beat his wife, molested children and so on. I simply removed the paragraph and then checked on it in the following weeks and never saw it return. Weird.

    I’d love to hear your theories about gender in this realm. Fascinating.

    Also, the only reason I’ve never done the ancestry thing is because I’m adopted and – as you well know by being married to an adoptee – we are the Wild Cards of humanity.

    • Leslie M-B says:

      Do you keep two trees, Heather, or only a Clisby tree? We have Fang’s birth mom’s name, and I’m tempted to use Ancestry to learn more about her–she is deceased, so the records should be available.

  2. Interesting post and while I have been aware of some of the issues at WikiPedia, I have not seen any such comments at Ancestry.com. Keep in mind that genealogy as a hobby and a profession is dominated by females – my take is at least a 65%/35% split. I’ve asked my digital community at GeneaBloggers to weigh in as well . . .

  3. I’ve used Ancestry since about 1996. One big difference between Ancestry and Wikipedia is this: There’s no requirement for consensus on Ancestry. I can post a version of my family’s tree, and then you can post a version of the same family (which may or may not resemble mine). On Ancestry, you work parallel to other researchers, but you don’t necessarily interact with them. In fact, one of the great frustrations of users of Ancestry’s public trees is that it’s very hard to get others to correct mistakes.

    For example, I can see right now that someone has a grandparent of mine married to the wrong person and living/dying in the wrong place on his Ancestry tree. I personally knew that grandparent, so I know when and where he died and who he was married to…but the guy with this errant tree hasn’t responded to messages. I can put my own tree out there with correct info and source citations if I choose too, but I can’t correct his.

    • Leslie M-B says:

      Thanks, Kerry. I’ve been playing around on Ancestry for about a year. I’m less interested in constructing my own family tree–there is a genealogist in my family who can do far better job of it than I ever could–than in how other use or abuse the site, and the family tree feature, with its ability to copy from other trees, seems to be a major source of abuse.

      That said, to fully understand Ancestry, I need to try to construct a tree, yes? My own approach, as I play around, has been to borrow from others’ trees and then delve into the primary sources to try to confirm the relationships. The sense I have, though, is that more serious researchers would start with primary sources. Is that the case?

      One of the things I’ve run across in my academic research is that amateur historians often misinterpret primary sources. Do you find that to be a problem among amateur genealogists as well, or are people receiving sufficient training someplace?

  4. On Ancestry, I feel any collaboration going on is secondary, at best. The primary focus of the website being the actual databases of records, and not the message boards, or online family trees. Many serious researchers ignore the online family trees completely since they are riddled with error, and rarely have sources cited. Ancestry’s OneWorldTree product is laughable (It lists Lucille Ball as the grandmother of her husband, Desi. That’s how laughable it is.)

    The messageboards can be useful to request off-line record lookups from users in differently localities; that’s collaboration of a sort, but access to the databases is really what my Ancestry subscription is for.

    • Leslie M-B says:

      I’ve noticed this general lack of collaboration, too, John. Are there genealogical sites where there are more active message boards or wikis? I have come across many family histories that appear to have been written by genealogists–this one on the Lynn family, for example, but they make any collaboration invisible because they’re relatively polished narratives (at least when compared to family trees).

      I’ve found myself using my Ancestry subscription less to look up information on my own family, and more to look up information on other historical figures. I do a lot of research into women scientists, and the passenger lists can be useful in helping me determine when and where some of them travelled as they collected specimens. I’m also using Ancestry to try to piece together the relationships sketched out in a large, elaborate Victorian-era hair wreath I found in storage at the local historical society.

      I do wonder about where people are getting their training in finding and reading primary sources now that we’re in a digital age. I know there are many books and magazine articles on genealogical research, but how do people learn such skills online? My undergraduate history students often struggle with primary sources because they don’t understand the larger context in which the sources were created. How do genealogists, and particularly amateur ones, learn to balance the microhistory of the family tree with the bigger picture–the cultural and political contexts in which their ancestors lived?

      • It’s a good question where the active message boards are. I am a member of several surname messages boards at Ancestry, and they were active at one time, but they seem to have dwindled in use.

        For collaborative genealogy the first website that comes to my mind is Wikitree (wikitree.com).

        Regarding online learning, Ancestry does have some good articles in their Learning Center: http://www.ancestry.com/cs/HelpAndAdviceUS
        FamilySearch has a good Learning section too: https://familysearch.org/learn
        I’m unsure how many amateur genealogists actually read the articles.
        Personally, I’ve learned the most through reading lots of genealogy blogs.

  5. I have used both Wikipedia and Ancestry.com. I have only lightly done any editing on Wikipedia and have not experienced anything relating to gender dynamics. Instead, I find that the divide is based more on experienced vs inexperienced users. If you want to make edits, you better know what you’re doing. If you don’t, expect to get your edit re-editied or removed entirely. I’ve seen people make extremely derogatory comments regarding inexperienced users that is anything but welcoming.

    As far as Ancestry.com is concerned, I’m on the site weekly. It’s completely different from Wikipedia, in that collaboration is not mandatory and there’s no one to edit your contributions. There are a number of ways to collaborate on Ancestry, but the main one is family trees. Few people collaborate on trees; everyone pretty much creates their own. There are features that allow you to copy content from someone’s tree to your own. This is a feature that Ancestry pushes and a professional genealogist would tell you to avoid. How do you know the information is correct? You look at their sources.

    This is where Ancestry and Wikipedia are similar. If you are on Wikipedia, perhaps looking for information for a school paper, your teacher will not accept “Wikipedia” as a source. Instead, you would look at the sources used to cite the information on the page and go from there. It’s the same for a tree on Ancestry. You don’t want to trust the tree, you want to look at the sources. Hopefully the creator of the tree has cited, or perhaps linked to Ancestry.com records, of original documents such as census, birth/death, marriage, estate records, etc.

    This goes to your question of establishing expertise. There are a ton of inexperienced users on both sites. At Wikipedia they are shut down and corrected. At Ancestry.com they roam free and multiply. Wikipedia gets a lot of respect. Ancestry.com’s family trees are generally derided among more experienced genealogist.

    Going back to gender: in my experience women far outnumber men in genealogy research. I have not seen/experienced anything negative due to this.

    • Leslie M-B says:

      Thanks, Valerie. Yes, I’ve seen this on Wikipedia, too, and it’s why I’m loath to edit any pages there. On the one hand, I find tremendous value in Wikipedia’s content and the techno-utopian possibilities for collaboration. On the other hand, the “talk” pages and individual articles’ edit histories provide many a cautionary tale. As a working historian without any history degrees–I like to think my training is history-adjacent :) — I already feel a good deal of impostor syndrome most days, and I don’t need a random stranger on the Internet reinforcing that feeling for me.

      One key difference between Wikipedia and Ancestry, I think, is that the former community prefers secondary sources, while the latter emphasizes primary sources. The Messer-Kruse Haymarket affair is one example of where academic research and encyclopedia writing collide. I can’t help but think the researchers on Ancestry would be interested in Messer-Kruse’s analysis of primary sources, while the Wikipedians clearly felt such analysis was out of place on Wikipedia.

      At the same time, I’m also not seeing any narratives emerge on Ancestry.com. Aside from their personal blogs and in privately published print books, are there places genealogists publish narratives based on their research into databases like those offered by Ancestry?

      • Genealogy is tricky, in that there are a lot of different levels of experience and expectation. Depending on what sort of experience you have and the experience of the genealogists you have been exposed to, you would have a different understandings of what genealogy is. For example, most people see Genealogy and Family History as the same thing. Others see these as two different things. Generically speaking, they would say that a Genealogist wants primary sources, source citation and is perhaps a follower of Elizabeth Shown Mills. On the other hand a Family Historian is interested in what Grandma remembers about the depression, etc, and what she says is just as/more important than what a census might say. In my experience, most see it all as the same, but there are some people who look down on researchers that they see as “family historians.”

        As far as narrative, Ancestry is not really set up for that. Instead, you read between the lines of a family tree and the attached records and piece the narrative together. There is the ability to add “stories” to your tree, but those, if used, are often short and in relationship to an event on the timelines. I think blogging is the main outlet for narratives. You have the freedom to write what you want, when you want it, and make it available to anyone (Ancestry is a paid service after all). Otherwise, many desktop genealogy software programs offer the ability to create books and reports. You could turn also turn these into a website if you wanted. Another avenue would be genealogical societies. They often solicit narratives or research stories for their newsletters.

        There’s also a website called WikiTree.com. This site is all about creating one big tree. They don’t want any duplicates and require you to agree to cite sources. You have to collaborate with others who share your ancestors. I use the site, but have not come across any “cousins” to work with. This site would lean more toward allowing you to create a narrative.

  6. Mr. Geeky would very much be interested in this topic. He built his own genealogy program, and hates ancestry.com because it’s not open. He’s also contributed to Wikipedia.

  7. Been working with Ancestry.com for a while and never knew genealogy was the second most heavily searched topic online, very cool. My fear is that the big $$ causing competition might ultimately prevent us from accessing the aggregate data we truly want.

  8. A late entry but I thought I’d put my two cents in – I took advantage of Ancestry’s two week trial period after I retired and spent many hours delving into my family’s history, coordinating it and the Family Tree Maker software which can sync up with Ancesstry. But the more deeply I got into it the more I realized how many mistakes there are on Ancestry.com and how the domino effect works on that site. At one point I thought that I was related to Abraham Lincoln but upon closer examination of one of my ancestors back in the 1600s in New Amsterdam I realized that one of the children listed for him was actually born in Delaware. Upon a search on Google I found the real parents of this child and traced his descendants to Abraham Lincoln. Now my ancestor was known to have a family tree of some 700,000 people. So you can imagine how many people on Ancestry think they are related to Abraham Lincoln when they are not simply because they have followed that little green leaf (someone else’s family tree – not a true source). I did not continue with Ancestry.com but instead input my 600+ entries into Wikitree and am very happy with the entire set up. I occasionally get emails from them where someone is proposing a merger of one of their entries with one of mine and you always get the chance to compare each line item and the option of agreeing or not agreeing.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I’ve spent much of the past several days working on my piece on Ancestry.com and Wikipedia.org.  (Many thanks to those of you who commented on my last post.) […]

  2. […] If Wikipedia’s community of editors works together to craft consensual narratives, Ancestry offers no narratives at all—only fragments that researchers must piece together and interpret. Bits of story and history might be implied by the connections within a family tree, but the trees are by and large authored by individuals. This, as I noted earlier, is a source of frustration for serious genealogists.  As Kerry Scott explained to me, […]

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