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Witch Hunts, Mob Mentality and the Online Genealogy Community


Witch Hunts, Mob Mentality and the Online Genealogy Community

Must social media and using it to highlight issues in the genealogy community always turn from civil discussion into a witch hunt? How do you balance the airing of diverse views and the input of many voices? In addition, shouldn’t pointing out the actions of a community member rise above personal attacks and a mob mentality?

These are questions that I am always struggling with as I use social media on a daily basis as part of my business model and in building an online following within the genealogy industry. However, at certain times, such as with the recent Barry J. Ewell plagiarism discussion from late last week, the need for answers becomes much more pressing.

Separating Actions from the Personal

It has been disheartening to see a variety of comments and reactions that are not only counter-productive to discussion and change, but also make the online genealogy community appear as if it thrives in an environment of drama and turmoil. We do not need comments that demonize a person and make him or her less human. We do not need comments hinting at physical attacks. Would you say these things face to face to someone? Consider that when you are part of a discussion online. It is not easy and even I sometimes forget to ask myself when typing my words: “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it helpful?”

Try to separate the act from the person perpetuating it. Try to put yourself in his or her shoes and ask yourself, “Why do they do this? Could I ever be in a situation where I would do the same thing? I wonder what they are going through right now?”

Avoiding Generalities and Stereotypes

I am convinced that when a discussion is filled with the perpetuation of generalities and stereotypes, it is due to intellectual laziness and a lack of information. Many people just want the easy way out yet still feel they are contributing to a discussion. Having personally been on the receiving end of stereotyping much of my life, I know not just how harmful this can be, but also how it can quash meaningful discussion and cloud the issues.

I have seen the recent plagiarism plague attributed to members of the LDS church and their role in the genealogy community. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.

No one should ever need to defend his or her faith. In addition, I am more than happy to step up and defend my Mormon brothers and sisters. Although from a faith perspective I may not agree with everything in terms of their beliefs and practices, I do need to say that not all Mormons are plagiarists as someone recently suggested. Why anyone would say such a thing is beyond me. Whenever I hear new genealogists go on an anti-LDS riff, I will always be there to defend what the Church does for genealogy. Our community would be nothing without their contributions.

Online Communities Are Much Like Our Ancestors’ Communities

In my family history research, I often focus on the towns and cities where my ancestors lived. How did the community react to problems, how did they discuss issues, how did they handle dissent? Unfortunately, I have found a history of witch hunts, mob mentality and running someone out of town because they did not subscribe to that community’s norms. At times and even now, it is called community survival. You do not want scam artists or thieves to thrive, so you call them out and warn others. As a community, you develop a system of consequences tied to actions.

However, I have also seen the concept of redemption in these very same communities. Someone who has broken the rules or has committed certain types of actions may have been shunned, but then is welcomed back into the fold. This usually happens when a person has taken responsibility for their actions, worked to make amends, and going forward worked towards positive community contributions.

I am a big believer in redemption, being someone who has done some stupid things, especially in the genealogy community. I am human and some of my past actions have had consequences. So what do you do? If you want to stay in the community you “name it and claim it” and then make amends and move on. You try to be a better person than you were the day before and add more to the pot than what you take from it. I think that is all we can expect from anyone in a community.


Let me make it clear that I still subscribe to the “there’s room at the table for everyone” mantra that has been a hallmark of my participation in the genealogy industry. This includes dissenting voices, even those that might run counter to established practices and even laws and regulations.

With the current discussion on plagiarism, if anyone would like to make a strong, competent argument for using the content of others without proper citation or attribution, I am still willing to listen. However, offering excuses and non-responses is not a way to make a case. I am willing to accept that in the growing digital world, how we look at content usage will change over time, and perhaps not adhere to practices developed in a world dominated by printed works. However, in order to evaluate another perspective, again, we need solid, well-researched information for a discussion to move forward and not devolve into finger-pointing, insults and personal attacks.

What I am asking for now is a focus on the issues and that we work towards positive solutions. Remember that words have meaning and consequences and that despite the impersonal aspect of social media, that there are real people with real lives and livelihoods behind those avatars and account names. You can still be critical yet be kind. You can still discuss issues and listen to other views. If I did not believe in the power of social media to create change, I would have stopped using it a long time ago.

©2016, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.