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Genealogists Joining Social Networks — Is it a Trend Yet?

Posted On: June 30th, 2008 | Posted by: Dean


One of my takeaways from the Blogger Summit at the SCGS Jamboree last week was Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak‘s revelation that all of a sudden, more and more genealogy enthusiasts are flocking to Facebook. I had already heard from DearMyrtle about the growth of a nascent genealogy community in Second Life. Two data points obviously don’t make a trend, but it would appear that family historians are approaching a tipping point with regard to online social networking — and are beginning to add it to their arsenal of research techniques. But are they really? And if so, in what kind of numbers?

Smart money is clearly being invested in genealogy-oriented online communities. Geni is perhaps the best-known current example (and my personal favorite), with its emphasis on building your family tree online by collaborating with your living relatives. Not long after it was launched, well-respected venture capital firm Charles River Ventures invested in Geni at a $100M valuation. Paul Allen at FamilyLink (nee World Vital Records) has long evangelized for genealogists to embrace the power of social networking and has seemingly built much of his company’s strategy accordingly. And no less an authority than Dick Eastman has backed up his belief that “social networking sites will be the ‘next big thing’ in online genealogy” by joining the advisory board of FamilyBuilder. But are these observations representative of mainstream genealogy enthusiasts’ behavior, or do they simply reflect the vision of early adopters?

In deciding on the feature set we wanted to incorporate in our upcoming beta release of Genlighten, we surveyed a group of 500 or so existing customers of ChicagoGenealogy.com, a genealogy lookup website focused on Cook County Illinois. Social networking was only mildly important to our 230 or so respondents:

our chigen customer survey results

Of course, this result might simply stem from a poorly-phrased survey question or the placement of social networking last in the list of possible responses.

Other more credible surveys mirror ours, however. In a December 2007 report entitled “Baby Boomers and Silver Surfers: Two Generations Online”, eMarketer found that only 18% of seniors age 50-60 were interested in online social networking. For those 60 and older, the number was even lower: 14%. Since these are the prime demographics for active involvement in genealogy, websites focusing on social networking for genealogists would appear to have an uphill climb to change existing behaviors and preferences. I believe that these companies will need patience, staying power, and a keen ear for customer insights if they are to ultimately be successful.

In the meantime, I have high hopes that sites like Geni, FamilyBuilder and their imitators can make headway introducing the Facebook generation to the joys of Family History. That in itself would be a tremendously praiseworthy accomplishment.

As for our strategy at Genlighten, we’re reluctant to jump on the social networking bandwagon just yet. If and when our customers indicate a strong desire for them, we may consider adding selected social networking features to the site. But for now, we’re focused on becoming a premier source for genealogical documents. If our users want to share the documents they get from us with others, we’ll try to make it easy for them, perhaps with something as simple as an “Export to Footnote” or “Add to your Geni tree” button.

Where do you stand with regard to Genealogy and Online Social Networks? Are you using Facebook, Second Life, Geni or FamilyBuilder in your research efforts? Have you managed to convince someone else to do so? Please leave a comment and let us know.

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