Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ancestry’s Public Member Trees: An Addictive New Game

All over America, Facebook users are eagerly racking up points on Farmville, Mafia Wars, and other games. I know; I see them on my Facebook page.

But not me. I don’t dare. Knowing how little time I have for research, blogging, and other pursuits as it is, I avoid these addictive pastimes. Because I would get addicted.

Until now. You see, I thought I’d give Ancestry’s Public Member Trees (PMTs) a whirl. You know, just to see what all the fuss over “shaky leaves” is about.

Little did I suspect. I was just going to input a few names, places, and dates and see what happened; if I liked what I saw, then I might gradually – very gradually – add information.

I started two family trees, one each for my mother and father. The shaky leaves started to appear. Nothing exciting at first, just interesting. These were my closest relatives, the people who had been added to my genealogy program first, and I knew most of them well (parents and grandparents, a couple of aunts and uncles), so at first I hadn’t always bothered to put a source (shame!). To rectify this, I checked out the hints and added sources – SSDI, census, maybe a World War I Draft Registration Card or two. All the sources were familiar to me; I had already transcribed them, even if I hadn’t bothered to cite them for each and every close relative.

As I progressed to aunts, uncles, and their spouses, I had already put source citations, and I started to note that I had more than Ancestry did. “Humph!” I thought. “I’ve got more than you do.” “You” being Ancestry. After going through the sources, I decided to see which PMTs were listed in the hints and what they had. For my father’s close family, there was only one such tree, and the second cousin in question had received the information from me.

Three trees came up for my mother’s immediate family: one first cousin once removed, one first cousin twice removed, and a large group tree for my mother’s home county in Texas. I had much more information and many more sources. “Heh!” I muttered. “I’m ahead here, too.”

For a total of about a dozen relatives, Ancestry’s accuracy was pretty decent on the source hints – out of about 20 hints, only one census link was for the wrong Moore. (This made me think: I often examine the links to the PMTs to the right of the images of the censuses and other documents and I’ve seen incorrect or conflicting connections to a few – are these wrong connections made by the owners of the trees or have they simply accepted incorrect hints from Ancestry?)

For the PMT hints, however, I was not about to hit “Connect”; as I understand it, this is how you add the highlighted information to your own family tree and not how you get in touch with the owner of the tree. If I find anything, I will type it in myself. (A confession: in this process I have found one or two incorrectly entered dates in my genealogy program, such as a 25 Jan 1909 for a 26 Jan 1909; at least I think I made a typo….) But I don’t want to incorporate information without truly looking at it and thinking about it, and I don’t want to have to go back to correct sloppy capitalization and punctuation (which seem to be all over the place in these trees).

And the fact that anybody can just hit “Connect” and endlessly duplicate mistakes – whether minor or major – bothers me. As I saw the same information appearing in exactly the same form in tree after tree, it occurred to me that you cannot tell who originally contributed the information or who copied from whom (although that information is provided for photos that are downloaded and added to other PMTs). So how do I know whom I should contact? And once I put “new” information up, later, after it has been copied and recopied umpteen times, how is another researcher to know to get in touch with me and not just someone who clicked on “Connect”?

This could have put a damper on any further additions to my trees, but I had learned something else: it is interesting and it is fun to see what comes up; what does Ancestry have and what do other tree owners have? And this brought another question to mind: how far can someone go in building a tree by simply following hints (after a bit of initial data input, of course) and without doing much if any research on their own?

And what new things are added after I have reviewed the old hints? Already I could see that I had more ammunition in the bag: I started fumbling around, trying to use the clunky forms to add some non-Ancestry sources and I was also aware of a number of censuses that had not been included in the hints. What would happen if I added those?

At this point I realized that it was too late to stop. This was like a game, and I was addicted to it. Ancestry was “The System” – and it was fun to try to beat The System – even while using it to support my own research. Owners of the other PMTs were other (human) players. I could see and use their research, but they could see and use mine, too.

So when and how would I add new information and where would it lead? For my mother’s family in particular, I have quite a bit of information that neither Ancestry nor the PMTs have. I felt like a chess player considering her next move: should I go ahead and add the name of my mother’s paternal grandfather or should I just cite and link to the two censuses (1880 and 1900) that show her father living with his father? (OK, having just written this I realize that it sets off major geek alarms.) And will this – through my great-grandfather’s distinctive first name – then lead Ancestry to my great-grandfather’s family back in South Carolina? I suspect it will. (And it was no easy thing for me to find this family originally!)

It’s not that I resent sharing the information; if I did, I wouldn’t have put so much of it in Featured Family Friday and Surname Saturday posts. But at least from there people have to cut and paste and then enter the information in their programs.

But there is no question of whether I will make my Next Big Move, simply one of how and when I will make it.

Because I am the Tree Trampler, the Destroyer of the System. Show me what you’ve got, Ancestry – I laugh at the few puny censuses you throw at me, ‘cause I’ve got that many up my sleeve, and a Will-Bomb and a Land Deed-Grenade in reserve.

So how come I have this sneaky feeling that Ancestry has outmaneuvered me by luring me in, taking all the stuff I throw at it and … making that stuff its own content?

Maybe I’ll keep that Will-Bomb in reserve.

Questions that I have:

1. Is there any way to use the forms for additional sources on Ancestry’s PMTs to generate decent source citations?

2. Is it OK to upload an image to my PMT that I originally downloaded from a site such as FamilySearch Record Search?

3. My PMT shows up to the right of census images linked to citations, but not in the Search PMTs function. Is there a certain minimum number of individuals the tree has to contain before it will show up there? (I seem to remember seeing the figure “50” somewhere – Apple’s Tree or Genea-Musings? – but can’t seem to find it now.)


  1. Commenting here mostly so I can follow the rest of the comments I hope you will get, since I am interested in the answers!

  2. Now and then when I use Ancestry's search I might check out what is on other people's trees for the person I am researching. I'm almost always appalled at the errors and repetitions of errors, much like you see on World Connect or any online genealogies. I've never been tempted to put my hard work on one of those forums. I admit that I have found good leads but it seems I rarely find a source listed by someone that I didn't already have. And most of the time there are no sources listed. Yuk.

    Last year I got VERY addicted to Farmville for about 3 months. My advice is to stay away. Stay FAR away!! LOL!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Good post! I play my own game with Ancestry; my goal is to always have the most sources by my tree compared to any others that show up through Member Connect. I don't add outside sources anymore, though. I keep all my information online at my own website and it became too much work trying to keep my Ancestry tree synced with my personal website. I just want to have the most Ancestry sources for any of my people.

    I'm glad you said that about what happens when you click "Connect." I've never clicked it, but always thought it would put me in touch with the tree owner. I definitely don't want to add names willy-nilly to my tree.

  5. Amanda - I guess we are still waiting for some answers to our questions!

    Lisa - I'm putting my trees on in the hope of making contacts, but for the reasons you have stated, I'm a little leery about putting original research up there. I don't mind putting it here or on Footnote pages, though.

    Tonia - I probably won't put a whole lot of outside resources up, but I will put a few; I'm hoping it will make the lure a little sweeter. My main efforts are definitely focused outside of the Ancestry trees, but right now I like the idea of having a little bit of "real estate" in a lot of locations.

  6. Greta, I agree 100% with the frustration of people passing on mistakes simply by clicking the "connect" button! And if you see a fact on 10 different trees with a conflicting fact on 1 tree, does that mean that 9 people clicked "connect" on incorrect information and 1 person actually did research? It's too easy to see a fact on multiple trees and assume that it must be true!
    My solution to putting original research sources on Ancestry is to put them into a Private tree as opposed to a Public tree. I consider it to be a bit of a backup system for my records and researchers can contact me if it seems we have an ancestor in common and I can decide whether to connect with them or not. I've personally experienced working with new genealogists who begin the week with a few ancestors, but have 3000 ancestors after a couple of days! How much actual research do you think went into THAT tree?

  7. "Shy" - I'm thinking of adopting the private tree as a partial solution. Most of the original research that I don't want to see "glommed" is in my material grandfather's line, so I may just make a separate private tree for that.

  8. I know I'm in the minority - I love my Ancestry trees! Some of my trees are public and some private. I am working towards making them all public.

    You are correct that people can click on connect and mindlessly duplicate mistakes however you can use the connect feature without adding or changing anything you have! I do this all the time. Where a tree I connect to has different information a little conflict flag come up and I have to choose whether or not to accept their information. If the other tree has information I do not have I do have to uncheck the box to automatically add it and I do wish they would change that part of the system.

    I add documents found elsewhere such as Family Search, Seeking Michigan or the LAC all the time. I love that these images can be placed right next to each fact so I can see at a glance what I have. As long as I am saving images found at Ancestry anyway, I also upload them so that family members have access to them.

    Did you know that you can create links back to your blog posts about individuals in your tree? I wish it was in a more prominent spot. Look for it bottom right on each individual's page. I link to my blog, Find-A-Grave memorials and occasionally to blog posts or biographies written by cousins. Perhaps for you this would be preferred to adding your information directly to your tree.

    For sources you can use the notes field to write the source exactly as you want it. I have no idea how it would print out.

    I don't know about needing a certain number of people in your tree to have it show up in a search. I know the "shaky leaves" will take you to trees with less than 50 people. Perhaps it takes time for an indexing update?

  9. Apple, Thank you so much for answering my questions! This is exactly what I needed to know (and Amanda was also interested in the answers to these questions). I am finding that PMTs definitely have their uses. I decided to keep one line private for now, but may change it to public later. Meanwhile, everything else is public. The fact that I can link to blog posts is excellent, and I didn't know about this. That plus the ability to link other, non-Ancestry documents makes it a very useful "storage area." On the minimum # needed to show up on searches, I'll keep checking that and report what I find out (or, as you have indicated, it may simply be that they have to get indexed). Thanks for your very helpful answers!

  10. Great thing about blogs, It's a year later and I'm searching around the internet to see more experienced genealogist view on ancestry's PMT. Thanks for the insight. I'm new to genealogy research and was intreaged by a relative's claims after getting on ancestry. I found it hard to believe anyone could get so far back in family history within weeks of getting started. I purchased family tree maker because I wanted my data stored locally where I control it, not available to anyone else and not on some server I don't own. I got started with basic information on people I know and have meet in person. Well I got online and discovered she had did nothing but copy PMT information. While I've been able to utilize some PMT that actually are sourced pretty decently to help me find things, I've also discovered errors where, even good researchers made an assumption that lead them to an incorrect conclusion. I then saw where this was copied over and over until it might be believed to be fact. I don't really have any interest in correcting, just not the confrontational type. However you make a very good point, while ancestry has brought awareness from people such as myself and provides a resource that is readily available for historical documents that it does have. Could it have also hurt research by making so easy to create and copy errors, now making those errors more generally acceptable as fact.

    History without evidence is nothing more than fiction.

  11. Tracy, you have definitely zeroed in on the worst part of PMTs and other public collections of trees such as RootsWeb WorldConnect - the perpetuation of errors to the point that people might accept the information as a "known fact." At this point my overall benefit from PMTs has been - they have pointed me to a few new documents, a couple of which actually helped fill a few pieces in my research; and I have found some pictures and what is probably some good information on individuals who were actually close relatives of the people who put the trees up (there has not been not a large quantity of this information, however). The return as far as people contacting me has been quite disappointing; I have been the one doing the contacting in most cases. This does seem to indicate that most people who put up these trees just copy information, especially for ancestors who are further back.