Archive for July, 2008

Five reasons not to “cut out the middle man”

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Phil Hatchard's The Middle Man from FlickrAt genealogy conferences and in some of the responses we’ve received to our recent e-mails to genealogical societies, potential providers have occasionally referred to Genlighten as a “middle man” in the lookup process. Though the connotations of this term can be somewhat negative, it’s a label we’re willing to live with. After all:

  1. We aim to make it easier for genealogical researchers to earn income by offering lookups.
  2. We plan to receive a commission on each lookup request we process.
  3. By creating an online lookup marketplace where genealogy researchers and lookup providers can find each other, we are indeed acting as a form of middle man (though we would probably prefer the term “third party intermediary”).

I’d like to use this post to clarify our intermediary role and explain the value we offer potential lookup providers.

Transaction Fees, but no Listing Fees or Subscriptions

We’ve decided to follow a “transaction fee” business model on our site, rather than a subscription model (such as Ancestry uses) or a listing fee model (which eBay uses). We chose that approach because it lowers the up-front risk to both providers and clients. A provider who offers lookups through us only pays to use our platform when a lookup transaction is successfully completed. If they don’t get any requests, they don’t pay us anything. Similarly, a potential customer pays us nothing unless they find a lookup offering they’re really interested in.

How It Works — A Numerical Example

Suppose the provider sets their price at $10 to retrieve a copy of a vital record from a local government archive. Our commission rate is 15% for independent providers (we discount it to 10% for societies). So when a customer orders a lookup and the provider successfully delivers the requested document, the provider would receive $8.50 and Genlighten would receive a $1.50 commission. [The customer would also pay a separate handling fee to cover the cost of payment processing.]

The Value Genlighten Offers

Why should providers pay us a commission, rather than keeping the entire $10 for themselves? Why shouldn’t they just “cut out the middle man”?

We think we offer a lot in return for the fees we receive. In particular, Genlighten aims to give our providers:

  • A simple tool for creating both lookup listings and customized data input forms, so the provider gets specific, well-defined requests and just the right info they need to fulfill those requests.
  • A secure online shopping cart that handles upfront payments via PayPal, credit cards and electronic checks.
  • A robust customer feedback and rating capability.
  • Targeted advertising on genealogy-relevant sites and searches so prospective clients can easily find providers’ lookup offerings.
  • Aggregated world-wide demand so providers will have enough requests to make the regular trip to the local archive profitable.

Are these benefits enough to justify our fees? We sure hope so. And we’d love to hear what you think, one way or the other.

['Middle Man' image from Phil Hatchard's photostream on www.Flickr.com.]

FamilySearch Family Tree

Monday, July 21st, 2008

A reader of this blog commented on my post comparing collaborative genealogy websites and reminded me that FamilySearch had been working hard on its own flash-based family tree navigation interface, similar to Geni.com’s. I’d completely forgotten about it when writing my review, and I was glad for the chance to catch up on the progress the folks at FamilySearch have made recently.

Basic Look and Feel

NFS Family Tree

Here’s a screen shot using the same example data I used in the earlier post. As you can see, there are several obvious similarities to Geni’s flash-enabled interface. The compass rose and magnify/minify slider are both there, for example. You can navigate throughout the tree by simply grabbing the tree image with the mouse and sliding it back and forth on the screen, which I really like. Not all of Geni’s bells and whistles are implemented, but the sense of easy and fun exploration has been reproduced well.

NFS’s Family Tree isn’t a shameless knock-off either. Reviewing the FSLabs blog archive, it appears to have been introduced in about December of 2007, about 12 months after Geni first came online. Right from the start, Family Tree was designed around the traditional left-to-right pedigree chart, rather than Geni’s bottom-to-top chronological flow. Though I can’t explain why (other than habit and experience) I think I prefer NFS’ approach, at least so far. The inclusion of the right-hand panel highlighting a particular member of the tree is also a distinctive feature in Family Tree, achieved at the sacrifice of smaller font sizes for the tree itself.

Search Capability

NFS Family Tree search results

Of course, the most distinctive and powerful advantage offered by NFS’ Family Tree lies in the modest -looking “Search” tab. Here you can access the LDS Church’s massive database of genealogical data and potentially tie in new individuals or ancestral lines. Of course, this information will only be truly valuable if it’s well-sourced and documented. As I mentioned in my previous post, it remains to be seen how diligent NFS users will be in entering research notes and source citations. Here’s hoping that many are able to catch that vision.

Summary

The still-under-development Family Tree capability greatly enhances my opinion of NFS as a fun, friendly site to use for managing my genealogy data online. Thanks to Gary for commenting on my earlier post and pointing me in this direction. I assume Gary is the same one who posts regularly on the FamilySearch Labs blog.

I will be following NFS’ efforts closely in the coming months and I plan to report on my own progress using the site in future posts. If there’s anything you’d particularly like me to try out, just let me know in the comments.

Three great questions about Genlighten

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

As I mentioned in the previous post, we’ve sent e-mail to about 760 local genealogical societies over the past week, inviting them to partner with Genlighten and to encourage their volunteers to offer lookups through our site.

One of these societies sent me a reply yesterday that went something like this:

“Our society met today to talk about your proposal. We have a few questions:

1. How much do you suggest we charge? [for lookups they would offer on our site]

2. Is there a contract you expect us to sign, and if so, what’s in it?

3. If we try offering lookups through you for a while and decide we don’t want to anymore, how easy is it for us to stop?”

I was thrilled to get this message. First off, it’s hugely gratifying that someone in our target audience has taken the time to seriously consider what we have to offer. Second, the questions they’ve asked tell me they’re giving real thought to what sort of business relationship they want to have with us. In other words, they’ve readily grasped our business concept and they’ve moved on from there to ponder the risks and contingencies of adoption.

Here’s how I answered them.

Suggested Fees

We don’t really have a proposed fee schedule. Our goal is to let providers set the fees that make sense for them (inclusive of all expenses) and let the market take care of things from there. However, as a rule of thumb, we’d like to see most individual document searches come in between $10 and $20. If it’s still worth it to you to do them for less, all the better, but many potential providers have made us aware of the growing costs of copies, gas, parking and just about everything else.

Is there a contract that you want us to sign?

Just the terms of service for the site. Our attorney helped us draft these, and they will likely undergo some changes as more people sign up and various issues arise. Let us know if you have any concerns about any of the things you read there… at this early stage, we would definitely try to respond to any feedback you have regarding our terms.

One thing our terms of use address is the concern that providers might register with the site, attract customers, then encourage those customers to go directly to them and bypass our site. Ultimately we can’t really prevent that, but the terms basically ask that providers not solicit our customers to go elsewhere for lookups. Hopefully that’s not overly constraining for you.

If things don’t work out, how do we discontinue our relationship?

Your society members can simply delete their lookup offerings from the site at any time. We’ll eventually include a “remove my membership” option on the profile page so they can remove their personal info as well.

On a related note, if your members want to offer lookups but need to go “on vacation” for a while occasionally, they can simply change the status of their lookup offering from “active” to “on vacation”. All the info will remain saved, but the lookup offerings won’t appear in users’ search results.

To me, these kinds of interactions with our potential partners are tremendously helpful. One of the most frequent pieces of advice I’ve heard from more experienced entrepreneurs is how important it is to be teachable and willing to adapt and iterate the strategy of a new business in response to customer (and partner) feedback. That’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to being able to do at Genlighten. It looks like the fun is just beginning!

Reaching out to genealogical & historical societies — early results

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

It’s been a heads-down week here at Genlighten.com, with pretty much every spare moment devoted to trying to recruit more genealogy researchers to our lookup provider network. Beginning last Saturday night, we began composing and sending out individual e-mails to around 760 genealogical societies in the US and Canada. Our basic pitch was simple. It boiled down to:

“We’re building an e-commerce platform dedicated to making it simple to offer fee-based genealogy lookups. If your volunteers sign up to provide lookups through our site on behalf of your society, we’ll return 90% of the fees they earn to you. In return for our 10% commission, we’ll handle payment processing, tracking of incoming lookups, communication between client and provider, etc..”

The last of the e-mails went out last night. Here are some stats we’ve gathered thus far:

  • Number of messages sent out: 759
  • E-mail addresses that bounced: 68
  • Societies that weren’t interested: 5
  • Societies considering our site: 15

Those numbers definitely tell a story, though I’m not sure yet exactly what it is. Here are some preliminary reactions:

  • The bounced addresses all came from sites that I’ve visited within the last several months. Admittedly, some said they hadn’t been updated since 2001(!) so I anticipated plenty of undelivered messages. But it’s still kind of jarring to think that almost 10% of county genealogical sites that currently exist aren’t being actively maintained.
  • Several of the societies that wrote back to say they weren’t interested explained, in polite terms, that they were philosophically opposed to charging for lookups as a source of revenue. That’s a sentiment I both understand and respect. Only one message thus far had any hint of “we’re morally above any such thing.”
  • Many of the interested respondents indicated that they’d need to consult their society’s board of directors before proceeding. That certainly makes sense. But it hadn’t dawned on me that it might be a while before they would next meet. So perhaps some of those “no response” societies will meet and get back to me over the next month or so.

All in all, I’m cautiously optimistic about these results.  Now that we’ve made an initial effort to inform genealogical societies about our online lookup marketplace, we plan to expand our recruiting efforts to encompass an even broader potential audience.  This coming week, we’ll be reaching out to APG members and other fee-based genealogy researchers who we’ve learned about through exhaustive web searches.  Wish us luck!

Comparing three collaborative genealogy websites

Monday, July 14th, 2008

A poster on the APG message board last week mentioned that a client was looking for a web-based collaborative genealogy service and asked for recommendations. Requirements included the ability to

  • store contact info for living relatives
  • produce print-outs displaying relationships, and
  • let collaborators edit stored info.

One respondent suggested Darin Lythgoe’s The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding (TNG). I recommended Geni. Several others discussed the merits of WeRelate. It occurred to me today that neither the LDS Church’s New FamilySearch nor Ancestry’s Family Tree had come up at all in the discussion, though both seemed relevant to the requirements listed in the original post.

I can’t claim to be an expert user of any of these web-based services. I’ve explored Geni in some detail and I like what I’ve seen so far. I’ve also begun transferring my own genealogy data from PAF to New FamilySearch. But because I’m trying to be more diligent than I have been in the past in documenting each individual I enter, that process is proceeding quite slowly.

I’ve decided not to let my lack of expertise prevent me from blogging on the subject. I’m interested in all of these services, and I’ll use this post as an excuse to explore them a bit further.

Geni

First, Geni.com. Geni bills itself as a free family tree online. The site has received a lot of praise (well-deserved, I believe) for its simple and intuitive user interface. The initial screen for first-time users presents a minimalist pedigree chart and asks you to enter your own name and e-mail address. You’re then guided to enter your parents (and their e-mail addresses). The emphasis here is not so much on dates and places but on e-mail connections to living relatives. The idea is to let relatives know via e-mail that you’re working on your family tree. They can jump in and contribute additional details and connections themselves.

This is the core of the service, but Geni offers a rich variety of additional features. You can share family photos and add them to detailed profile pages for each person in your tree. Gedcom files can be imported if you’ve already collected a lot of info. Geni will map the location of each of your relatives and ancestors, and create a timeline of events in their lives. You can send virtual gifts, reminders and birthday greetings to living members of your tree. Though the interface has become a bit more cluttered as new features have been added, the site remains pleasant and satisfying to use. What’s more, the site is completely free and has no annoying ads. (The business model may evolve over time.)

The printing capability is basic but produces great-looking results. I’ve heard Geni plans to eventually offer poster-size or frameable print-outs as a possible revenue source. I suspect they’ll do an excellent job when they get that going.

Experienced genealogists won’t find the research and documentation tools at Geni.com that they expect and need, though those capabilities may be offered later.

Geni shines as a particularly fun and simple way for beginners to get started with building their family trees. The site is optimized to make genealogy a tool for social connections among family members. It also offers helpful support forums and a vibrant user community.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on Geni.com

Ancestry Family Tree

Ancestry has long allowed users to enter their family tree data on their site without the need to pay for a subscription. In its current incarnation, the tree builder utility is set up to prompt users with ‘shaking leaves’ if Ancestry thinks it has info relevant to a particular ancestor. This strikes me as a cute feature that could potentially grow annoying over time, particularly if I wasn’t looking to become a subscriber anytime soon. Ancestry also offers the ability to share information you enter and discover with others, who can sign up to view the site after an e-mail invitation from you. The interface lacks some of the Flash-based bells and whistles that Geni offers, but is nonetheless quite usable.

Where Ancestry’s service particularly shines is in the multi-media elements you can add to enhance your family tree. Photo uploading is supported, as with Geni, but the site also offers a unique audio storytelling service that I find particularly appealing. Basically, you can preserve stories from your living relatives (by interviewing them, even via telephone) or from deceased relatives, by recording them online. I haven’t yet tried it, but this strikes me as a compelling and worthwhile feature. I might be more likely to actually make audio recordings then I would videos (which Ancestry also supports.)

For more serious researchers, the site allows you to enter research notes. But it doesn’t offer a convenient way to organize or annotate source documents in digitized form, which I would find extremely useful.

All-in-all, Ancestry’s offering is full-featured, well-thought out, and provides a convenient (if slightly annoying) gateway to their fee-based research and publishing offerings. For those interested, a much more thorough review than mine was published by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal back in 2006.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on Ancestry.com

New FamilySearch (NFS)

It’s probably a little early to review this site, since it’s still very much under development and is currently only available to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). It will eventually be made available to the public however, and I’m beginning to use it more and more, so it makes at least some sense for me to consider it here.

NFS’s interface at this point feels substantially heavier and more cluttered than that offered by either Geni or Ancestry. It clearly aims to make a large amount of data and navigation options available on a single page. Whereas with Geni the user can navigate their entire tree almost effortlessly by simply dragging their mouse, NFS requires extensive clicks and page loads to accomplish the same task. Of course, the comparison is somewhat unfair, since NFS’ mandate is considerably more extensive than simply allowing collaborative online family tree management, and its feature set reflects that mandate.

NFS’s ambitious aims include:

  • permitting different users to submit conflicting data on the same unique individual
  • tapping into the LDS Church’s extensive online databases of genealogical information to allow duplicate entries for the same individual to be combined (and disputed).

As a consequence of this approach, NFS does not create a private “online shoebox” into which users can deposit their personal genealogy data, isolated from that of all other users. Instead, NFS provides a single set of scaffolding intended to potentially encompass the family tree of every individual who has lived. Users affix their data to that scaffolding, then work to address the conflicts that inevitably arise in the process. In this respect, NFS resembles Wikipedia more than it does a traditional genealogy program. It’s entirely possible for you to visit your tree one day, enter data on a new individual you’ve identified, and go back the next day to find that someone you don’t know has combined your entry with a similar but nonetheless different one. Other users can’t edit your submissions, but they can add their own to go right alongside yours. This takes some getting used to.

At this point, NFS does not allow for any multimedia content to be uploaded, though that capability is planned for the future. Simple mapping and timeline displays are offered, though they’re not particularly sophisticated. Extensive source documentation and research notes are supported, however. This feature should gradually become more and more valuable as a tool in resolving disputes that arise over key genealogical details between contributors.

From what I’ve seen so far, NFS’s print capability is fairly rudimentary, enabling only basic reports and charts with few options for customization. This likely reflects FamilySearch’s strategy of relying on third-party software developers (e.g. Ohana Software and Generation Maps) to enhance and build on NFS’ functionality through their compatible offerings.

Unlike Geni, which brings interactions with living relatives front and center, NFS treats living individuals primarily as a bridge to one’s ancestors. Connections with other researchers pursuing your same lines can in theory be made via e-mail, but so far most of the contributors I’ve come across are not accessible in this manner.

NFS offers extensive online tutorials and a great deal of context-sensitive on-screen help. Phone support is also available, though it’s definitely a work in progress.

In summary, NFS aspires to become much more than either Geni, Ancestry, or their competitors. As a result, it lacks their nimble, agile feel, and the resulting user experience seems a little more like work than fun. However, because it will eventually become a key access portal for the LDS Church’s extensive (some would say indispensable) genealogical holdings, it is likely to evolve a great deal over the coming years and will likely improve substantially with time.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on NFS

Summary

Geni — Strengths

  • Appealing, intuitive, flash-based interface — simple and fun to use
  • Strong social-networking capabilities for keeping in touch with living relatives
  • Supports photo uploading (video coming soon)
  • Dynamic and helpful user forum
  • Completely free and no ads

Geni — Weaknesses

  • Lacks support for research notes, documentation, or source tracking
  • Limited printing options (though this is likely to improve soon)
  • No convenient access to research databases, images, or other resources

Ancestry Family Tree — Strengths

  • Straightforward, familiar interface
  • Excellent multimedia capabilities (images, audio, video)
  • Support for basic research notes
  • Convenient (though expensive) access to extensive research resources and publishing options

Ancestry Family Tree — Weaknesses

  • No easy way to organize or annotate research results or documentation
  • Though it’s “free” users are constantly offered not-so-free options

New FamilySearch — Strengths

  • Collaboration is at the core of the site, not just an add-on feature
  • Free integrated access to extensive FamilySearch databases and other resources
  • Allows for detailed research notes and source information
  • Extensive context-sensitive online help and phone support

New FamilySearch — Weaknesses

  • Dense, static feel to pages; link-heavy navigation
  • Limited printing capability (though 3rd-party software will provide enhancements)
  • No multimedia support (this is planned for a later iteration)
  • Collaborative aspects feel more adversarial than supportive; difficult to contact other contributors

This has been a fairly superficial overview based on my admittedly limited experience with these services. Feel free to let me know in the comments what I’ve overlooked or misunderstood. Also, please let me know of your experiences with other comparable sites. Thanks!

Why do we pursue genealogy and what do we like about it?

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Three days without a post — bad sign from a novice blogger. One of the things that impressed me about the participants in the recent Genealogy Blogger Summit was the consistency and frequency with which they post. I’m determined to follow their example, but I also want to get at least five hours of sleep! Sleep has won out the past few days. But enough blogging about blogging.

Revisiting our Customer Surveys

I thought it might be interesting to try to mine more insights from the surveys we administered to ChicagoGenealogy.com customers (and a few potential Genlighten users) earlier this year. To summarize the basic parameters: we surveyed 469 genealogy enthusiasts who had either ordered a document lookup from ChicagoGenealogy.com or met me at a genealogy conference during the last half of 2007 and early 2008. Roughly 230 completed the survey. 70% of them were female; 70% were also 50 years old or more.

One of the things surveys like this are supposed to do is help marketers define “personas” that reflect their customers’ preferences and behaviors, in hopes that the personas serve as a kind of shorthand for “who are our customers and what to they want?”. In theory, a good persona helps answer questions like “how many cupholders should we put in this minivan?” or perhaps more relevant to us at Genlighten, “what kind of navigation elements should our homepage have?”

We asked several questions in our survey that were aimed at developing personas from our potential customer base. The first asked basically “Why do you pursue genealogy research?” We offered six possible answers; respondents could also write in their own “other” response. The results are shown below:

survey question about primary motivations

“To feel a sense of connection with my deceased ancestors” was the number one choice, followed closely by “it’s a genuinely fun use of my time and skills”. No big surprises there for most of us, I suspect — those would probably have been my main choices too. Richer insights emerged in the “Other” responses, however. Two respondents thought genealogy helped them “to get a better sense of ‘who I am’”. And several others hoped their research would “leave a family legacy”.

Our next question tried to determine which components of the family history process respondents enjoyed most. It was basically a four-way tie among “pushing back further generations”, “finding source documents”, “sharing them with others”, and the narrow favorite “solving genealogical puzzles”. The average level of enjoyment for these activities fell between “Greatly Enjoy” and “Tremendously Enjoy”.

level of enjoyment survey responses

Given that we’re building a website that helps researchers get documents from distant archives without the need to travel there themselves, it was of course gratifying that survey respondents found traveling long distances the least enjoyable of the activities we listed. Whew!

Lessons Learned

Since the questions we asked (and the possible responses we offered) strongly reflected our own personal biases, the survey results didn’t yield as many startling new insights as we might have hoped. More open-ended short-essay-type questions might have corrected that, but the response rates to those kinds of questions would probably have been much lower.

The beginnings of some useful persona definitions did emerge. I’ll postpone a detailed description of them for a later post, but here are some key points we took away about Genlighten’s likely target audience:

  • They want genealogy to be a fun experience that builds lasting bridges to their ancestors
  • They see genealogical documents as key pieces of the puzzles they need to solve if they are to successfully reach back additional generations in their family history
  • Once they’ve found those documents and solved those puzzles, they’re eager to share what they find with others

These ideas are constantly in our minds here at Genlighten, and we’re determined to let them shape and refine the user experience we’re working hard to create.

Cook County Vital Records Online — Another Viewpoint

Monday, July 7th, 2008

There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the release of Cook County Illinois vital records online last week. Leland Meitzler tried the site and initially found the images to be of poor quality, but quickly discovered that when downloaded and brought into Photoshop they were quite clear. A firestorm of comments have appeared on Dick Eastman‘s blog, most complaining about the index, the cost, the site functionality, or all three (and that’s not to mention the usual conspiracy theories.) I thought I’d offer a somewhat different perspective.

For the last four years or so, my wife has been providing lookups of Cook County vital records from the FHL microfilm copies available at our local Family History Center. The FHL microfilmed records don’t cover the full range of years offered by the new Cook County site. But they are of similar image quality. Here’s a side-by-side (or top and bottom) comparison of the same death certificate from two sources. The first image is the one downloaded by Leland (which I screengrabbed from his blog) and the second one is an image that my wife scanned from the corresponding FHL microfilm.

Image Leland Meitzler downloaded

Same certificate scanned from FHL film

Superficially, as you’d expect, the images are quite similar. Both contain the same information. Both are quite legible. But there are some subtle differences. The FHL image has a smudge in the lower left (present on the film). More interesting, however, is the additional handwritten “9/a” in the upper right-hand corner of the FHL version. Does this imply that there were multiple sets of paper records, and that different versions were microfilmed by the two projects? Or is there some alternate explanation? Please feel free to speculate in the comments. [I have no idea myself.]

As for alternative sources to check if you can’t find the record you want at the Cook County vital records site, I’ll suggest four. [There are several others, as have been pointed out in the comments to Dick's post and elsewhere.]

  1. Check the indexes at the Illinois Secretary of State’s office and proceed to order the appropriate Chicago or Cook County films from the FHL. (This is not always a straightforward process — Chicago and Cook County records are on separate sets of films.)
  2. Visit either Molly Kennedy’s site or www.chicagogenealogy.com and follow the instructions given at these respective sites. [Note: if you use chicagogenealogy.com, I will benefit financially.]
  3. For 1916-1947 Cook County death certificates, you can try the Illinois State Genealogical Society’s service.
  4. For marriage licenses up to 1900 and Cook County Death Certificates (outside the City of Chicago) 1878-1909, contact the Illinois Research Archives Depository (IRAD) at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU): 773-442-4506.

None of these options is free, though all will cost you less than the $15 charged by Cook County. What these options won’t do is give you the “instant gratification” that the new Cook County site can potentially deliver. For all the complaints I’ve read about their new service, I think it’s important to remember a few key points:

  • This is the first week the site has been up and running officially. No website is ever perfect right away. [Counter-examples welcome.] Please consider cutting the county some slack here!
  • As of a week ago, you would have had to wait 2-3 weeks for these records. You can now receive them immediately, at the same cost as before. That’s a big improvement if you’re in a hurry!
  • At a time when many government agencies have chosen to make access to vital records less convenient (or more costly, or both), Cook County has headed in a genealogy-friendly direction. To me that merits more kudos than complaints.

Blog Influence, Engagement and “‘Deceptive’” Statistics

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Charlie O’Donnell at Path101 responded to Fred Wilson‘s post earlier today on deceptive statistics by asking his readers to link, post, comment, Digg… whatever, all in an effort to measure the influence his blog really has, as well as the engagement of his readers. Though his perspective is that of a startup entrepreneur (rather than a genealogy enthusiast), the issues he raises seem highly relevant to Genealogy bloggers and their audiences.

I’ll offer an example. At the recent Summit at the SCGS Jamboree, Leland Meitzler brought up the power of RSS feeds for quickly retrieving the latest from our favorite blogs. Several panelists indicated they used RSS themselves, but few seemed to have a good feel for who their RSS subscribers were and just how engaged they really were. I forget who said it, but I recall the comment being made that it wasn’t feasible to serve ads to (and gain ad revenue from) RSS subscribers. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m pretty confident that the folks at Feedburner would beg to differ. My point is this: we could probably all stand to understand the significance of our readership stats a little better. [Randy Seaver's analyses of his site's stats stand out as an example of what we could be doing in this regard.]

Back to Charlie’s post — he asked a pointed question that I’d like to pass along to the readers of this blog:

“If the people reading aren’t doing anything, either passing your message on or responding, what’s the point of having readers?”

Personally, as a perennial ‘lurker’ on many blogs and message boards, I’m inclined to disagree. What do you think?

“I will have to make myself be good”

Friday, July 4th, 2008

I’ve enjoyed today’s Independence Day posts from several of the bloggers I subscribe to via RSS, whether a simple quoting of the Declaration or a video clip of a fictional call to arms from the “President” in the movie Independence Day. I have my own favorite literary reference to the meaning of the Fourth, and I’d like to share it with you, my readers (though I apologize in advance to those who may find it offensive). It’s from Little Town on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We read the whole “Little House” series to our kids when they were young, and the books continue to have a cherished spot in our family’s shared memories of that time.

The setting is De Smet, South Dakota around 1880. It’s the fourth of July in the tiny town, and a small impromptu celebration has been organized, including horse races and lemonade. A local political type rises to speak, and Laura and her family pay close attention. He begins to read The Declaration of Independence. We’re told:

“Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words.”

How many of us can say we know it by heart?

The reading of the declaration concludes, and Laura’s narration continues:

“No one cheered. It was more like a moment to say “Amen.” But no one quite knew what to do.

Then Pa began to sing. All at once everyone was singing:

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing…

Long may our land be bright
With Freedom’s holy light.
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King!

The crowd was scattering away by then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.

She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good…

Laura had no time to think any further. Carrier was wondering why she stood so still, and Pa was saying, “This way, girls! There’s the free lemonade!”

Hope you enjoyed Laura’s insights as much as I do. Happy Independence Day!

What to make of the Ancestry Insider’s move to FamilySearch?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

aisThe Ancestry Insider posted a somewhat cryptic note on his blog today indicating that he would be leaving Ancestry on July 11th and starting work at FamilySearch on July 28th. That could simply reflect an innocuous move forward along a pre-planned career path. But it’s natural to speculate otherwise. Did his sometimes critical musings on Ancestry’s strategy or the site’s functionality eventually drive a wedge between him and his co-workers/supervisors? Did FamilySearch officials get a sense of his insight and domain expertise from his blog, and recruit him away?

All else being equal, the best employees tend to move from companies whose level of innovation and excitement is fading towards those with momentum, “buzz”, or a more entrepreneurial culture. [Witness the many former Ancestry employees now making an impact at Footnote, for example.] Is that pattern at work here? If so, it says something eye-openingly positive about the working atmosphere at FamilySearch.

I for one am eager to learn more about the Insider’s rationale for the move and whether it says as much about the two companies involved as it does about the Insider himself.  Do tell!