They're not my ancestors, they're OURS.... or why collaboration just makes sense!

I joined Ancestry.com when I got back from Rootstech.  I admit it, I gave into the promise of technology.... now I'm waiting for the rewards. What I mean is that although it is great having so many sources available that I can attach -- fully cited -- to my tree, it is by no means a perfect world.

One of Ancestry's selling points is the ability to match the indexed historical data offered on their website to individuals on your family tree. The "shaky leaf"may tell you about documents that they think pertain to the person you are working on, but it doesn't absolve you from actually reading and digesting the documents they suggest. It is too easy to assume Ancestry is right, and click "attach," but remember, these matches come from a computer algorithm after all!  I can see the temptation to just grab and run, but it's important to slow down and put everything in context.

Another thing I noticed right away was that some of my own work was already up on Ancestry..... on someone else's public tree! What happened was that several months ago, I made contact with a third cousin. He suggested we exchange GEDCOM files so we could more easily compare notes. I sent him a section of my GEDCOM that was limited to that family line, but which also included research on ancestors we did not have in common. So the first "shaky leaf" I saw when I logged onto Ancestry was a suggestion I look at his family tree -- and there was all my work on ancestors that weren't even his!

I don't think he did it out of malice or any negative motive whatsoever. In fact, we had a very nice exchange, and he sent me copies of some wonderful old photos that I had never seen before. I just think that Ancestry makes it so easy for people to add information to their family tree, that they don't think about the implications of what they do. It used to be that you wouldn't think twice about sending a relative your entire GEDCOM file, because it was only going to live on their computer. Now, it gets published to the web as the property of the person who uploaded it, even though he or she did not actually put in all the work. Let me tell you, you feel one way about your data when the sources are delivered to you by Ancestry's shaky leaf, and another when you put in days or even years tracking down documents from remote repositories, slogging through irrelevant data to find that one little nugget of gold.  

Maybe it's just a problem with my ego, but I want to take responsibility for the conclusions I draw, especially if they are at odds with "common wisdom" on an ancestor. Ancestry has a big problem with data transparency. They make it easy for users to add source citations for documents they own, but not for information that is "free," i.e., members' family trees or data from outside sites such as www.findagrave.com.

What makes it even more frustrating is the fact that there are so many overlapping trees on Ancestry. Everyone has their own little proprietary angle on the past -- I don't know if you've noticed, but some people can be very possessive about their ancestors! However my sense is that the interconnectivity of Web 2.0 is moving us in the direction of true collaboration in genealogy.

FamilySearch's new single family tree of mankind is a real game changer here. Every time someone adds a new piece of data or makes an editing change, it is tagged with the contributor's name. If someone comes along later and adds information, every change is noted in the database and should there be a disagreement, there are moderators who will arbitrate disputes.

So why is this important?  If the emphasis in Ancestry is data acquisition without transparency, and FamilySearch is all about open attribution and collaboration, it would seem to me that anyone who is serious about family history would lean towards the latter.

We have to stop treating our ancestors as belonging exclusively to us and start thinking of them as historical figures with whom we have a close and personal relationship. Once someone is dead, they belong to history, and as family historians we want as much detail about their lives as we can find. But we all have different pieces of the puzzle. One person may have all the family stories, while someone else inherited the silver, the Bible, the photos (or maybe just the good looks!) The only way we can achieve a better understanding of the past is for each of us to contribute our own particular piece of that puzzle! By collaboratively working on our ancestors in an environment that recognizes individual contributions, we can all share without any one of us losing our individual connection to our ancestors.