Interview – Chris Whitten of WikiTree

[Editor's Note: recently I had the opportunity to review the genealogy website WikiTree here at GeneaBloggers. Here is an interview with the site's founder, Chris Whitten, where we discuss Chris's previous projects, the state of the wiki concept in genealogy, and the genealogy industry.

Look for more of these "review and interview" combos here at GeneaBloggers in the future. I think as the genealogy industry evolves, many of our readers want to learn about the process of developing a genealogy product and bringing it to market.]

How did you come up with the idea for WikiTree? What was your inspiration?

Six or seven years ago I created a private website for my own family history. Every family member, living or dead, had their own web page with a biography, photos, and links to their family members’ pages. My family members could browse the website if I gave them the password.

As I accumulated more information and the site grew and grew to include more distant relatives, two problems came up.

First, privacy. When I gave someone the password they had access to the entire site. My wife’s second-cousin doesn’t need to know the personal details of my mother’s life, and my mother might start to get uncomfortable about this being out there.

Second, collaboration. To add information to the website people needed to send it to me. This contributed to my overflowing inbox, of course, but even worse, it meant that lots of information never made it to the website. The best time to capture information is when it occurs to someone. When my cousin is looking at my aunt’s web page and sees that her birthdate is missing, she should be able to add it right then and there. If she can’t, it might never happen.

Privacy and collaboration are both essential to family history, but there is a real tension between the two. I’ve never been able to find another family tree tool that gets the balance quite right.

Many of the big family tree websites create “walled gardens” like my old site: entirely private, but complete open to anyone who has a password. Many of the best collaborative sites are entirely public; that’s the simplest way to do a collaborative site

So, the idea for WikiTree evolved from the privacy and collaboration balance that I wanted for my own family history.

Using a wiki for the collaboration was a no-brainer for me, since I was in the process of turning the collaborative question and answer site I created in 2002 into a wiki, WikiAnswers. When I handed-off WikiAnswers to a larger company in 2007 I was able to focus on developing WikiTree.

It took a lot longer for the privacy model to gel. Now that it has, it’s what makes WikiTree special. There are plenty of wikis out there.

WikiTree is unique in that each page on the wiki has a Trusted List. It’s akin to how everyone on a social network has a friends list, but on WikiTree the circle of trust isn’t around the person who uses the website, it’s around each individual person, place, or thing described on the website.

The Trusted List system means that families can be overlapping circles like they are in real life. Your circle overlaps with your cousin’s circle, whose circle overlaps with another cousin’s circle. Nobody’s circle is the same. This unique system enables WikiTree to be a worldwide collaborative family tree that still preserves privacy

Has genealogy and family history always been of interest to you? Or did you just see an opportunity to leverage your success with WikiAnswers to help the genealogy community?

I’ve always been interested in family history. I guess it’s that I’ve always found history interesting, and family is important to me.

Speaking of wikis, most Internet users are familiar with WikiPedia but few understand the basic concepts behind wikis. Why is this?

Most people who visit Wikipedia never contribute to it, so they don’t really understand how it works. They just know it’s something that anybody can contribute to.

Many people who do get the deeper meaning of wiki collaboration — that pages can be created and changed by users, not just added to — still won’t get how the history tracking enables the collaboration to progress in a positive way. They’ll only get that by using a wiki.

Does it matter if a wiki doesn’t have the “look and feel” of Wikipedia (which uses the MediaWiki platform)? Since it is technically challenging to install and administer a MediaWiki-based wiki (at least for most users), could this be why personal wikis aren’t more popular?

Yes, yes, yes.  I think it’s important that other wikis “don’t” have the look and feel of Wikipedia!

First, Wikipedia’s Mediawiki software is designed for an encyclopedia. This might fit if you’re creating a genealogy encyclopedia or an encyclopedia of local history. But not all wikis are encyclopedias.

Using Mediawiki to create a fundamentally different sort of wiki, like my team has done with WikiAnswers and now WikiTree, takes massive customization.

Second, as you say, Mediawiki is technically challenging, even without the customization. It’s not just challenging for the administrators.

It’s challenging for the users who want to contribute. They designed it that way! The people who run Wikipedia don’t want it to be too user-friendly. They view the complexity of the design as something that keeps out the riff-raff! :-)

An option to installing Mediawiki or other wiki software is to use a wiki hosting service, like Wikia, Wikidot, or Wetpaint. As these become more user-friendly it’s services like these that will enable wikis to really become commonplace.

What is the future for wikis in the genealogy industry? Do you think wikis are easy enough to create and maintain that they could be used to document family history?

I see three concurrent paths for wikis in family history:

  1. One worldwide wiki family tree. It makes sense that there be one massively-collaborative worldwide family tree database. Dick Eastman talked about this yesterday in his article “It’s 2015! Do You Know Where Your Data Is?”  There’s no doubt in my mind that one or two will emerge as dominant, and a wiki is the right way to do it.
  2. A few large-scale collaborative content projects. They’ll be custom installations that fit their specific purposes, like the FamilySearch Wiki.
  3. Many local history, surname, and topical wikis. These can be custom installations or use a wiki host.

Most local history projects do fit into the wiki-encyclopedia mold, so the software and services that are out there will do the job. None of these off-the-shelf systems are perfect, but they’re getting better.

Obviously, I think WikiTree is the right platform for the wiki family tree. WikiTree is optimized for family history and designed to be user-friendly. The unique privacy system enables participants to put their near-and-dear in the same database as their distant ancestors. I think that’s key.

And it’s free. That’s key too. A worldwide family tree from a company that sells memberships won’t have the broad base of collaboration that it needs. Even if they give free access to the tree, there will always be some limitations that help the company sell memberships. Paid access to information needs to be totally divorced from the free family tree.

We’ve also tried to make WikiTree work for local history and surname wikis, but honestly, WikiTree’s real strengths will only come into play if some of the information on your wiki is directly connected to individuals in the worldwide family tree and/or privacy is a factor.

What recommendations do you have to motivate a community of volunteers to create a collaborative history project using a wiki – similar to the Albany Hill Towns wiki?

That is a great site. Kudos to Hal Miller and the other contributors to the Albany Hill Towns project.

When it comes to motivating volunteers in a wiki, I think the key is to make it rewarding for them.

Volunteers aren’t rewarded with money, of course. They’re rewarded by the satisfaction of helping other people and the sense of community that comes from joining others in a worthy project.

The problem is that on a wiki you don’t see the people you’re helping or the other people in the volunteer community. At a soup kitchen the people you’re helping are right there in front of you and the other volunteers are standing next to you. On a wiki the people you’re helping are usually anonymous visitors to the website and the other volunteers may just exist to you as usernames. There’s no humanity.

Good project leaders can compensate for this. First, they can make the community less anonymous. They can notice when someone makes a contribution and thank them for it. They can show contributors that someone, a real person, noticed what they did and appreciates it.

You can also encourage members of the community to communicate with each other. You might do an e-mail list or a forum or use something built into the wiki software. On a local project you might even organize off-line meetings.

And finally, who is the one ancestor of yours that you admire most and why?

Tough to choose, of course.

My great-great-grandfather Stephen Bartlett was born in New Hampshire in 1861, a few months before his father enlisted in the Union Army.

His father never came home. He was shot and killed in the battle of Port Hudson in Louisiana.

After the Civil War, his mother couldn’t support her five children.

She abandoned them. Stephen and his siblings were split up and put to work on different farms.

In the 1880s, Stephen moved his wife and infant children to Minnesota to take advantage of the Homestead Act. Like so many would-be pioneers that we don’t think about these days, they failed. The destitute family moved back to New England. Stephen found work in a shoe factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Somehow from these beginnings he worked his way up to a comfortable middle class living. His son, my great-grandfather, attended Dartmouth College and became a minister.

I can only marvel at how Stephen overcame so much adversity and went on to provide a solid foundation for his family’s future. It’s humbling, given how little real adversity I’ve had in my life. I know this isn’t an uncommon sentiment among those of us who study family history. Remembering these stories is part of what makes family history important.

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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12 thoughts on “Interview – Chris Whitten of WikiTree

  1. I’m flattered by Thomas’s interview. It’s an honor.

    If anybody else has questions, feel free to post here, on our Facebook page, Twitter account, or via e-mail at chris at wikitree.com.

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