A shorter version of this article appeared in Avotaynu in Summer 2010 (Volume 22, Issue 1, pp. 27-31), click here for a pdf.

Introduction

For more than a decade, since I’ve started my genealogy research, I’ve been extensively using the Internet as a huge repository of sources and resources, as an important means of communication, and as a major facilitator for connecting with relatives, colleagues and nice people from around the globe. Today, it is clear that the Internet is not a trend but an integral part of our lives. However, a recent trend within the Internet scene – namely, social network websites – might help us all in doing our online genealogy research in many ways. In this article, we will see how Facebook – currently, the most popular social networking website, and generally one of the most popular websites – can be used on a daily basis for genealogy.

Social Networking, Facebook, and Why We Should Care About It?

Social network is not a term invented in the Internet era. Any group of individuals with an underlying set of “connections” between them forms a social network. These connections might be based on friendship, common interest, family relationships, etc. For that matter, any family tree is a social network formed by the people presented in it and the lines (connections) between them. In this example, the connections are quite simple, as every person has lines towards its parents and towards its spouse and children. However, a more complex example might be a social network based on friendship in a small community. During our years of life, we make a lot of connections, from many kinds, and being belonged to many social networks: of schools, political parties, professional unions, common hobbies, municipal communities, to name only a few. Social networks play an important role whenever we are looking for a job, searching for information, or just wishing to hang out.

As the Internet burst to our society, it was just a matter of time – and not a long time – until social networks would have an online version. Although there are many definitions to the term Social Networking Website – often being called Social Networking (online) Service – a unified simple one is given by the social networking researchers Boyd and Ellison1; according to this definition, a social network website is a “web-based service that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.” This definition is rather more structural than conceptual, as it defines properties of a social network sites and not their agendas, but as there are so many kinds of social network sites, it might be that their technical implementation is the only thing in common to them all.

Many social network sites have been launched starting from the very early years of the Web, many of them have risen, and many have fallen. Right now, Facebook is the leading force in the social networks arena, and is therefore the most both powerful and important to our needs. Facebook was launched in early 2004 as a closed social network site for Harvard College students only, but quickly enough expended to other universities and high-schools in the States and in Canada, and in September 2006 opened its gates to everyone of ages 13 and older with a valid e-mail address. Right now, Facebook is the biggest social network site in terms of users, with over 400 million active users from more than 180 countries2, it is currently ranked as the second most popular site in the world by Alexa’s ranking3, and on March 13, 2010 it became the most visited Website in the US4. This is to say, about 22% of the world Internet users5, and almost 6% of the world population6 are active on Facebook, and there are representatives to more than 92% of the world countries7.

But not only its ranking and popularity make Facebook a crucial website for genealogists all over the world. It is the users’ activity within the site which makes it clear that Facebook is not just another website. As the site statistics reveals8, Facebook average user has 130 friends on the site, spends almost an hour per day on the site, and creates 70 pieces of content each month (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.). Simply to say it: Facebook is not a site just to be registered to, and it is clear that its users are active within it on a daily basis. So, if indeed “everybody is on Facebook”, “doing” many things – obviously, you should be there too. And if you are there already – keep reading for understanding how it can promote your genealogy research.

Terminology

Before we’ll dive into Facebook deep waters, let’s understand a bit of the relevant terminology:

  • A Profile is the online representation of the user, including all of the information she or he would like to share. According to privacy settings on which each user decides – each piece of information on the profile might be available to different audiences, e.g., everyone, friends only, friends and friends of friends, a list of people, or no one but you. After registering to Facebook, the first step one should do is to set up a profile.
  • Friendship in the site is established after two users agreed upon it. In the profile, the list of the user’s friends is given (according to the user’s privacy settings), and one can browse or search this list. In addition, users while watching a certain profile, see a separate list (if not empty) of mutual friends between them and the current profile (this is to say, the list of mutual friends is personalized).
    The Wall is a central part of any profile, mainly because it is a public region, meaning everyone (considering your privacy settings) can see it, and anyone (among your friends) can post on it. The wall gathers all of the user’s activity within Facebook and within any site with Facebook application in it At Facebook’s F8 Conference, on April 21, 2010, Facebook announces that they offer a “Like” button to the Web. That means, that sites embedding this button will enable their surfers to vote for any page/feature carrying this button. Every such voting will be immediately reflected in the voter’s Facebook wall.)).
  • A Status is a message by a user – which might combine text with link/photo/video, and a few other options, which is seen to her or his friends (and according to privacy settings). A status update, i.e., the act of changing your status, is an important one-to-many channel of communication in Facebook.
  • News Feed is a continuously and automatically updated list reflecting one’s friends’ activities (which will also appear on their walls). The News Feed is located in the middle column of the 3-column homepage, and is designed to be the main part of the site. Every activity on the News Feed enables a comment or a “like” voting, hence it is an important means of communication between users.
  • A Network is a geographic location (or a region) to which a profile is belonging. On any given time, a profile might be connected to one given network. These networks will help you in connecting people based on location.
  • Pages and Groups are two types of Facebook features every user can initiate and/or be part of, usually to promote a certain person, organization, topic, idea, etc., and to gather other users under that title. Users can “like” a page, or they can “join” a group, and these two features offer slightly different means of communications between the admin of the page/group and their users. Both pages and groups are to be found via the site’s search engine.
  • And, finally, an Application… well, just like in the iPhone/iPad world, it is a program designed to do something. And there are applications for almost anything.

To put it simple, Facebook is a site oriented towards social interaction between people, whether they know each other or still do not, and some of the site’s features allow gathering and communications around topics of common interest. And if you think this is only a children’s game, you cannot be more wrong, as Facebook users’ average age is ever growing. According to a recent study9, the average age of Facebook US users was 38 in early 2010. Both the communication and the topics of interest will serve us for utilizing Facebook as a great genealogy source, resource, and a working tool. And as the site gathers people from a wide range of ages, using it is a great opportunity to everyone.

So, what can Facebook do for you? In the next sections, a few of the most useful applications of Facebook to the genealogy research will be reviewed. Although a few of the searches can be done without being a registered member of the site, most of the active suggestions (e.g., sending messages to users, creating or joining groups, etc.) require a registration, which is, of course, easy and free.

1. Connect with Relatives

As Facebook, as any other social networking website, is mainly about people, the most direct use of it will be, of course, finding people. This site is like a treasure island in which many of the people from your family tree hang around. So, if you’d like to virtually reunite with relatives with whom you haven’t been in touch for a long time, or better – if you would like to find some “lost” relatives, you can do it with Facebook, even when you have only little information.

1.1. Look for Relatives

The first step for finding people is simply to search their names using the search box on the top of the screen (see Figure 1). You can search for a full name, only a part of it, and even on a reversed order, and as a result – a list of users with that or similar name will be presented. For example, searching for “Arnon Hershkovici” will result in a “Did you mean…” reference (like most of us know from using Google) to two possible matches: Arnon Hershkovitz, and Arnon Hershkovich. Although there is no Soundex-based search, the “did you mean” mechanism might help us with the different spellings problem, and the AutoComplete implemented in the site’s search box – searching both first name and surname – combined with a results preview, is also of a big help for finding the desired spelling (at attention that this AutoComplete is personalized: friends will appear before non-friends, profiles with mutual friends – before non-mutual-friends profiles). If you’re interested in a rare or unique surname, simply search this name on Facebook might be an instant solution for tracing down people carrying it.

If you’re lucky enough to know a person’s email, you can type it in the same search box, and if a user with that email exists in the system – it will immediately find it. More than that, Facebook can help you with finding people you email or IM, and this feature supports finding contacts from many popular email/IM services (e.g., AOL, GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, ICQ, Windows Live Messenger, Skype). In any case, you can upload an imported contacts file.

Sometimes, users from non-English countries will choose to appear on Facebook with their native language (usually relatively young and relatively old people), so if not finding an Israeli relative – don’t forget to search for him in Hebrew too.

Figure 1. Facebook search box at the top of the site’s screen

As a result of a name search, a list of possible matches is presented, in the form of a table presenting the profile picture (If exists and if permitted by the user to be seen by non-friends), the name, and some basic location/affiliation details (according to privacy settings) of the people matching the query you’ve inserted. Sometimes, this will be enough for finding the one you’re looking for, otherwise some filtering should be done. While looking for the right person in a long list of possible matches, filtering will often involve intuition or trial and error techniques. Here is a list of possible actions for filtering:

  • Browse the results table, and you might find a familiar face there, or you might recognize a unique name or a certain combination of a name and a location/affiliation details (if presented).
  • Use the filtering mechanism, which enables to filter by location, school or workplace (all depends on the availability of these details in the user profiles).
  • Peek at potentially-relatives’ profiles, and check the available information, such as birthday, hometown, current city, workplace and education (present and past), schools, relationship status. You might even find photos which might be of help in this filtering task. Remember that this information might be set as available to friends only, but often at least a few of these details are public. Sometimes, only a bit of information is enough to determine who it the person you’re looking for.
  • Look at potentially-relatives’ friends list. This might be one of the most powerful tools for finding the person you’re looking for, as it counts on one of the social networks’ principal ideas, i.e., connections between people. If you have a lost branch of the family, in which you have a few names – and even if some of these names are partial or obviously misspelled – you might find them as friends of each other. As I won’t present any examples of other people than me without their formal consent, I’ll show that on my profile. Once you look at my friends list, you may search it (with a built-in search box) for the name “Hershkovitz”, where you’ll see that I have 5 other Hershkovitz friends. If you search it for only “Hershko”, you’ll find another one who spells her name differently (see Figure 2). So, if you have me in your family tree, you sure have a few more of these people, and when you’ll see them in my friends list – you’ll know that you probably found the right person.
  • Check out the mutual friends of you and the people with whom you come across, as this information might also reveal to you that you are indeed related. Indication for mutual friends will appear when you search for people using the general search box, as well as when you watch a certain profile.

Figure 2. Searching within the author’s friends list for the string “Hershko” will result in all the friends the name of whom contain this string; pay attention that the last friend on the list spells his surname differently from the others

1.2. Acquire Information about your Relatives

Once you’ve found the people you were looking for, you can ask them for friendship, in order for both of you to be connected on Facebook. If the person you’ve found does not necessarily know you, it is advised to first send him a message, explaining the presumed connection between you both, and only after getting his reply (considering it’s a warm one) – ask him for friendship. This message should better be short and clear, and it is recommended that you’ll shortly explain how you found this person and add a little personal information on you (so the person on the other wide won’t think it’s a scam).

After you’ve added someone as your friend, you will have an access to his complete profile. In this case, you will have an opportunity to learn a lot about him, starting from personal information. Genealogically-wise, you will find a lot of interesting information about him, such as his birthday, place of residence, and relationship status. Furthermore, you might be referred from his profile to other profiles of his family, as Facebook allows to easily mentioning one’s spouse, children and siblings.

Another great source of information is people’s photo, and if you’d like to add profile pictures of your family members to your family tree software – you might find such photos in Facebook. It is recommended that before copying someone’s photos from their album – you will ask them for a permission to do so. Photos are often tagged, which means that the user added automatically-generated caption with the people in the photo, even if they are not on Facebook (in case a Facebook user is tagged, a hyperlink to his profile is automatically added).

1.3. Stay in Touch with your Relatives and Ever Find More

Using Facebook is a great way of staying in touch with your relatives, after you’ve found them and friended them. As all of your friends’ activities being reflected on your News Feed, you are ever updated with the important events in their life (and let’s not pretend to be innocent: you’ll be also ever updated with every little action they took on the site, and with any silly thought they had). Facebook will also notify you on your friends’ coming birthday, in a special box dedicated for that, so no more excuses for forgetting to with a “Happy Birthday” (not to mention a gift).

A recent improvement in the site allows every user to create groups of friends, where each friend might be related to as many group as you’d like (and also may not be part of any group). Groups of friends are applicable mainly when sending messages, determining on privacy settings, inviting to events, and watching the News Feed. You might consider adding all your friends who are the descendants of a certain common ancestor into one group, for improving the ways of communicating them.

A great feature of the site is the Suggestions box (normally located on the top right) which suggest friends mainly according to mutual friends and school/work information. This is a great tool for finding new users from the family or to find family members that you’ve missed when you searched for them.

Applications play a central role on Facebook as they are continuously developed and being spread via the users’ network (when you use a certain application, it is reflected on your wall, and your friends see it on their News Feed). Applications (also searchable via the general search box) may help you also in finding new relatives. The most popular application of that type is probably the one developed by FamilyLink.com, but the others of that type are also very popular: Family Tree, Relatively Me, One Family Tree, and probably some more. The idea behind them is that after accessing the application (which means that you allow it to access your profile), you can mark people from your friends list as “family”. Later, the application will look for potential new family members on Facebook by comparing your information with your “family” friends’. This might be a great tool for finding new Facebook relatives.

2. Groups and Pages for Family Matters and Professional Enrichment

2.1. Family Groups: Share, Be Shared, Be Discovered

Using groups or pages (these features were defined in the Terminology section), you have great opportunities to share family information, to be shared with more yet unknown information from other relatives, and even to be discovered by others who’re interested in your family.

Initiating a group is only a few mouse-clicks away (use the “+ Create a Group” button on the top of the Groups view, available via the left menu on the main page). You can open a group to gather all of the descendants of a certain couple from your ancestors. Facebook groups have three possible access options: open – everybody can view its content, join it and invite others to join; closed – membership should be approved by the administrator (the first admin is the group initiator; later, any admin can appoint other admins), only members can see the group content; secret – the group will not appear in the site searches (the same search box serving for looking for people, serves also for looking for groups (and with the very same AutoComplete mechanism mentioned beforehand). Look for Haim Yehoshua and Esther Itta GOLDBERG, JANAs of the Facebook, unite!, or Getraide Family to see some of the family groups I’ve created; you’ll be able to see their description but not their content, as these group are closed.

A family group may be a great place to virtually reunite all the relatives, to share information and to learn about each other. However, it also might be a great opportunity to discover new things, and this may be done mainly in two ways: a) Encourage others to share their information about their family and about your common ancestors (including uploading photos) with the group; b) Let other relatives find the group while they generally search their family on Facebook, and you might be surprised to easily find new or long-lost relatives. In that way, creating a group on Facebook is much like adding your name to JGFF, as in both cases you mainly hope that someone will eventually find you.

2.2 Connect with Colleagues

As anyone doing genealogy research might know, during the family research, many question arise, therefore constant communication with colleagues is a “must”. We all use JewishGen’s or other websites’ mailing lists, many are members in a local society, and in general – we keep in touch with colleagues in many other ways. Genealogy-related groups on Facebook are a great place to meet other colleagues with similar interests, and to communicate with the relevant community.

Genealogy Fun, for example, is an open group the purpose of which is to “share tips on genealogy”; That group has a few more than 400 members10, which means that you have a list of 400 colleagues in one place! And if this is not enough, International Genealogy group has more than 6,400 members. If you want to find colleagues of more specific research interest, Dutch Genealogy group has 304 members, JewishGen profile11 has 563 friends, Ohio Genealogical Society group has 270 members, Northern Ireland Genealogy group – 264 members, Australian Genealogy – 468 members, Cemetery Explorers group – 1,742 members, Genealogy Photos group – 568 members, and we didn’t even count Ancestry.com page with 57,255 “likers”! One should remember that anyone can initiate a group or open a page, so the existence of several groups or pages discussing the same topic is certainly an option.

Regarding topics of interest for the genealogy research – friending related profiles, joining groups or liking a page might help you also with being constantly updated with news and announcement. So, if you use Geni.com, you might find it useful to friend “Geni.com” profile, and if you use the online/offline software of MyHeritage – you’ll be able to friend the company profile and to like their page (both entitled with the company name). Doing that, updates from the group/page will appear in your News Feed, and you’ll be constantly updated. In addition, you’ll have the opportunity to meet other users (i.e., other friends/likers) and to discuss with them topics related to the relevant software.

Just like as others created group and pages for gathering people with the same research interest – you can do it too. For example, a group for discussing a certain Shtetl, might be a great way to gather researchers and descendants of that village, in order to eventually deepen the knowledge about it. Such a group/page can accompany a JewishGen ShtetLinks page for the memory of that place, as the former easily allows constant communication between those interested in it. For example, in the “Jewish Krasilov” group I’ve created only a few weeks ago, devoted to the research of my maternal grandfather’s Shtetl, there are already some interesting stories, links and photos uploaded by the group members, which include the Krasilov ShtetLink webmaster.

2.3. Get Help Anywhere in the World

As Facebook is a world-wide phenomenon, and as most of the times, genealogy research by its very nature, requires overseas help – you might find people from almost anywhere to help you with almost anything. Need information about a local office in a certain city? Want to take a picture of your ancestor’s tomb in a distant cemetery? Want help with sending a letter to a non-English person in a foreign country? You can just look for such help according to geographical and/or same-interest basis, by finding users in a relevant group/page. For example, if you look for local help in a certain city/country/institute – simply search the biggest group/page of that place, and try to publicly ask for help or personally contact active members. Another useful method for finding people from a certain place or with a certain affiliation is to search for a common name (by the destination), and to filter it for more specific results.

3. Is It Safe?

Almost from its very early beginning, voices have been heard regarding privacy issues in Facebook. Concerns were raised mainly regarding the difficulties involved in deleting accounts; selling users’ data to private companies; however, more than in any other website – huge amounts of personal information is being uploaded to Facebook every day, opened presumably only to “friends”, but who knows who can access these data? It is suggested that every user will carefully examine the consequences of publishing personal information on the Internet, even in a “closed” scenario like in within social networking websites.

4. Conclusions

Generally speaking, Facebook is a fun website: Like any other social networking website, it helps you to connect with people with whom you share something, but it has two major benefits over other similar websites: It is huge by the number of its users (and it is still growing), and its users are very active. We might use that “everybody’s there”-website to our genealogy needs in a few ways described in this article. Finding long-lost relatives and discovering new ones is always a great challenge, but using Facebook these tasks may become relatively easy. Using groups and pages is a great way to both meet colleagues and create family/topical mini-communities.

As the Internet is continuously changing, it might be that within a few months a new online trend will be a center of attractions to millions of surfers who will significantly decrease the time they spend on Facebook. Therefore, it is very important to act now and strike while the Facebook iron is still hot.

Footnotes

  1. Boyd, D.M., & Ellison, N.B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. []
  2. According to Facebook.com’s Statistics page, http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics, accessed April 20, 2010. []
  3. Alexa’s Top Sites: http://www.alexa.com/topsites, accessed April 20, 2010. []
  4. Hitwise report, March 15, 2010, “Facebook Reaches Top Ranking in US”, available at http://weblogs.hitwise.com/heather-dougherty/2010/03/facebook_reaches_top_ranking_i.html, accessed April 20, 2010. []
  5. Considering about 1.8 billion Internet users, as reported by Internet Usage Statistics, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm, accessed April 22, 2010. []
  6. Considering a world population of 6,816,028,270, as projected by the US Census Bureau World POPClock Projection, http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/popclockworld.html, accessed April 20, 2010. []
  7. When counting 194 independent countries recognized by the US Department of State. See: Independent States in the World, Fact Sheet, by
    Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Washington, DC), July 29, 2009. Available at http://www.state.gov/s/inr/rls/4250.htm, accessed April 20, 2010. []
  8. Facebook.com’s Statistics page, http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics, accessed April 20, 2010. []
  9. Released by Pingdom, a Web monitoring provider, on February 16th, 2010, see http://royal.pingdom.com/2010/02/16/study-ages-of-social-network-users [accessed April 30, 2010]. []
  10. Here and in the rest of this sections – group counts are updated as of May 1, 2010. []
  11. Profiles are often set up also for organizations or ideas, not just for real people. []

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