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Interview – Matt Johnson of tpstry


[Editor’s Note: recently I had the opportunity to review the products and services at tpstry here at GeneaBloggers. Here is an interview with the creator of tpstry, Matt Johnson, where we discuss Matt’s work and his interest in genealogy and family history.

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 get the idea for a product like tpstry? Did this come from personal experiences with trying to gather your own family history information?

The idea actually developed from me trying to decipher the plot for the TV show Lost. In Lost, all the characters, locations and events are connected, but the writers only give little hints to these connections. I started to think that if all the viewers of the show went to a website and entered in what they knew about each character, location and event, that soon you could visualize how everything is connected and the plot would become clearer.

I never built that site because the show was coming to an end, so I started looking for other applications of this idea. And that is when I started to think about how in family history, there are lots of people, locations and events and how no one family member knows all the facts about each of them. But if we combined the knowledge of each family member, we could have a much richer understanding of our family history.

Can you tell us how tpstry is different than simply sending an email to a relative or mailing a family group sheet for them to fill out?

Getting relatives involved to help gather your family history can often be slow going, so we built tpstry to be simple and easy to use. Tpstry works by guiding users through a series of questions. This tends to be a quick process because you either know the question or your don’t. Also, the user doesn’t have to think about what to write. Most answers are names of people, dates or short phrases. So this minimizes the time commitment that other relatives have to devote to helping you.

For each question on tpstry, the user has the option to “Ask For Help”. This sends an email to your relative or friend and asks if they know the answer to the question, ie. “What is Bob Jones’ hair color?”. The email recipient can click on the link in the email message, answer the question and be done. And hopefully, this will get them excited about answering other family history questions.

By focusing on one quick question at a time, instead of a blank family group sheet with lots of empty fields, your relative doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Plus, tpstry changes it’s questions based on previous answers. Once tpstry knows that a question doesn’t apply to a person, it won’t show those types of questions anymore. So only pertinent questions are displayed.

Do you have an interest in genealogy and family history? If so, how did you get interested?

I’ve always been interested in knowing more about my family, more precisely the people that I had personal contact with. My paternal grandfather died when I was eight years old, so I never developed a strong memory of him. At family gatherings I like to hear stories about him and other relatives to help get a better sense of their personalities. Just last Christmas I was looking at a picture of a couple taken in the 1940’s. After asking a relative who the man was, I learned that it was my grandfather. I didn’t recognize him because I always remembered him with a bald head and the man in the picture had a full head of bushy hair.

With many genealogy and family history sites, privacy and protection of personal information is always a concern. What does tpstry do to protect my data as a user? Can anyone see answered questions on the tpstry site?

Privacy is a main focus at tpstry. When you create a family and start answering questions, those answers are private. Search engines like Google cannot access those answers. Only other users who you invite to join your family can see those answers.

If I have my own questions that I feel are important for my family to answer, can I create them? What about suggesting questions for tpstry to include in its current library of questions?

Yes, tpstry allows you to create as many custom questions as you like. Our library of questions will continue to grow and we encourage users to suggest new questions. Users can send us feedback through our support message board (, our Facebook page ( or our Twitter account ( We want to create an open dialog with our users and we welcome comments about existing questions, potential new features and even bugs that might find their way into the site. Tpstry is built to be useful to it’s users, so we always want to know what works and what doesn’t.

Finally, who is your favorite ancestor and why?

This would have to be my maternal grandmother. As we have been developing tpstry, that is the relative I think about most. She passed away eight years ago and since then I’ve realized that she was a much stronger, more active woman than I realized. There was a lot more to her than I was aware of when I was younger and I wish I would have gotten to know her better when she was around.

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

6 thoughts on “Interview – Matt Johnson of tpstry

  1. I enjoyed reading about the launch of Tpstry and the initial idea behind its creation.

    I too am a fan of Lost. Maybe Matt Johnston could set up the “Lost Family” and allow users to contribute to their history.

    In the mean time I will start with my family. Thanks you for keeping geneabloggers informed.

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