Archive for the ‘Genealogy & Social Networking’ Category

Facebook’s Open Graph: How Could It Help Genealogists?

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

This week, Facebook introduced what it calls the “Open Graph” at its F8 conference for developers and entrepreneurs. While some leading lights in the tech community went nuts, labeling Open Graph “evil” or lamenting yet another web-based privacy apocalypse, most Facebook users, including many genealogists, either yawned or didn’t notice.

So Far, I’m A Supporter

Count me among those that are amazed at Facebook’s ambition and awed by its ability to implement it so effectively. Based on what I know so far, I’m with Martin Bryant of, who described the OpenGraph’s potential for good, not evil:

By providing a ‘Like’ button that developers can add to any website, for any content or subject, Facebook is becoming the central hub for its users tastes and preferences.

Imagine the potential. Amazon can recommend films for you to buy based on what you’ve been looking up on IMDB, Pandora in turn can play music you’ll like based on your friends’ Amazon purchases. Suddenly the web is connected in a far more cohesive way than has ever been possible before. Some of it will be used to promote products to you but there will be a lot of scope for developers to create amazing, new, social services that feed deep into your social graph.

cnn_facebook_social_plugin_screenshotHow’s It Work?

Here’s what I saw when I headed over to this evening: a module on the right-hand side of the homepage offering me recommendations from my Facebook friends for CNN articles. One of them is from Illya D’Addezio, well known in the genealogy community as the founder of Genealogy Today and Live Roots, among other valuable resources. Apparently, by installing one of Facebooks new “social plugins” on its pages, CNN now has gained access to my “social graph” of friends on Facebook.

Instead of being creeped out by this, I immediately grasped its utility. Now I can more easily access web content that has been curated by friends whose judgment I respect and value. Furthermore, I control that curation and filtering capability by selecting the friends I connect with on Facebook and by setting my own privacy controls.

recommend_button_smaller_snipTo recommend the “Life more colorful than black and white” article, Illya just had to click on the “Recommend” button displayed at the bottom of the online text, as shown here.

genealogy_today_like_button_snipA “Like Button” for the Entire Web

When I visited Illya’s Genealogy Today site tonight, I found another implementation of Open Graph at the bottom of the homepage: Facebook’s new “Like Button” for the entire web. Rather than going to Facebook and posting a link to Illya’s site into my Facebook News Feed, I can just click on the “Like” button on Genealogy Today and that “like” will show up in my feed automatically.

Of course, the “Become a Fan” button has been around for a while, but Facebook has changed the terminology (“Become a Fan” => “Like”) and made it easier for websites to implement it.

How Could This Help Genealogists?

Here’s a quick list of ways I’d like to see Facebook Open Graph utilized across the online genealogy community:

  • My favorite geneabloggers could put the “like” button on their homepages and the “recommend” button after each of their posts. [How about it, Randy?]
  • The Family History Library online catalog could have a “like” button next to film/book search results so users could share the records they’re researching with their fellow genealogists on Facebook.
  • Footnote (already a pioneer of social collaboration around historical documents) could implement Open Graph features to show users which of their friends were currently active on the site and to pull annotations they make back to their Facebook News Feeds.
  • Darrin Lythgoe’s TNG could allow its users to easily implement Open Graph on their sites, making it even easier for extended family to get involved in building out their family tree collaboratively via Facebook.

And What About Genlighten?

Here at Genlighten, we’re currently pondering our own response to Facebook’s new features and we hope to begin implementing them within the next several months. If you have suggestions, concerns or questions, please let us know in the comments to this post!

Do You Have Lookup Providers for… Yemen?

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

yemenAt genealogy conferences, when I explain to people how our site works and how our lookup providers can help them find source documents , I often get questions like “Do you have anyone in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania?” or “Do you have anyone for Poland?”

I love it when I can respond “We sure do… and they’re great!” By contrast, it’s always disappointing to have to say “Nope, not yet… but if you can tell me what you need there I’ll try to track someone down for you.” Tonight I had both kinds of experiences.

Ahh… Networking. Gotta love it.

I attended a “shindig” put on by the ExcelerateLabs startup accelerator program that will be taking place here in Chicago this summer. We’ll be submitting our application shortly, and I thought it made sense to go and do the networking thing — i.e., meet a bunch of the other applicants and introduce myself to the people running the program. I’m basically useless at this kind of thing, which is why I keep making myself do it.

Thanks to an introduction from Geoff Domoracki of midVentures, I got the chance to talk to Nick Rosa, one of the co-founders of Sandbox Industries. (Sandbox is a key investor in ExcelerateLabs.)

One Out of Two — Not Bad

Nick quickly grasped what Genlighten’s about, and he asked if we had providers in a) Sicily and b) Minsk, Belarus. I had to answer “no” for Sicily (darn, still no providers for Italy!) But I knew we had at least one provider — RusGenProject — who could do lookups for Minsk. So I was batting .500 there. Elsewhere at the same event, though, I had a similar conversation with a much different ending.

“So, What’s Your Startup About?”

At an event like this, the default opening to a conversation with a stranger is basically “So, what’s your startup about?” I met a young Chicago Booth MBA student who answered “We’re going to create a new hot drink category — something in between coffee and tea.” I was impressed… her idea sounded promising.

Then it was her turn to ask the same of me. When I gave some variation of my usual reply (“We help you find genealogy documents that connect you with your ancestors”), she responded “That’s not going to work for me.” I figured she was probably from the Mideast somewhere, and that turned out to be true: Yemen. “You’re right,” I replied, “I don’t have any lookup providers there yet.” I’m pretty sure I emphasized the yet.

“We Don’t Have Records”

“Uh, no, you don’t get it,” she continued pleasantly, “In Yemen, we don’t have records. My parents don’t even know when they were born.” I probed further: what happens at birth? Or when someone needs a passport? She explained that most births in Yemen take place at home, not in hospitals. And when someone needs a document for an official purpose, they basically have to bribe a government official to create a fictitious record. I was floored. My mind reeled at the prospect of trying to perform genealogy research in a place for which few if any records exist.

Looking on FamilySearch, I see that the FHL Catalog lists a few books related to Yemen research, but not many. I’ve obviously got lots to learn before I’m going to be able carry through on our brand promise “genealogy documented” for a lot of the world’s non-Western populations.

Genealogy Startup Idea: Preserve and Curate My Social Media for Future Generations

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

me-post-itLast week, Bud Caddell posted a cool personal and family history startup idea on his blog “What Consumes Me“. Here’s Bud’s proposal:

At every demarcation of time, we look back. We sift through our memories for those bookmarks… for those vibrant moments, and we blur the rest into our periphery.

Now with so much of our social interaction tied to digital means – why aren’t we collecting our actions for posterity in a more accessible form? Why can’t I look back ten years and see the sites I visited, friends I accepted, content I created, and content I shared? Why can’t I look back to see the seeds of a new friendship or the first movements within a new social networking site?

I think this is BRILLIANT and I wish I had thought of it first! Why does this excite me? I’ll try to explain.

Archiving Social Media Preserves Status AND Relationships

For one thing, I find that I use Twitter and Facebook very much as our ancestors used a line-a-day diary to record seemingly trivial things such as who they visited, what the weather was like, what they did at work or what they made for dinner. So preserving my tweets and status updates for posterity performs the same function passively — without any intervention on my part. But because social media is about connections rather than just about status, preserving my social media content will also preserve the story arc of my relationships. This is huge!

When we’re successful in genealogy research today, we can construct basic timelines for our ancestors: where they lived when, the property they bought, the dates of key life events like birth, marriage, death, military service, employment. With great effort, we can piece together basic family relationships… but we can seldom see those relationships unfold in quasi-real-time.

If we are sharing our daily lives, thoughts and interactions with family and friends through tweets, blog posts, and “likes” on Facebook, then archiving that content will make those details available to our descendants much as a dusty journal would. But a particularly smart web application could do much more than that.

Curating My Social Media Artifacts

By tapping the power of context-sensitive tagging, our hypothetical website could categorize our social media participation and make it easy for future generations to mine our content for trends, relationships, ideas, disappointments, and epiphanies. All the things that we worry about social media doing while we’re alive — letting marketers target ads towards us based on our preferences and interests for instance — could be turned into something much more benign and beneficial after we’re gone.

Some Basic Specifications

Here’s a quick list of what I’d want this hypothetical web application to do for me:

  • Monitor the social media content I consume, including blogs I subscribe to, posts I bookmark or “favorite”, friends’ newsfeed items that I “like”, comments I accept on my own blog, people I follow on Twitter, etc.
  • Track the content I create and contribute, such as blog posts I write, tweets I submit, stuff I post on others’ walls, websites I link to…
  • Continually sift through my email and keep a running log of who I communicate with most and what topics I discuss with them.
  • Build tags, categories, “trending topics” and other high-level organizational infrastructure to facilitate future search and analysis tasks undertaken by my descendants (and by me, for that matter!)
  • Do all of this in a transparent yet unobtrusive manner that doesn’t require me to change the way I’m currently using social media tools and doesn’t bog down my computer or my browser.

A Few Caveats

Of course, I can already anticipate numerous objections to this entire concept:

  • In the wrong hands, this kind of information could and would be exploited for nefarious purposes
  • As Facebook and Twitter evolve or are replaced by newer, shinier online toys, our web app will need to constantly reinvent itself to keep up with the latest social media innovations
  • Given the difficulties we experience now getting our family members interested in our shared genealogy, we might go to all the effort of archiving our social media interactions only to find that none of our posterity cares!

Smarter people than me will have to tackle these legitimate concerns. I’m convinced, however, that there is real value in the service Bud proposes.

How Much Value?

Bud suggests he’d be willing to pay $99/year for such an application. I’d probably want an entry-level price point closer to  $50/year, with the premium version going for $99. How about you?

Care to Give it a Try?

I suspect several companies are already working on something like this (here’s one I know of.) But I doubt that anyone has much of a head start yet. The idea strikes me as an ideal one to propose in an application to either Techstars or YCombinator. If any of you reading this decide to do it, I’d love to help!

Genealogical Serendipity: Does the Internet lead to more or less of it?

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

Damon Darlin writes in today’s NY Times: “the digital age is stamping out serendipity.” He laments that web utilities like Twitter, Facebook and iTunes, rather than spurring us to jump from one creative discovery to another, instead act like a form of “group-think. [In which] everything… comes filtered and vetted.”

Though he didn’t refer to it, Darlin’s article seems to echo a similar sentiment expressed by William McKeen several years back in a fun-to-read essay called “The endangered joy of serendipity,” McKeen posits:

“Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding… Looking for something and being surprised by what you find – even if it’s not what you set out looking for – is one of life’s great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.”

But back in 2006, Steven Johnson convincingly called baloney on McKeen (and in a tweet today, revisited his argument and targeted it to Darlin’s article as well.) His riposte:

Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.

I’m siding with Mr. Johnson on this one. I think the web offers all sorts of opportunities for serendipity –  that it in fact can amplify and accelerate serendipitous discovery.  Rather than merely offering the spines of books for your browsing pleasure, for example, Google Books makes those spines transparent, and lets books’ content become the jumping-off point for all sorts of adventures.

One of our family’s most surprising recent genealogical discoveries was partly the result of a casual Google Books search for Benjamin Swetland. Yes, we “found what we were looking for” (i.e., basic info on my ancestor) but we also found stuff we weren’t looking for too, such as a photo of a bed warmer, and Benjamin’s composition of a politically-themed song, which led my fiddle-enthusiast wife to go looking for the tune to which that song may have been sung… you get the idea.

What about you? Do you think the web offers genealogists more or less opportunities for serendipitous discovery? Or to recast Darlin’s, McKeen’s and Johnson’s points into genealogically-relevant questions:

  • Do genealogy-related social networks (e.g., Geni, GenealogyWise) offer better or worse chances to find random-but-helpful genealogy sources or connections to fellow researchers than, say, StumbleUpon?
  • Which process have you found more helpful to your genealogy research: browsing randomly through the stacks of your favorite genealogy library, or searching for random ancestors in Google Books?
  • What would an UrbanSpoon for genealogy research look like, would it be at all useful or fun, and would you buy it?

Teach Them Well…

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

“I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way”

– Linda Creed, The Greatest Love of All, made popular by Whitney Houston

OK, I know the eighties are over, but these lyrics echo well a sentiment I’ve often heard genealogists express: “We’ve got to find a way to get the younger generation interested in genealogy/family history! But how?”

I discussed this topic briefly with Randy Seaver during the Geneablogger Dinner at the recent SCGS Jamboree. Randy suggested that I consider the example of Elyse Doerflinger, seated at the table across from us. Twenty years young and currently a student at El Camino College, Elyse first became interested in genealogy about eight years ago:

“It all started with my aunt when I was 12 or 13.  She had discovered and … I thought the facts she told me were so interesting. … Then, during a trip to Tennessee to visit my grandpa for the summer, I discovered so much about my family that I became permanently hooked.  Everyone was telling me stories and giving me information.”                                  (via Larry Lehmer’s blog, Passing It On)

So there’s one answer to the “How do we get kids interested” question — we simply nurture loving and positive relationships with our nieces, nephews and grandchildren and introduce them in a natural way to the pleasures of family history research. Many will listen politely and go no further, but a few, like Elyse, will become “hooked.”

I sensed another possible answer as the geneabloggers left the dinner later that night. I overheard Elyse remark that her mother had early on labeled her lovingly as “an old soul”. That struck me as an important insight. The same qualities of curiosity, selflessness and “wisdom beyond her years” that led her to feel so comfortable around her aunt and her grandfather might well have helped her feel excited to learn the stories of her deceased ancestors as well. So perhaps as genealogists (or as geneabloggers, society volunteers, conference organizers… whatever) we can foster and encourage activities that will specifically attract “old souls” like Elyse — the better to nurture them and welcome them into a supportive community.


At the same time, I think it’s important that young people interested in genealogy have the chance to socialize with others their own age who share their interests. Elyse notes that she met someone at Jamboree who was actually younger than her — Michael Melendez — when they both worked together at the “Kids Family History Camp” held the first morning of the Jamboree. The Youth Genealogists Association, of which Michael is the webmaster, strikes me as a tremendously promising organization in this regard. I would love to get behind it with some kind of modest corporate sponsorship. (Of course, we’ll need some revenue first!)

So where to go with all this? How about a session at next year’s Jamboree specifically aimed at genealogy enthusiasts in their teens and twenties? Or perhaps a panel discussion aimed at genealogy societies in which young people make up the panel and explain what attracted them to the field? Or at the very least, as several have already suggested, how about having Elyse be on the panel at next year’s Geneablogger Summit!

Social Media Outposts — Personal vs. Corporate

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

As we get closer to letting a few potential early adopters preview Genlighten in private beta form, we’re taking a few tentative steps towards establishing some new social media outposts on the web in addition to this blog.

Up until now, I’ve shifted back and forth here between sharing personal anecdotes and talking about Genlighten milestones and strategy. I’ve done the same with my Twitter account, casually mixing the personal with the corporate. As we start to approach the point where Genlighten becomes an authentic business rather than merely an extremely expensive side-project, it feels like it’s time to give the corporate entity and the CEO their own respective social media channels.

Genlighten — the Corporate Web Presence

What’s that mean going forward? For one thing, Genlighten now has its own Twitter account: @genlighten. There aren’t many updates there yet, but eventually that’ll be the account for our users to follow if they want updates on new features, scheduled maintenance, unscheduled downtime, special events, etc..

The Genlighten blog will remain our formal corporate communication channel — the place to hear what we’re up to, how we view the genealogy marketplace, and what we think we can offer that’s unique. But in keeping with the typical guidelines for a corporate site, I’ll probably inject my personal life here a bit less than I’ve done in the past.

We also now have a Genlighten fan page on Facebook: try this link, or just type “” into Facebook’s search box.

A YouTube channel (for Genlighten how-to and help videos) and a account (for presentations) are still in the planning phases.

Me as CEO and Co-Founder

Because I want to continue to communicate in an informal way with the Genlighten community as well as with friends, family and colleagues, I’m now maintaining a personal blog at Since Genlighten, family history research, and the entrepreneurial worldview are such a huge part of my life at the moment, you can expect my nicelittleniche posts to focus on those three areas. But you’ll also get the occasional update on my family or the fun things we have going on when we’re not Genlightening.

In case you’re wondering, the title for the personal blog was inspired by a visitor to our booth at a Genealogy Conference last year, who, when she heard what we were up to, said without the slightest hint of condescension: “Oh… that’s a nice little niche.” [grin]

I’ll continue to share 140-characters-or-less views of my day-to-day experiences via my personal Twitter account, @hikari17.

And if you just can’t get enough of us…

…You can also follow my account on FriendFeed here. That way you’ll get both the personal and the corporate perspective in one place.


Will new Pro Accounts help Geni become profitable?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Geni logo

It doesn’t appear to be mentioned on the Geni blog yet, but I received a Twitter update this morning from Geni announcing the introduction of “Geni Pro Accounts”.  For $4.95 per month, Geni Pro users can get a higher level of functionality and support options from the site than is available to non-paying users.  At their forum, you can read the following:

“Today we released the initial Geni Pro Account offering which includes these features:

  • Forest GEDCOM Exports – Export your family tree and all connected trees into a single GEDCOM file (up to 100,000 total individual and family records) with one click.
  • Priority Support – Geni Pro users receive faster response from a dedicated Priority Support queue.
  • Geni Pro Badge – Identify yourself as a Geni Pro to family members and genealogists.

You can sign up for a Pro Account for $4.95 a month. There are a number of features which we plan to add to Pro Accounts in the following months. As a subscriber, you will receive instant access to additional Pro Accounts features as soon as we add them.”

I’m excited about this for several reasons:

  • This move signals Geni’s transition to a “Freemium” business model, which may allow them to sustain their service for the long-term (if enough users sign up).  37Signals, a highly-respected software development firm, is perhaps the most frequently-cited successful practioner of this model.
  • To justify the “Pro” label, Geni is likely to roll out features such as support for source documentation, which would make the site much more attractive to me as “the place” for my genealogical data.
  • The Geni customers who sign up for Pro Accounts stand a good chance of being interested in obtaining genealogical source documents, which would make them potential Genlighten customers (yay!)

Of course the big questions here are:

  • What proportion of the users who’ve been attracted to Geni by its zero-cost offering will be willing to pay for the ‘Pro’ features?”
  • Will that fraction be large enough and loyal enough to help make Geni profitable over the long term?

I certainly hope that this new strategy proves successful for Geni.

What features would Geni need to add to get you to pay them $4.95/month?  Please let me know in the comments.  I’m currently preparing a presentation for the South Davis Family History Fair (to be held next March in Bountiful, Utah) in which I’ll compare the various web-based family tree sites like Geni, so your input would be greatly appreciated.

“Facebook Connect” to link your activity on Geni to your Facebook Profile

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Geni logoFacebook logo

According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, users of the family-tree-based social networking site Geni will soon be able to share their genealogy activities with their “friends” on Facebook.  The new initiative, dubbed Facebook Connect, will let Facebook members tie their online profiles and activity feeds with their accounts on Geni.  This would potentially lead to Facebook activity feed updates such as “Dean Richardson added new ancestor data to his tree on Geni”, for example.  Similarly, when logging into Geni, users might be able to access their Facebook friends’ family trees, depending on their friends’ privacy settings.

For Facebook, allowing its members to bring their friends with them to other popular web sites offers the promise of enhanced advertising revenue.  That might work in the following manner.  You visit a travel site such as and login using your Facebook ID.  You view ads on those sites, click on the ads and spend money with the ads’ sponsors.  TripAdvisor receives ad revenue from your clicks, and a portion of that revenue is shared with Facebook.  Multiply that scenario by Facebook’s hundreds of millions of users, and you can see why the idea is an attractive one both to Facebook and its partners.

The impact of the partnership for a site like Geni, which famously lacks a robust revenue model, is less clear.  Does Geni’s participation in Facebook Connect mean we’ll start to see banner advertising next to our family trees and profile pages?  Or will Geni instead monetize its users in a more indirect fashion, perhaps by sending them to pay-oriented sites via Facebook?  Perhaps Geni simply views its participation in Facebook Connect as a way to attract more users, leaving the monetization strategy still to be determined.

Whatever the business-oriented implications of this initiative, it’s exciting to see Geni executing successfully on its objectives of making it easy and fun for everyone — even the “Facebook Generation” — to learn about and preserve their family history.

[Hat tip:  itgeniaus (via twitter) and Social Media]

We’re Related climbs Facebook application leaderboard

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Congratulations to the folks at FamilyLink!  Their We’re Related application on Facebook shows up as the eighth most popular on a ranking generated by AppData, a Facebook analytics site.  We’re Related even beats out Texas Hold’Em Poker, which is evidently saying quite a lot.  Here’s AppData’s leaderboard:

Ranking of Facebook Applications by number of users

FamilyLink CEO Paul Allen has been telling us for a while now about his “Facebook Strategy”.  It looks like it’s really working!  Now I’m even more curious to know how We’re Related is doing from a monetization standpoint.

Footnote’s Presentation at TechCrunch50

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

OK, my quick reactions to Footnote’s pitch to the TechCrunch50 event today:

  • Starting off with a personal vignette about attending a funeral… a good idea?  Worked for Arcade Fire, I guess.
  • Note to self… make sure that personal experiences I relate about deceased friends or relatives help my audience associate warm, positive feelings with our website.
  • Yikes… do VCs/serial entrepreneurs get the  genealogy space?  Another reason not to go looking for VC funding, perhaps.
  • Loic Le Meur’s concerns are likely shared by quite a few… among his points:
  • “Honestly, I find it disturbing.. i wouldn’t like to have my family exposed, can I opt out for my family?”
  • “I would hate to see a blank profile with my father’s name when he (and I) can’t control it.”
  • “Monetizing my family… I have a problem with that.”
  • Give the Footnote team credit for rolling with the punches.  They seemed confident, at ease, not defensive.  If I were them, I would have found the “you’re just like Ancestry” comment annoying… I thought they turned that one around well.