Predictive text often has us using odd words, conveying a message we never intended. Technology doesn’t always know what we’re thinking! To an extent there is a similarity with the automated ‘helpful’ suggestions we get from the websites of data-providing companies. While they may prove accidentally relevant, or even helpful, by and large they are misleading distractions.
Those I have received fall into two categories: records I already have (but haven’t displayed on an online family tree) and records of people with the same names as my ancestors (but from an entirely different part of Ireland). Luckily I can tell the difference between my ancestors and these strangers. But people starting out in family history often think that the computer somehow mysteriously knows best, and ‘adopt’ the strangers into their online family trees. The fact that the strangers may not fit geographically, socially, religiously or chronologically with their known ancestors doesn’t immediately occur to them. This is one of the root causes of ‘genealogical virus’.
That’s not a widely used expression. ‘Genealogical virus’ is a phrase I coined to describe what I feel is a damaging trend and I first used it in print last year in my book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional.
The cynic in me knows that the ‘helpful’ suggestions are designed to keep me engaging with the site, in case I get bored and wander off to a more ‘helpful’ data-provider. But there are more useful ways that they might engage their customers. If they would concentrate more on explaining the genealogical and historical context of databases, and less on technology, they might well provide information that is helpful to their customers, while retaining their interest.
As things stand, the explanation of sources that such sites provide is meagre to non-existent, and in some cases downright inaccurate. It is apparent that the decision making behind these sites is in the hands of accountants and technology experts rather than genealogists. Hard-nosed business decisions are understandable, but they can go hand in hand with real attempts at helping customers find their way around the records. Educating the customer is not necessarily a bad business decision.
The nature of genealogical research has changed significantly since it has shifted from the record repository to the computer. It is noticeable that a large proportion of novices are less au fait with the records and research methods. They are more inclined to accept hints at face value and ‘adopt’ strangers into their family trees, thereby spreading genealogical virus. This has an impact on my work. How is that?
When I’m approached by a potential client looking to expand on their information on a particular line of ancestry I have to evaluate their information and determine whether worthwhile research is possible. This was a fairly straightforward process a decade or more ago. More often than not they had correct information. Now I no longer can assume that this is the case: evaluation has become more time consuming. I’m sure fellow professional genealogists everywhere are having the same difficulties as I am. Now, more than ever in the past, it would be remiss of a professional simply to take a client’s information and start building on it.
Very often an enquirer will refer me to their online family tree for information. Do any professional genealogists actually base their evaluation on such shaky foundations? I don’t. An online family tree, no matter how many ‘sources’ it may have attached to it, can be riddled with genealogical virus. To evaluate its contents it needs to be picked apart very carefully. Having any number of sources attached does not indicate the research process employed, or ensure that the alleged ancestors are who the enquirer thinks they are.
I would be quite happy to be commissioned to play devil’s advocate on the contents of an online family tree. But it’s another thing to conduct a free evaluation in order to determine whether further worthwhile research might be possible.
Because I don’t know an enquirer’s level of experience in family history I have to treat all as beginners and ‘interrogate’ them as to their initial family information, their research approach and the sources that have led them to the ancestors they wish me to work on. This doesn’t always go down very well with enquirers. But, unfortunately, it has to be done because of the relationship between genealogical virus and computer-generated helpfulness!
I agree 100 %. I just recently got the results of my Mat 93 yr Aunt on AncestryDNA – i have spent 4 days shifting through it all, printing , checking and double checking. As an Amateur as in not paid Professional – I can if i want to – spend as much time as i please on working on my Aunts DNA results and her now new to me many cousins and at a much higher level of Cms than i have. It is nothing short of the greatest gift any relative has given me, other then direct DNA ! However, with that being said, I am looking towards hundreds of hours of research and checking to make sure that the ‘trees’ are correct and the pedigrees can be proven ! Not to mention the emails and the queries to try and figure out the pedigrees of those ‘close’ cousins which hold the DNA that i need to research which may lead me or help me in my my quest. I am not being paid for this work, it is for my own personal gain , and i am well aware of the work and effort it will take to “Get it Right”. I am willing to do what it takes to break down those brick walls and find my Irish homelands in Ireland, with 16 great grandparents born in Canada with all 32 great grandparents born in Ireland – it is a lot of work – yet doable ! Both Tree Rot and Geni Virus is something i will need to look out for each and every day ! Thank yo for your informative post. SM ( I have no idea what i would charge to do what i am doing 6 hours a day !)
Hello Shirley, thank you for your interest in the post and for taking the time to respond. Unfortunately we’re all seeing more and more questionable information presented to the world on trees. My default position is to assume that the information beyond a generation or two from the person who places it online is inaccurate, and work from there. As you said, it takes huge amounts of time to investigate when you really have to.
Paul, I couldn’t agree more with you. I thought I must be the only one ‘waging war’ on these ‘hints’ and ‘genealogical information’ provided by potential clients. As you say, the client can get quite huffy when you question the basis of their information. I compiled a blog July 2018 titled https://mykerryancestors.com/kerry-ancestors-conflicting-info-fake-news/ for someone who had just ‘adopted’ Peig Sayers. (I have to exercise great patience in not appearing to rant!).
Hi Kay, yes I think it’s the less experienced researchers who don’t respond well to questioning of sources. the more people become familiar with research the more they realise the pitfalls they may fall into!
AWESOME post!!! While not a professional genealogist, I have always strongly believe in self-education and following the Genealogical Proof Standards. I have been at this for 20 years and I never entered in the endeavor of documenting my family history until AFTER I read a plethora of books on how to research one’s genealogy, etc.
You coined the phrase “genealogy virus” love it! And, a couple years ago, I coined “tree rot.”
I have saved your post as, it clearly addresses what I’ve seen over the past 5 or more years. My biggest complaint is the reticents of professional genealogists who monitor genealogy social media forums on Facebook and otherwise; they are afraid to educate. They see posts about ones genealogy going back to Odin, but rather than address this, they steer broadly around it for fear of losing a member of the community. It’s sad, frustrating and downright annoying. The very people who should be promoting good research practices and documentation are steering clear of doing so.
Thank you Tracy. And ‘tree rot’ is a good expression too! Unfortunately for me, I’m not one to keep my mouth shut on things genealogical.