Posts Tagged ‘Footnote’

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!

Footnote, FamilySearch and the Power of APIs

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

fs_api_diagramI had the chance to visit with leaders of two of the most influential players in the online genealogy market today, and I was struck by the completely different attitudes they each take toward APIs. FamilySearch has at least four distinct APIs that I know about, including ones for:

  • Family tree data
  • “Authorities” (standardized dates, places, and names)
  • “Record Search” bibligraphic metadata
  • “Research Wiki” page content

Footnote, by comparison, doesn’t have any (that they’ve made public, at least.)

API => Startup; No API => Old-media dinosaur

At first glance, this seems backward and counter-intuitive. APIs tend to be the preferred mode of growth and communication used by successful startups like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. By granting access to their data in a format that can readily be consumed by other services, these companies create platforms on which others can build — entrepreneurial ecosystems that nourish other startups (think Facebook or Twitter application developers) — and generate income by applying ad-based monetization approaches or revenue-sharing arrangements.

So-called old-media “dinosaurs” like the New York Times and News Corporation, on the other hand, have tended to throw up paywalls and to resist calls to make their content available via APIs. For them, the mantra of the free content movement: “information wants to be free” has been an anathema to be fought with all the weapons at their disposal.

Before today, I would have tended to tag FamilySearch with the “old media dinosaur” label while filing Footnote under the “startups that get new media” category. So it should be Footnote touting its APIs to the developer community, while FamilySearch stays closed and protective of its data. But instead it’s the reverse. What’s going on here?

False Dichotomies and “New” Old Media

What’s going on here is that both print and online media are undergoing a period of radical disruption, in which old assumptions are overturned or abandoned and previously valid dichotomies are rendered false, or useless, or both.

Prime example: the New York Times has introduced its own set of APIs, while simultaneously rolling out a new consumption-limiting paywall.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that genealogy “content providers” are grappling with the same issues and evolving their business models in response.

Business Model Differences Shape Policies Towards Content

One obvious explanation for FamilySearch’s API-centric strategy lies in its non-profit status. As a Church-sponsored entity whose mission is to facilitate and accelerate genealogy (and temple) work throughout the world, it would be self-defeating if FamilySearch treated its content as scarce and proprietary. Footnote, on the other hand, relies on a subscription model that can only succeed if the majority of their most desirable content is kept behind a paywall. [As a small, nimble startup, Footnote is also constrained in how much development in can do with its scarce resources -- robust APIs are not easy or cheap to develop and maintain.]

Consider the Possibilities

But what if Footnote (or Ancestry for that matter) tried to become more of a research platform and less of a “walled garden” of content? In a prescient 2008 essay, VC Fred Wilson makes this prediction about the promise of “Content” APIs:

Content is data, but it’s a bit different. Content is unstructured data with the benefits of a lot of context, semantics, relationships. Once the vast databases of content that exist inside the big media companies start becoming available via APIs, we can start to do some amazing things.

What kind of “amazing things” could for-profit “big media” genealogy companies do if they opened the spigots on their content using APIs? And if they did so, could they still make enough money to continue to fund the record digitization efforts that have so greatly benefited genealogists? I believe they can.

A Modest Proposal

I haven’t fully baked this idea yet, but I’m going to toss it out there anyway. I propose that genealogy content providers develop a two-tier model. The first tier would include popular, entry-level content such as the crucial censuses, family tree data and “Google Books”-type content such as published family histories, county histories, and the like. This data would be offered for free, but with an “as is” consumer-beware caveat regarding the accuracy and reliability of the facts and details included.

The second tier would include vital records, church records, land records and other more “primary” source material, including (naturally, since this is the Genlighten blog) offline documents. These records would be accompanied by some sort of “provenance”, perhaps tied to the reputation of the researcher who had uncovered them or the repository that held them. That reputation would be dynamically determined by a combination of authoritative genealogy luminaries and the crowdsourced ratings of clients and users. Those interested in such records would be asked to pay for:

  • Indexed online access
  • Record provenance, detailed source citation information and a community-determined “reliability score”
  • On-demand retrieval, digitization, transcription and/or translation of records not yet available online, particularly “long tail” records
  • The help of skilled and experienced researchers in interpreting the records and acting on their implications

Both sets of records would be made available via APIs, but the second-tier data would have a monetization mechanism attached,  allowing content providers, researchers and digitizers to be compensated for the value they added.

A Starting Point

I hope to develop these ideas further, and I’d appreciate your help in doing so. I know there are plenty of smart people in the genealogy community who are already pondering these issues (Thomas MacEntee, for one) and I’d love to hear from as many of you as possible.

Thanks to Gordon Clarke and his FSDN team members, and to Justin Schroepfer at Footnote, for meeting with me today and stimulating my thought processes.

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.

Footnote a TechCrunch50 Finalist

Monday, September 8th, 2008

TechCrunch50Footnote Logo

Congratulations to for being selected as a TechCrunch50 Finalist.  TechCrunch is a hugely influential website that spotlights the most promising up-and-coming Internet startups.  Each year they hold a highly-anticipated conference event where company founders pitch their business ideas to venture capitalists and the tech media.  Last year’s best presenting company was, a personal finance startup that has gone on to secure $16.7M in Series A and B investments from Shasta Ventures and Benchmark Capital, among others.

Footnote will be making their TechCrunch50 presentation in San Francisco this Wednesday as part of a session entitled “Vertical Social Networking”.  They’ll go up against social networks for bird watchers, fashionistas, those looking to support social causes, and online gamers.

When I mention my involvement in a genealogy-related startup to potential investors, many are quick to dismiss the field as too “niche” to merit serious (i.e., venture-scale) investment.  To some extent, that reflects their own lack of familiarity with the field, but it also represents a fairly realistic assessment of what’s happened in the genealogy market to this point.  By choosing to showcase Footnote at their yearly “coming-out” party for startups, TechCrunch has signaled their view that Footnote could break out of the relatively narrow genealogy market vertical, garner mainstream customer traction and attract serious new investors.

In my view, this is great news for the genealogy community.  It should embolden entrepreneurs trying to bring innovative new family history products to market.  This in turn will help insure that the field doesn’t continue to be dominated by a few large players.  And of course, here at Genlighten, we hope it translates into accelerating growth in the market for Internet-enabled genealogy services.

Again, congratulations to the Footnote team!