23 January 2012

Share and Share Alike

I can tell you I troll a few Facebook communities and genealogy forums and I watch what people are saying. One thing that has come up quite often on Ancestry's Facebook page is whether or not to make a tree "public" or "private". And since I was trapped this weekend at a relative's house looking through all her old photos, and the repercussions that followed, I got to thinking.

First, the weekend's conversation (in short form):
Me: Aunty, I've been looking for birth records on Great Uncle RumRunner and I can't seem to find them. Do you have a copy or know more about him?
Aunt Kooky: Well he was adopted. But that still means he's family.
Me: Of course he is. Did he know he was adopted? Do we know his birth relatives? Just for history's sake, really. It's not about him not being family, but maybe his kids will one day want to know about it and adoptions are hard to trace.
Aunt Kooky: Oh, well, yes he knew. Uncle RumRunner was the son of Great Grandma's first marriage. Grandpa adopted him when he was three. But you can't put that on your tree. I know you have a public tree on Ancestry and he might see it and feel like he's singled out.
Me: Uh, okay. Well it's not exactly how the tree works. *Explains how I can set Great Grandpa as "preferred" parent and being a public tree just means that if his "real" father had more kids, we may connect with some half-siblings and cousins, "and isn't that exciting?"*
Aunt Kooky: Oh well that makes sense. Here's photos of his real father and Great Grandmother. You can share those on your tree now that I am understanding it a bit more.
Me: Oh make me copies of these family reunion photos please!!!!
Cousin Helpful: No problem, I have a scanner and I'll make you a file to take to your computer. Let's spend the next several hours noting who is in each and every shot.
Me: Well if we're on the computer, let's add them to my facebook for the family!
Cousin: Splendid idea!!!!
*Phone rings early next morning*
Me: *half joking* Who is this?
Aunt Overreactive: I don't like my information just floating in the ether of the internet! I know your Facebook is friends only, but once something is on the internet, it never comes off. Dateline told me so! Now get up and get rid of those pictures before they're cached or something! And say hi to your dad when you see him Sunday.
*Not wanting to get into the "If you're worried about privacy, why do you have a Facebook account, I go to the computer to comply with her request*
Me: Well, golly, did every one of her kids have to email me about removing their mother from my pictures???? And there's an email from Cousin Somewhat Related saying some of the older photos are copies he gave to my cousin and didn't want them shared online........crap on a cracker.

Now, this is very truncated from the whole three days I spent with family trying to whittle information and photos out of them, but it seemed to really bring home some points people were making on the forums. Once something is on the internet or in someone else's hands, how much control do you have over anything? I've seen many complaints by people who's information and photos have been attached erroneously to someone not even related to them in another tree. They bemoan the heartache of their family member being used so unjustly. Their request to have the error fixed goes unanswered. There are those who have private trees specifically to protect the privacy of their relatives and they share only upon request. And what happens? Much to their horror, someone adds their private information on a public tree!!!! "I asked them not to share it and they did anyway!" Again, their request to rectify the mistakes goes unheeded. The weird one is the people with public trees that want to make it so private trees can't save their information. Why? "Because if they aren't sharing, I don't want to share with them." Really?

A note on the types of trees:
When you use Ancestry.com as a place for your tree online, you have three options:

1. The public tree. All that you add will be searchable. People, stories, photos, news articles.... all of it is available and anyone can find it and attach it to their tree. I use public trees. I want to help others by making the information easier to find and hopefully connect with another relation that may have different pieces of our collective puzzle.

2. Private, searchable tree. This means that when someone searches for information about their relative, they'll see a connection to your tree, photos or stories, but won't see the actual information. They'll need to contact you to get it. This is for those people who for whatever reason don't want the stuff just floating around, but feel they should be willing to share with a legitimate relative.

3. Private, unsearchable. This means that it won't show up in searches and no one knows it's there unless you tell them it is. This is a good option for those worried about privacy or if they know their information may be filled with errors and they want to correct them before compounding the problem by sharing the information.

There are many reasons why someone would want to privatise their information. A belief in personal privacy is the biggest. Wanting to share information with legitimate family or serious researchers is another big one. People who have just started (or have little information to share) may not want a public tree until they've gotten used to the system. They don't want to add to the myriad of already incorrect trees. On the other hand, sometimes a well-seasoned researcher can make someone feel awfully low for being wrong. Newbies are sensitive, sometimes overly so, and they take it as a personal attack when someone else is trying to be helpful by reminding them to check their work. So they hide until they have the confidence to jump into "the big leagues". These are just a few of the more often cited reasons I've seen, there are more I'm sure. And not everyone who makes a private tree is unwilling to share..... they just want to be asked first.

When it comes to what you pick for yourself, it's just preference. Now, I'm going to say this and take it how you like, but- no matter how "private" you make your information, it is on the internet and stored in someone else's server. If you truly do not want something to get out of your control, DON'T PUT IT ON THE INTERNET. While Ancestry and many sites like it are very secure, you are accepting a level of risk by putting it out of your hands and into the web. I don't put anything out that I don't mind people finding and as such, I have had only one private tree. When I got a GEDCOM from an Uncle, I privatised it simply because I didn't know what he had. What he had was a load of errors. I've since added much of that tree to my public ones and I am slowly pulling it apart one person at a time. I have connected with a few private tree members and follow their wishes to keep their information off my tree. That stuff is saved on my computer or printed out. It makes my organisation a bit harder, but that's the agreement. More often than not, however, the private tree member has no problem with me adding it to my public tree if I cite where I got the record properly.

Now, when it comes to what other's choose to do with their tree, and this is important.....You have zero control.  I've found that most public member trees are ran by those with an altruistic approach to genealogy. They figure why make someone hunt it down if they've already done the legwork and can help. That's awful nice of them, and they usually understand that that means it'll not always be reciprocated. They may connect to someone who has less than they do, or is unwilling to share what they have. People may abuse their generosity and connect it to the wrong people on accident or purpose. Sometimes they express frustration, like private tree owners, that they message a member and get no response (or a rude one). But what can you do? Maybe the other person is no longer using Ancestry. The information doesn't get deleted, so it's out there forever. Maybe they don't want to connect to other people. Or maybe they aren't actively checking that branch or person and are engrossed in fact-finding elsewhere on their tree. It's on their "things to do", but just not "to do right now". Or maybe they are really that silly and believe that they have all the proof they need to make their case that their tree is right and your's is wrong. (Isn't everyone able to find their royal connections within the free 14 day trial?)

Whatever the case, trying to change them is like trying to scream at the wind. It'll do what it's going to do and all you get is high blood pressure and a sore throat. With that, I conclude by asking that you always try to see the other side's view and collaborate rather than contaminate. We are all at different levels of expertise and everyone needs a helping hand. Respect the wishes of your contributors and family on private matters, but also remember that privacy means different things to different people. I've learned my lesson on this one. I've asked permission from my relatives to make the information I'm given public. We also have an understanding that anything that should be kept "private" will be, as long as they tell me. I've taken the time this last weekend to explain to those concerned just what I am putting up there. I even invited a few of them to the tree and helped them set up their account to view it. And Cousin Somewhat Related gave me a happy email on Sunday with all the permissions I needed to have his photos.....for which I traded several family recipes and the promise to visit him soon.


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