Genealogy and Family History Industry – Boom or Bust?

genealogy boom or bust

  • Is there still an increasing interest in tracing one’s roots, especially as the Baby Boomer generation moves into retirement? Or is the interest in genealogy on a downward slope?
  • Will the Millennials embrace or ignore genealogy as they age? Will they shift the paradigm to a different view as to how to perform genealogical research?
  • What impact will Big Data continue to have on the genealogy industry? Are vendors like Ancestry.com merely data brokers who have found a way to gamify the use of data for those interested in genealogy? Or is Big Data the answer to bringing more consumers into the industry?

I do not have all the answers to those questions, and to others discussed and debated in the genealogy industry, but I do have opinions on where I feel the industry is headed over the next few years.

The Influence of Baby Boomers and Nostalgia

The generation born between 1946 and 1964 – the Baby Boomers – now seem to rule Facebook and other second-generation social media platforms that seem to be well suited to sharing family history information. The rise of the Boomers on Facebook – as noted by this recent e-surance commercial with Beatrice – has come about partly due to a desire to reconnect and reflect.

Many of us – me included since I am on the tail end of this generation – are using new methods to reconnect with high school and college friends. Parents and grandparents who developed computer skills in the 1980s and 1990s when the personal computer and the Internet took off, are taking workplace skills sets and now using them to keep tabs on children and grandchildren via social media.

Over the next few years, more and more genealogy marketing will be focusing on “do you remember” call to action mechanisms covering the advent of rock and roll music to the Beatles to Woodstock and love beads and more. Besides shared memories, many Boomers will also want to find out more about how their ancestors fit into the context of history.

The “Gap Decade” in Genealogy – A Good Thing

One concern of those who’ve been involved in the genealogy community since the late 1970s when popularity grew due to the television miniseries Roots, is who will take up the task of not just researching ancestry, but preserving the research these Boomers have assembled?

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that the Millennial generation tends to be less religious, less patriotic and more liberal than older generations. What impact will this have on the genealogy industry?

I have posed this question at various online platforms and many do not feel there is any connection in the generational difference. However, the genealogy community with which I am familiar is marked by a strong sense of patriotism (especially when it comes to researching military ancestors), tends to be more conservative and many are tied to faith communities, such as the Mormon church.

More importantly, what I am seeing in my own market research is the sense of a “gap decade” when it comes to interest in genealogy. Similar to a “gap year” when graduating high school students take a year off before staring college, Millennials may have shown an interest in family history as a child up until and through high school. However, they are not likely to maintain an interest through their 20’s and early 30’s.

Several life events and influences will likely bring them back to looking more closely at their own family history: for young women, the birth of their first child triggers an interest in family stories and genealogy. For young men, it seems that the best way to hook and reel them in, is to help them locate an ancestor who served in the military or who had an engaging story related to surviving the Great Depression or participating in sports while in high school or college.

While there have been many attempts at “bridging” this gap – even via television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? with its recent focus on younger celebrities – perhaps we need to stop pushing Millennials and the younger generations into the genealogy community and understand that they will eventually take an interest as they get older.

Technology, Big Data and Crowd Sourcing

With the release of the 1940 US Federal Census data on April 2, 2012, the importance and role of Big Data was confirmed: both genealogists and those with a passing interest crashed many of the web servers hosting over 3.8 million images representing over 132 million names. While intense interest in this “once a decade” event was anticipated, what wasn’t planned for was how quickly a diverse crowdsourcing group could index the images. Over 150,000 volunteers succeeded in building a searchable index in just four months! And what about the 1950 Census? There’s already a project for that.

In addition to the focus on indexing, other offshoot projects which grew out of the interest in the 1940 Census included Direct My NYC: 1940 by the New York Public Library – a tech mash-up of scanned NYC telephone directories and the 1940 Census. The project asked visitors to not just match up their family members between the directory and the census data, but also leave a short story about the ancestor. Look to see more “mash-ups” involving Google Maps, directories and user-submitted photos to help understand record sets and translate various data points into a story to be shared. In fact, Ancestry.com’s Story View is already solving this problem for researchers.

Big Data will continue to play an important role in the growth of the genealogy industry. This will mean a “race” to locate new and obscure data sets and secure exclusive licenses to digitize the data. While Ancestry.com and FamilySearch (the genealogy operations of the Mormon church) last year announced a partnership to bring more records online, competition to secure records by these two entities as well as MyHeritage and FindMyPast will increase. In addition, look for various municipalities at the local, county and state levels seek to monetize the public records they are sitting on.

Big Data is “big money” and we actually don’t all win: privacy will increasingly take a back seat despite recent efforts to restrict access to the Social Security Death Index. When you or your parents or grandparents provided answers to the 1940 Census, they were likely told that no one, especially their neighbors, would see their responses (see this Life magazine article for example). Yet, 72 years later, those answers were revealed and placed on the Internet, whether the person listed was living or dead.

While the incidence of identity theft related to genealogy records is minor and over-exaggerated, look for more collisions between Big Data proponents and privacy advocates in the coming years.

DNA Test Results – The New Easy Button?

A week doesn’t go by that we don’t hear or see some story in the media about a set of siblings separated for 30, 40 or more years reunited; or how someone placed out for adoption 25 years ago found their birth parents. Many of these stories are engaging and success is based on the use of DNA testing.

Many genealogy vendors including Ancestry.com and MyHeritage are betting big on the DNA revolution and are using it as a way to bring in a new crowd to the genealogy community. In addition, some research problems which have been traditionally more difficult to solve due to a lack of records or to historical events such as slavery in the United States, can now be solved in part by incorporating DNA testing results.

There has even been a gamification element to marketing DNA kits that may diminish the seriousness of the science and the importance of privacy in an attempt to reach a bigger market. An example is the recent “house party” marketing attempt by Ancestry.com DNA aimed at females in the 35-50 age demographic.

Over the next few years, traditional genealogy researchers will need to add interpretation of DNA testing results to their skill set to serve clients and most genealogy records providers will be integrating test results with a subscriber’s online family tree. To take a line from Maury Povich, the phrase “You ARE the 3rd great-grandfather” will become more common than you think.

Is Now Really “The Best Time Ever” for Genealogy?

In conclusion, my answer to the question is a strong and resounding YES. Due to the convergence of technology, social media, Big Data, and a desire by many generations, both young and old, to discover more about their roots, there is no better time than now to either be involved in the genealogy community or to get started.

And to that end, I predict that we’ll not only see more family history related startups over the next few years, but other existing vendors and service providers will understand how obsessed and dedicated genealogists and family historians are when it comes to the “hunt.” The need for new tools, products and platforms will grow as we bring in more consumers who are new to genealogy. We’re looking for ancestors, we’re discovering stories, we’re sharing our discoveries and we’re also finding ourselves.

©2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. For more information visit http://hackgenealogy.com.

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