Friday, February 20, 2009

The Popularity of Genealogy: Why Dick Eastman is Wrong

Yesterday Dick Eastman posted an interesting article about the popularity of genealogy. His summation:
I will suggest that genealogy is indeed a very popular activity among Americans. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, people are actively looking for their family heritage. However, that number pales in comparison to some other personal interests that I have mentioned.

As proof points he contrasts some indicators of interest in genealogy to indicators of interest in other popular activities like sports. He rightly (and convincingly) points out that if the interest in genealogy is so high (Time Magazine reported it as one of the four most popular activities on the Internet in 1999) then there should be other indicators like money spent, magazine subscriptions or attendance at conventions. He points out that the dollars spent on genealogy pale in comparison to the billions spent on sports. Where for example is the Sports Illustrated of genealogy? Why are there so few attendees at the National Genealogical Society conference but 40,000+ at a Star Trek convention?

Well to be truthful, Dick is right. The number of people sufficiently interested in genealogy (as offered in the current magazines, trade shows, etc.) is quite low compared to other major hobbies. So how do you account for the difference between Time Magazine and Dick Eastman? Did Time get it wrong and Dick get it right? There is a simple explanation and here it is:

Interest < Barriers to Adoption

There is no question, in my opinion, that the majority of people in America (and I suspect on this planet) do have a strong interest in knowing more about their ancestry. However the effort required in order to satisfy that interest is currently too high for most people. Try this test on a random friend. Tell them that you have found a picture of their 3rd Great Grandpa and you think there are some striking similarities. Ask them if they’d like to see it. What do you think the response rate would be? Pretty high.

Then tell that friend that to see it they have to pay you $350, create a research plan, keep a research log, spend countless hours scanning through microfilm, become an expert on the Palatine Migration, learn to read ancient German and walk across a bed of hot coals barefoot while carrying an elephant in one hand. The number of positive responses goes down slightly.

People are interested in their ancestors. They aren’t interested in becoming genealogist or in running a gauntlet to satisfy that interest. The creators of genealogy magazines, conferences and the industry as a whole have focused on delivering something that is of interest to those that are willing to run the gauntlet. For example, Elizabeth Shown Mills excellent reference, Evidence Explained, while impressive in detail and thud factor, is not going to be on the coffee table of the average American. I’m sure this wasn’t her intention. To the average person it makes the gauntlet that much more overwhelming. To those that are willing to run the gauntlet it is an essential reference.

I believe we are getting close to a tipping point on the equation. Imagine what would happen if the equation changed.

Interest > Barriers to Adoption

There has been a flurry of activity in the industry recently trying to make genealogy accessible to the masses. For example, both and FamilyLink’s We’re Related Facebook application have millions of subscribers. I suspect that ‘serious’ genealogists don’t consider these very relevant – especially We’re Related. They are extremely relevant to me. They have successfully created something that allows the average person with an interest in genealogy to start playing. There is however still a gap between the ordinary person’s desire to know about their ancestors in a rich, accurate and easy way and what these applications offer.

What will it take to deliver an experience that is accessible to the average person but can still help them discover their ancestors in a genealogically sound manner without requiring them to become a genealogist? Here’s an extremely high level list. Just making progress on these four items would take us past the tipping point.
  1. Make the most relevant historical records viewable and searchable online. FamilySearch and The Generations Network (and many others) are actively working on this.
  2. Remove inhibitors to collaboration. and FamilyLink are making progress on this by integrating social networking concepts with genealogy. Their efforts aren’t a complete solution but a good start.
  3. The system knows how to do genealogy so the user doesn’t have to. I think there are three major areas of focus on this one: 1) The system needs to be able to help the user decide what to do 2) the system must be able to identify and execute a research strategy 3) the system must be able to help the user perform meaningful analysis of evidence without the user having to know how to analyze evidence (I believe this is the hardest one).
  4. Integrate item two and three above so that the system can take the complex work process of genealogy, divide it into discreet tasks and spread those tasks across large numbers of users (based on their interest, resources and skill) and coordinate the final outcome into ‘completed’ genealogical research.

While these are hard tasks, they are not impossible tasks. They are hard on the order of a decade or two. The tipping point however is within five years. When that happens there are hundreds of millions of people with an interest in their ancestors that will be able to have a meaningful experience without having to walk on hot coals or carry elephants.


Jim McMillen said...

If your goal is simply to provide a family tree to someone, fine, but it does nothing at all toward advancing genealogy as a hobby.
If you make it so easy, or automatic, to find one's ancestors, finding them won't be worth very much.

Dan Lawyer said...

I anticipate that it will still require effort for a long time to come. The level of effort will just come down to where ordinary people can accomplish it. I also believe that the nature of the work will change and higher value work will be accomplished.

Anonymous said...

Very well said!

Becky said...

Isn't Ancestry enough proof that genealogy is popular and becoming more so? why do people spend so much time talking about start-ups like geni and we're related when we already have a giant company that has succeeded in talking genealogy to "common person"? I think we sometimes take Ancestry for granted. Is there an anti-Ancestry bias?

Shasta said...

I agree with you for the most part. When I tell most people I am interested in genealogy, they say they are too. Some even ask me how much I would charge to do their family tree.
The other reason conferences, books, etc. aren't as popular is that with limited financial resources, I'd rather spend money on targeted records and sources that will actually help me advance my genealogy. The end all of sports is the entertainment factor, and a genealogy conference isn't quite as entertaining.
Geni is great, but you have to deal with differing opinions with the relatives about privacy issues.

Elyse said...

Great article! You definitely made your case. But I think that it also might be something else: Genealogists are willing to stay up late, willing to let their eyes burn while looking at the handwriting on old documents, willing to spend hours seated in front of a computer (or microfilm machine) searching for that record, and willing to educate themselves about what is out there and available, etc - but a person just interested in genealogy? That person has bigger priorities, and will put off genealogy because of the work or just that they have other things to do.
This example explains my aunt (who got me into genealogy in the first place). She got interested in genealogy, bought a subscription to Ancestry and tried it out. She mingled on FamilySearch and did get somewhere - but at the end of the day, she wasn't willing to put the time and effort into it to really go very far. And to be honest, while you can do some advances like making searches easier to do and understand and to help people network, I think it is impossible to make it so simple for people to find their trees with ease - and don't get me wrong I would love to make things easier, but I think that there will still have to be work involved....maybe it is just my limited imagination.
Nonetheless - great article!

Dan Lawyer said...

I certainly don't feel an anti-Ancestry bias. If anything I'm a fan (as well as a paying customer). They've made great progress in making genealogy accessible to the masses. We just haven't reached the tipping point yet.

Geolover said...

Enjoyed reading your perspective.

Unfortunately, without #1 (local and country-wide court, estate, land, tax and vital records, accurately indexed with accurate and intuitive search engine interface), #3 (logical adaptable research plan embedded in search-engine interface) is useless or impossible.

E. g., the 1850 US Census is useless for determining when an ancestor first owned land on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. TGN's search engine hardly ever returns census enumeration items before 1850 and routinely disregards date-bracketing, locations, etc.

E. g., in TGN the repeatedly uploaded baseless gedcom items are treated by the new search engine interface as having fact-worthiness, even to presenting items from the OneWorldTree horrorshow as 'records'. Well, they are records of someone's opinion, or of an error-riddled computer-generated compilation of such opinions.

So give us a time-frame estimate for a workable programme such as you propose, and a date estimate as to when all microfilmed County records for the US will be available. Not to mention English parish and court records.


Dan Lawyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Lawyer said...


There certainly is a logical order to this high-level list. I wish I was permitted to share some dates. I really believe the tipping point is within 5 years. That's not to say we'll be through the list in 5 years but that we'll be sufficiently far along that most people with an interest will be able to satisfy that interest with ordinary effort.

Geolover said...


You say you think the 'tipping point' will be about 5 years hence.

However, I believe the most key component that is not well embedded in your 4-parameter list is what you specified in the introductory paragraph to it: "help them discover their ancestors in a genealogically sound manner."

The "genealogically sound" element is what is missing from the TGN searchable databases that includes the Trees, myriad no-evidence books, etc. And LDS' new Tree concept regrettably incorporates the IGI mess (thus recreating TGN's OneWorldTree miasma using a somewhat different source-database) (although much of TGN's OWT is based on what folks have lifted from IGI and LDS' 'ancestral files' which also are not much evidence-based).

The element missing from both efforts is a requirement that there be evidence for the assertions. You think it is possible to incorporate an evidentiary component into a computer search program? Where is Turing when we really need him . . .

I believe we have reached another sort of tipping point already. With both LDS and TGN promoting the 'Tree' as research basis, there are increasing numbers of complaints on various message boards about discovered inaccuracies - or at least differences between gedcom-file routines supposedly about same families. Or, like one just posted on a DAR lookup board, asking why the organization rejected an application whose key component was something "from LDS," given that the applicant could not find vital records proving that her ancestor was son of the Revolutionary War veteran.

In this latter case, the person finding the item somewhere in the site was not aware of the nature of evidence and of its absence from most assertions on that site.

In another case, a person recently inquired how to enter B. C. E. dates in a genealogical program.

The record so far is that searching programs do not incorporate any evidentiary requirement.

And the organizations with the most-used searchable databases have not filtered the databases by an evidentiary requirement.

Should LDS and TGN just dump the non-evidentiary parts of the databases? Spend 10 years reviewing and culling the dBs? Should they erect firewalls to make that non-evidentiary sectors non-searchable (oh, the howls and screams)? Should they clearly delineate database-sectors such that a selector for searching "evidence-based" material will not turn up the 99% of the dBs that are
genealogically unproven?

So how would you modify the 4-point scheme to deal with this elephant in the ointment?

Dan Lawyer said...

Thanks for pointing this out. I agree that the industry needs to move to systems that are 'genealogically sound'. This has been a point of extended research for me - comparing genealogy to the models used by systems like TGN, new FamilySearch, PAF, etc. In each case, the models used do not accurately reflect the realities of genealogical research. Sometimes the mismatch is alarming. I think as I wrote this I was assuming that we (the industry) must get the genealogical soundness accuracy correct. I can see that this shouldn't be an assumption but should probably be in the running for number one or two on the list.

There are very subtle yet crucial things which you've pointed out like the difference between evidentiary information and conclusionary information that is not well-supported. Another major weakness is the failure to model the progression from a theory or hypothesis to a conclusion substantiated by explanation and evidence. I could go on and I agree whole-heartedly with your sentiment.

Anonymous said...

EOGN initially was asked for a citation and he admitted that there was not a current citation citing the popularity of genealogy in a genealogical journal, however, there is a citation from another genealogist:

Genealogy has become the number one hobby in recent times
Column published: 25 April 2007
By: Shirley Gage Hodges Biography & Archived Articles

Ben Sayer said...

I've been thinking quite a bit about the growing "non-evidentiary" data problem. In fact, doing more than thinking about it.

It seems to me that there haven't been tools that support conducting evidence-based genealogy research nor sharing solidly researched conclusions. I think we are approaching a tipping point. I have a different idea of why; it's because of my vision for helping people do good genealogy, one search at a time.

That vision has been the catalyst in creating I'm working with genealogists to create online, evidence-based genealogy software with their input. It breaks the mold and I hope will be a game changer.

Harold said...

Dan --

Sounds like the dream of a driver-proof car -- not going to happen. Some level of knowledge and determination has to exist for both safe driving and for accurate genealogy.

Many people (some of them my clients) do not make use of even the easy things available now. They have other priorities for their time, but are willing to spend their money on some help. More on-line images and better search engines have a learning curve too.

You worry in a comment reply that existing equipment doesn't distinguish between "evidentiary information and conclusionary information that is not well-supported. Another major weakness is the failure to model the progression from a theory or hypothesis to a conclusion substantiated by explanation and evidence."

Sounds like something Mills would say. If consumers don't appreciate this difference, and aren't willing to learn enough to appreciate it, why will they bother with your improved software? They will always have half-baked software that doesn't make demands on them, and venues where their confusion of different John Smiths will not be corrected.

There are short-cuts to records, and I look forward to more. (But don't hold your breath for every courthouse to be fully digitized and indexed). There aren't short cuts to reliable knowledge.