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Open Thread Thursday: Do We Eat Our Own In The Genealogy Industry?

open thread

This week’s topic for Open Thread Thursday is:

Given the genealogy community’s reaction to the recent RootsTech attempt to exclude book vendors and other genealogy vendors from its exhibit hall, do you feel we’re too critical of the resources and partners we’ve built up over the years? Do we tear into each other via social media without considering consequences or being grateful for what we have?

Or is it more a case of “we know we can do and be better than this” and we’re seeking to ensure a vibrant community filled with resources covering every aspect of genealogy?  Are we willing to risk the loss of an event or a resource in lieu of something better? Do we properly channel our energies and opinions? Should vendors and others be wary of working with genealogists who blog, use social media, etc. because we are opinionated and sometimes critical?

And finally, in light of the recent changes with access to the Social Security Death Index and the restrictions on vital records at the state and local level, are we too complacent? Are we not vocal enough? Or are there too many voices which need to be channeled into a more resounding, louder and effective voice?

Post your responses in the comments or at a post on your own genealogy blog and place the link here in the comments.

“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things!”

The best way to present my views on this topic is to relate a story from my youth:

As a young child, I spent time at a neighbor’s house filled with their energetic and rambunctious kids. I loved the dynamic and the energy because at home it was just me and my brother.  But the mother was often just exasperated.  On one visit, the Mom was enduring one of those “‘Calgon, take me away’ moments” and yelled to her brood, “You see! This is why we can’t have nice things!” as the kids ran amok all over the house.

That incident has stuck with me even after 40 years. When I first got started in the online genealogy community, I was too concerned with how bloggers and others appeared to vendors as well as other entities.  I’m sure they thought we were rambunctious, sometimes out of control, and sought to destroy rather than build alliances. I sometimes focused too much on how we looked to outsiders.

Lessons on Working with the Online Genealogy Community

As time went on, I’ve learned to embrace the many voices and opinions in our community and now know that this is just an extension of our passion for genealogy and family history.  Luckily we do have platforms such as message forums, mailing lists, Facebook, Twitter and social media to bounce ideas off of each other and to let our voices reverberate. Twenty years ago, you’d have to read about the loss of a resource after the fact and in a newsletter or hear about it at a genealogy meeting or conference.

What “change makers” like RootsTech have learned is this:

  • The online genealogy community is an ally, a friend. We have resources, we have voices, we have opinions and there aren’t many shrinking violets among us.  Ask us and we’ll tell you how we feel.  Bounce an idea off of us.  Send us surveys.  Ask for feedback.
  • Learn the realities of working in the online world of genealogy. It is 24/7. It is global.  There is a strong genealogy community in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and many other places around the world; genealogy is not, nor should it be, US-centric. The tools are at your disposal for monitoring chatter and voices.
  • We respect honesty and transparency. Face it, this is what we do as genealogists, right? We seek the unvarnished truth about our ancestors. So be up front with us. Don’t try to put one over on us and when in doubt, see the first bullet point, and ask us what we think. As Judge Judy says, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”
  • Abundance rules. FamilySearch and Jay Verkler especially have taught us this. As have many other resources and folks that constantly give such as Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, RootsWeb, GenWeb, and more.  You will not find a community more willing to embrace newcomers, willing to teach, guide and to shepherd those who need information and resources, than the online genealogy community.

Shift Happens

Shift happens, people. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a voice in terms of how it impacts our passion: genealogy.  For some of us this is not just a hobby, it is our means of making a living. For many of us it is even a spiritual calling. We can deal with change. We make complain about it or take time to adjust, but we know that each day brings new ideas, new resources . . . and new hope of finding that elusive ancestor or breaking down that brick wall.

Putting it simply: we’re not a bunch of bratty kids nor a group of old cranky pants.  We’re people just like you. We’re passionate about genealogy the way you are about other things.  We’re smart, we’re funny, we’re sometimes critical but, I hope, always with this one thought in the backs of our minds: we need each other. Like any other crazy family with fights, pouting, arguments and more.  We need each other and, deep down, we really do appreciate each other.

As for that neighbor Mom . . . I’m sure that 20 or 30 years later she looked back with fondness at those crazy days and knew that her kids turned out all right. We’ll be all right too.


This is a great topic for this week’s Open Thread Thursday! And please, if you have a topic you’d like to see discussed among your genealogy blogging colleagues, please contact us and we’ll take it under consideration.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

19 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: Do We Eat Our Own In The Genealogy Industry?

  1. I very much agree with what you have said!

    We are, along with the rest of the world, perhaps more likely to say what we don’t like rather than say what we do like. The advent of social media has made the vocalisation much more immediate.

    I do think we are getting better at talking about the good things as well and about ideas/wishlists for the future.

    Genealogists have lived in a fast changing world over the last five to ten yearsand the majority have embraced those changes whilst still retaining the good of the past methods. The tech-nuts amongst us are always keen to try new things and see how we can adapt them to allow us to progress our research.

    We want to be involved in the process and are very interested in collaborating, beta testing etc. We have many skills that would be of use to the developers/database owners etc.

  2. I’ll take you up on the blog bit. I think there is more to be said. By the way, I really like your post. You hit the nail on the head. You can read my response at

    Thanks again.

  3. Genealogy occupies my time, my thoughts and my resources. It’s something I enjoy. For 25 years I’ve “paid it forward” as a society newsletter editor; as a volunteer with Unclaimed Persons and Families for Forgotten Heroes; and as someone who regularly checks message boards to assist others when possible.

    Things change. We know that, and we (mostly, hopefully) accept it. However, if the many changes in records access keep proliferating, it will become much more difficult to do what we do.

    Right now, many medical examiners are relying on volunteers to assist them in finding next of kin for their unclaimed deceased. Still other genealogists work with the military to trace next-of-kin for soldiers whose remains were never recovered. Genealogists in libraries, museums and archives interpret data and records. Genealogists who post to FindAGrave or BillionGraves are preserving information. Genealogists involved in DNA studies are helping medical advances. We’re digitizing, documenting, educating, advocating.

    There is room at the table for everyone – those who would protect against identity theft as well as those who use the SSDI for good, not evil. Those who write books as well as those who write software programs. Those for whom genealogy is a passion, as well as those who just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. But we need to let them know we expect an invitation to the table. The decisions they want to make are far too important to be made in a vacuum.

    We need to make our views known to those who would propose legislation to close records or curtail information. These people need to see that we are not a small, insignificant group of hobbyists. We are an educated, informed, engaged body of people whose pursuit — whether professionally, or for leisure — is benefiting society in a myriad of ways.

  4. I understand what you are saying and I agree. Many in this community ‘eat their own’ as you put it.

    While I have met some of the most open, giving, and supportive people in this community, I have also met some of the most snobbish, boorish, mean, uppity, people and they usually cloak themselves in the veil of ‘professional’ or ‘expert’.

    It is the saddest part of this community and these people need to look at what damage they do to so many in this community with such an attitude of superiority and disdain for others.

    Just my two cents plain and based on my personal experiences.

  5. Well said, Thomas!

    Genealogy can be whatever an person wants to make of it – an individual quest, a community effort, a science of discovery, a cause to rally round, or a gift of giving. And most certainly there is enough for everyone to participate in any or all of those ways. As Linda says there is room for everyone at the table!

    Speaking with a voice in unison becomes important when we wish to present a compelling argument to groups that have the power to affect our community. And guiding them, teaching them as best we can is a more generous solution that making demands, ranting, or bombarding to achieve our goal. Remember how well Mom was able to tune out the chaos or even the single voice constantly repeating her name, no matter how loudly? Lol!

    I do agree that we, as a community, have to press forward our concerns. And I think recognizing where each of our single voices have the most effect is important. Who will hear me most clearly and then take my concerns forward?

    Many, many “pay it forward” in selfless ways and expect little to nothing in return. Any number of us got a start on our journey because of them.
    I sometimes think because genealogists walk with their ancestors, we are more used to interacting with people who don’t talk back. And that can make us unaware of the effect we can have on living, breathing peers. Whether it’s disdain, disregard, rudeness, lack of interest, selfishness, forgetfulness, or intentional omission, these anti-qualities harm our field. Social media has eroded some of our manners with its immediacy and lack of nuance; regretfully that has seeped into our real world encounters as well.

    But we’re learning, right? And we can twist & bend; we can communicate. We can accomplish more together if we blend our voices.

  6. I think it depends on who “we” is. The “we” who are expressing concerns in a constructive way are great. The “we” who are calling people idiots and asking in public whether folks should be fired need to consider whether these types of things are going to lead companies (or individuals) to make positive changes or increase the amount of dialog between themselves and the community.

    We should deliver constructive criticism in the same way we’d want to receive it. Otherwise we shoot ourselves in the foot. Most people know this already, but occasionally people get angry or swept up and forget, I think.

    We also need to remember that for some people, this is their day job. I saw one call for a full-time social media person to monitor for stuff, and I kind of chuckled. “Full-time” in this country is generally definied as 40 hours a week. That means that after 5pm and on weekends, that “full-time” person should be allowed to shower, eat, see their family, and do all of the other things full-time employees do. If folks want social media channels to be monitored by a staff of several people to cover every minute of the day and night…well, then, expect to pay a whole lot more. The more people you have working, the greater your payroll…and the more you have to charge for conferences, subscriptions, etc.

    We can use our voices and still give people some respect, some benefit of the doubt, and a reasonable amount of time to formulate a response. Again, most everyone already gets this…but we need to discourage people who cross the line and dissolve into name-calling and stuff. That’s just counterproductive.

  7. Well people can chuckle all they want, but a technology conference [not a genealogy conference, not a genealogy small biz] should have a designated social media person who is handling their social media marketing campaign.

    I tend to look at everything from a top-down management view because that is my background in small business. My father didn’t grow his business [or any of the volunteer organizations that he was a part of] by not using the available technology at the time and a “that’s my job and this is my personal life” approach. My husband hasn’t earned the position he has in the corporate world with that approach either. I’m not saying that one approach is better than the other, they are just different. However, whatever choice you make there is a reaction or consequence to it. I don’t know very many small business owners or successful corporate business people who only work 40 hours a week. My husband is always receiving, reading, and responding to email all the time, even on vacation. And you know what? I don’t mind. I get it because my father was a small business owner. That doesn’t mean that it’s constantly interrupting our private family life though. He handles what’s important then we move on.

    With the advent of the internet and social media, our world has become accessible 24/7. Perhaps the answer isn’t to take the job descriptions and expectations that we have already created and try to fit them into this 24/7 model, but maybe the answer is to create new job descriptions with new expectations that integrate with this new model. Perhaps someone who works 40 hours a week, isn’t working those 40 hours in the traditional work week, but spreading them out over the week. For this particular position, that’s not infringing upon someone’s personal life nor is it ‘forcing’ them to work overtime. Professional genealogists do this when they perform client work. Therefore, I don’t think that it’s a farfetched idea to be laughed at.

    When I wrote my blog post where I laid out what I really expected from Rootstech in terms of social media [which is technology] and suggested the full-time social media person or group of coordinated social media people, I never once laid out in detail what that would look like. I never mentioned if it was a paid position(s), volunteer position(s), or a combination thereof. Because of my business and volunteer experience and the understanding of different organization’s limited budgets, I purposefully did not write that out in detail. It’s a broad suggestion open to interpretation depending on the situation, but the most important thing is to have someone ultimately responsible for it, and someone who can handle problems when they occur to head off any negative PR. That is not unreasonable nor unheard of.

    When I wrote my blog post, I could have easily been negative, but I think I was giving constructive criticism. If we don’t talk about these issues and instead laugh at them, then we’ll just keep repeating what we do and never grow and expand.

    ~Caroline Pointer

  8. The dedicated person could work 80 hours instead of 40…and that still would mean that over half the time, there’d be no one on duty, because there are 168 hours in a week.

    It would also have to be a fairly well-paid person, because a low-paid peon wouldn’t be able to unilaterally make the major changes folks apparently want on demand at any time of the day or night (like changing a conference’s vendor management strategy). In my experience, that’s usually the sort of decision that comes from several well-paid people, in fact.

    My understanding from the blog post I read was that the word went out to the book sellers on Friday morning. The first post I read was dated Saturday. That’s a one-day delay right off the bat (and if the post had been done right away on Friday, perhaps this could have been resolved in a matter of hours). Surely it didn’t kill us to wait until Monday at 7:30am local time to find out that the decision was reversed.

    I don’t know whether RootsTech does or doesn’t have a dedicated social media person (although I’m guessing they don’t), but I’d argue that having one would not have significantly changed the timeframe here.

    I do know of conferences that have dedicated social media people, but registration is $1200, not $129, and they still have crapstorms on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

  9. Wow.

    Thanks to technology [such as push notifications on smartphones], it doesn’t take very long to see when a problem is occurring for an organization in social media, and in this case, on their own Facebook page. Now, what that response would be, I didn’t say. I wouldn’t and didn’t expect the response to be a definitive decision, but a quicker and diplomatic response on Saturday, and not just on their Facebook page but elsewhere, would have done wonders to smooth ruffled feathers so that it wouldn’t escalate to people calling other people names.

    In fact, in my blog post [written on Monday morning after their decision reversal], I was trying to carefully lay out a social media system for a conference like Rootstech so that maybe in the future a situation like this could be curtailed. I contend that if Rootstech had had a stronger foothold in the social media realm [as did FGS], that this matter could have been smoothed over before people became nasty. This is part and parcel of public relations.

    And I like to think the organizers of FGS, who had a successful social media campaign, were very well-paid, but I’m going to guess that many people including volunteers put in many hours to have a successful social media campaign and subsequently a successful conference. And though I was an Official Blogger for them [and thus one of those social media peons, to use your term] and my registration was comped, I know for a fact that the registration was not $1200.

    Are you saying that in order to have a successful social media campaign with dedicated social media people, a conference has to charge $1200 [or a similarly high price] for registration?


  10. Caroline

    As the leader for social media at FGS and for the FGS 2011 conference, I can tell you that no one was paid for their services. It was all volunteer. We had a great team. And we actively monitored the chatter. And we still had lives. And we had the same tools that are at the disposal of any entity, non-profit or for-profit.


    The Ark was built by volunteers.
    The Titanic was built by professionals.


  11. Not at all. I’m just suggesting that we might have better luck getting companies and other organizations to listen to the community if we appear reasonable. It’s not unreasonable to wait a bit for a response to a request for a major policy reversal. Even if we COULD demand a quick response, it doesn’t mean that we SHOULD. Sometimes even when you’re right, extending a little grace to others allows you to be better heard the next time around.

    My comments weren’t about your post. There were quite a few people who wanted a more immediate response, not just you. Also, my primary beef was with calling people idiots, which was a guy who was not you (I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I definitely remember that it wasn’t you). I just think that even when someone IS an idiot, it’s not necessarily productive to tell them on their Facebook page in front of everyone.

  12. We DO eat our own. I was subscribed to a mailing list for a professional genealogy group for a short time. It was a short time because I couldn’t stand the hatefulness of the people! That is the ugly part of the genealogy community

    We DO love our own. I am a Facebook, Google+ and Twitter friend to hundreds of wonderful people! If I need help all I have to do is reach out with a question. That is the beauty of the genealogy community.

    I followed the Rootstech debacle with both a personal and professional interest. I am attending the conference so of course I wanted to keep on top of what was going on. Professionally I manage my companies trade show program and topics surrounding trade show issues are interesting to me.

    I had no problem with the Rootstech policy…as long as it had been communicated from the beginning to exhibitors. I believe we found out that was not the case and I feel that was poor form on their part.

    Some of the posts on the various social media sites were out of line in my opinion. Fire somebody? Cancel your registration? Really?

    For me personally I was not expecting an immediate decision to be made when confronted with the obvious outrage from the genealogy community. I was, however, expecting a response, any kind of response. “We hear you and will get back to you.” One simple sentence can go a long way towards calming a crowd.

  13. I am not at all interested in RootsTech, so I did not follow the recent discussion–other than to note that a “genealogy conference” without books is not really a genealogy conference. (One of the reasons that I am not interested in RootsTech.) But this is just my personal opinion, and I know many very good genealogists who are very excited about RootsTech.

    But this post and other recent posts around the blogosphere surrounding the SSDI reminds me of Joan Miller’s “Genea-Bodies” post this past spring, following the first RootsTech. The online genealogy community has a voice that is heard far louder than that of the offline community. This voice can indeed be mobilized to support issues that concern us as genealogists.

    The “Face of Genealogy” series of posts a few months ago was a great example of using the voice to change the perception of genealogists. The current campaign surrounding SSDI and other records access issues is an even better example of using the voice to try to enact changes in the world that affect us positively.

    I only wish that we had discovered this voice before the companies decided to exploit it for their own financial gain. (Not that there is anything wrong with financial gain. Quite the contrary, I wish there was more of that! 😉 )

    I posted about the current Genealogy Paradigm Shift in my blog earlier today:

  14. All very good points in the blog and the comments. I can attest to the cannibalistic and quite discouraging nature that I felt when I tried getting my foot in the door. One “professional” genealogist in essence lectured me about what it meant to be a genealogist and made me feel insignificant and then followed up by offering to mentor me at the Family History Library.
    Needless to say, I passed up the “offer”. I have found many wonderful mentors and friends that I have made in the professional community and within my own research circles. I can say that the hair-splitting politics that engulf this community can be embarrassing to me–sort of like the crazy relative at the holidays that doesn’t mind their Ps and Qs.

    If I have learned anything about the genealogy community, it’s this: No one has a monopoly on wisdom. Ancestors are a tricky lot to work with–and there is not a cookie cutter research methodology for all of them.

    When I have had questions, I ask and the community has always helped. I’ve never felt left out just spread too thin and feel like I lack personal time to tackle the major projects I would like to finish.

    What I have seen in the past couple of years is a few community members who feel their views are of more merit than the status quo. It also seems to be some social posturing and some animalistic behaviors that disenfranchised me enough to unsubscribe from a couple mailing lists temporarily, so the proverbial dust would settle. Having passion is one thing, but tipping the scales in favor of a sharp tongue does no one any good.

    The situation with the SSDI demands that we as genealogists do what we do best–master another field of study–legislation. If the organizations that are non-profits are limited with their ability to lobby, then we must all put our backs into the hard work that lies ahead for us.

    A comparison was made about the Ark and the Titanic; Stephen King once wrote of the Great Wall of China. Not only was it built by hand but you can it from space.

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