Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday Mailbox: Another Danger for FamilySearch Family Tree

The Ancestry Insider's Monday MailboxDear Readers,

Robert Ernest Werner sent this message to FamilySearch on their public feedback forum:

Limit the users ability to delete just any record.

Please change the delete function so that only the patron that added an ancestor can delete it. Recently, someone went in and deleted an entire branch of my pedigree. Their reasoning was that they did not want people changing "their" Family Tree.

I’m afraid there’s bad news for both Robert and bad news for all Family Tree users.

The bad news for Robert is that no tree user is special. This is a community tree and no one gets treated differently than anyone else. There’s no way around that. The tree doesn’t know a competent user from an idiot. Idiot users are adding garbage ancestors to the tree. Do you want competent people to be unable to delete garbage from the tree?

The bad news for all users is a danger that hadn’t occurred to me before: users who delete people from the tree because they don’t want “their” ancestors in the tree.

Some people feel ownership for information about their relatives. They feel they have the right to delete their relatives. But no person in Family Tree is exclusively mine or exclusively yours. You can’t delete a relative of yours without deleting a relative of mine.

Some people feel ownership for the information they contribute. They feel they have the right to delete information that they contributed. But it’s impossible to tell if a contribution is exclusive to one person or another. Other people may have intended to contribute the same information but it was already in the tree.

Some people feel ownership for the results of their own research. Extending a family line is often difficult and expensive. If someone posts the results of your work without your permission, don’t you have the right to delete it?

Some people may feel they have priority in the decision to have a relative’s information in the tree. If I don’t want my deceased mother or wife or daughter in the tree, don’t I have the right to delete them? What right does a more distant relative or even a random person have to place my immediate family member in the tree?

Some people feel that the tree needs to represent some absolute truth, no matter how unsavory. Doesn’t a victim of rape or incest have a right to delete information about their victimization from the tree?

Some people or groups might object to the beliefs and practices of FamilySearch’s sponsor, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or some other group’s participation in the tree. Are there cases where someone has a moral or religious right to delete a family member or associate from the tree?

Some people object to political or social systems of communal ownership. Such a person may disagree with the underlying concept of Family Tree altogether and delete their relatives as a matter of principle.

Is it reasonable for FamilySearch to expect communal behavior in the genealogy community?


  1. Not sure whether you are asking rhetorically, but, no, it is not reasonable to expect communal behavior. Not everyone has the same goals and motivations, even in the broadest sense. Too many are into genealogy because of how it makes them feel knowing that they descend from this person or that.

  2. When I put my tree into family search I did have to delete some later on as some when in and changed the spelling of names and also added children that I knew were not in the family. I think I should know what children my grandparents and great grandparents had and how their names were spelled.

  3. All of these reasons, along with a thousand others, show that adding your family tree to FamilySearch is a foolish and short-sighted thing to do. Each of us knows the amount and quality of research that went into our trees and and we should be able to stand by our work, whether poor or outstanding. Once your tree is posted on FamilySearch, it is no longer your work - it belongs to the idiots and know-it-alls.

    1. Amen! I refused to post my tree there but after reading so many blog posts about how helpful it would be to have it there, I uploaded a GEDcom which corrupted no end. I had a devil of a time getting instructions from familysearch to delete it. My ancestors at their site are a nightmare. Anyone with the same last name is assigned to my family. I have an uncommon amount of Williams and Elizabeths who found them selves married to or children of complete strangers. Back to my selfish self, I will never put any of my relatives there again. Learned my lesson! I have a public tree at ancestry. anyone who wants information can get it there but they won't be able to "fix" my tree.

  4. I think it is reasonable to expect communal behavior in the genealogy community, just as it is reasonable to expect civil behavior in society at large or Christ-like behavior in the Christian community. However, we have all encountered behaviors in all these areas that do not meet those standards. I think that increased awareness and appropriate responses could go along way to educate those who are exhibiting non-communal behavior. I think that in Family Tree, increased use of Photos and Stories, Sources, the Watch Feature, and taking advantage of all opportunities to educate those in our sphere of influence can reduce the frequency of the type of incidents you report in your article. Keep up your good work in this area.

  5. My experience is that it's not reasonable to expect communal behavior from a completely open group unless there are controls to enforce it. Education is necessary but not sufficient, because too many ignore it or feel they "know better."

    A note to "My Family Tree" who posted above: As I understand it, the delete function in Family Tree should only be used for individuals who did not exist; I've also used it when I've added someone and immediately afterward have found a duplicate--I'll delete the new person I just added. But if you just want to change the spelling, wouldn't you want to edit the existing record rather than delete it and (I assume) add back a new one?

    In the case of children added to the wrong family--again, you would not delete them but just break the parent-child relationship. They are most likely someone's child, unless they are completely fictional (which is unlikely).

  6. I agree with Robert that no-one should be allowed to delete a record that is not theirs or part of a record that they did not contribute. My interpretation of his message is that possibly he linked a branch of his pedigree to their family tree. In my opinion, they do not have the right to delete his branch. But, I think that they do have the right to delete his link that connects his pedigree to their family tree. A person should have the right to enter the data as they see it without interfering with the data of others. When a person A’s data does not agree with person B’s data, both pieces of data can be entered with their sources and people can make their own judgments. I think that is a good way for it to be.

  7. I like Paul's solution. As it stands, however, is Robert's only recourse to re-attach the entire branch that someone else lopped off? Will that, then, create an entire sub-culture of loppers and re-attachers?

  8. From what I understand the point of newFamilySearch and now FamilyTree is that is a one tree for all system. That being the case there should be one person identifier for each person NOT DUPLICATES. (Watch Ron Tanner's RootTech 2013 presentation -- that ancestor is not just your ancestor he/she is someone else's ancestor too.)

    Duplicate entries for the same person; undocumented facts/relationships; and the inability to correct errors were some of the major problems with Ancestral Tree, Pedigree Resource and submissions (not extractions) to the International Genealogical Index. The problem with newFamilySearch was that you still could not get rid and prevent the spread of incorrect information because only the person that put it in (or FamilySearch) could change it.

    Assuming duplicates ever get cleaned up resulting in just one person identifier per person, how does conflict about a person get solved? BY DOING ACTUAL RESEARCH IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENT/SOURCES AND SOURCING THAT INFORMATION IN FAMILYTREE. It's hard to disagree when the document is staring the user in the face.

    Just adding and linking people because of family tradition or copying the undocumented "work" of others is not genealogy.

    Would I link my tree on my computer to FamilyTree in the state that FamilyTree is now? No.

    Would I try to fix something I saw that was obviously wrong? Yes. How? Document/Source the change.

    Learn how to properly merge and what happens to each bit of information. If you merge a person with relationships into another person you are just merging the main person -- any relationships are just added to the resulting person. (Sounds like a nFS combine.) Best merge is one without relationships so editing/moving is required. Detach/Delete bad relationships giving good reasons. Delete a person identifier only when the person is not real or the information is so bad that it is better to delete than let really bad or unreal info be merged into the correct person and spread further.

    If something gets uncorrected? Try contacting the person or FamilySearch. Or hopefully un-merge/un-do and make it correct again and make the reason/source stronger.

    I have attempted to fix a couple IOUS ancestors but the time required to do so is enormous and doesn't even touch the 200 some duplicates of each person. And once I cleaned up a third IOUS I still couldn't combine it with another cleaned up IOUS so both are still in limbo until nFS is truely unlinked fro FamilyTree. All said, I'd rather use the time to research my ancestors in original records many of which have digitized derivatives available.

    1. It's hard to disagree when the document is staring the user in the face.

      Unfortunately, for some people it is all too easy and we cannot presuppose that users will be rational actors. I have a situation, right now, where someone desperately wants to descend from a captain in the Revolutionary War, one who happens to be one of my ancestors. This sad fellow's ancestor and the captain's proven son are two different individuals and demonstrably so, but that has not stopped him from rearranging my ancestral line for nearly a month, now. Attaching sources to the individuals in question and even sending the information to the man directly, with detailed explanations, has made no impact whatsoever.

      When I approached Family Search about the problem, I was informed that it wasn't my tree and everyone can contribute by design. In a surprisingly condescending response, they suggested that I purchase genealogy software! I was frankly shocked. They are saying that the confused and the clueless are free to do as they please on Family Tree, while serious researchers should work on their own trees in private. It would appear that a fantasy will do as well as the truth and accuracy is a matter of opinion.

  9. Haven't most of these issues been addressed by Wikipedia? Anyone can edit, anything and anytime. Most have altruistic motives, but many do not. They developed a pretty robust, sophisticated framework that stressed dialog and documentation among individuals that disagree. Its not a perfect system, and they still need some circuit-breaker type algorithms, that for instance lock updates to an article that is updating too frequently or getting defaced. But I think overall, the system works remarkably well.

    Family Tree has a maturity growth curve to climb, and building a common communal tree is indeed a complicated problem. But I think that Wikipedia has proven the concept itself can work.

    On a side note, I am a bit concerned with the API functionality with regard to FamilyTree. Don't get me wrong, I love APIs and integrating systems. I'm just concerned it makes it too easy for less sophisticated users to update data without being properly introduced to the concepts. But even this is solvable. FamilySearch could have a standards guide issued to software developers as part of educating the user-base. For example desktop genealogy programs would display some guides or training material. Or FamilySearch could have a required on-line training course requirement as part of getting API access with write/edit permissions.

    1. The first problem with the Wikipedia paradigm is that when you look at disputes for pages, there's almost certainly several people involved. In the case of many FSFT disputes, there's often only just two - the "originator" and the "changer". No wisdom of crowds.

      The other aspect is that Wikipedia deals in text - it's possible to come to an agreed text there that says "X was stated to be the son of Y in 19th century texts but in the absence of contemporary evidence, this is not generally accepted now." There's no facility in FSFT for those sorts of links - either X is the son of Y or he isn't. (Yes, you can put the text in but it's inferior in its impact to the documented relationships, whereas the purely textual Wikipedia can be opinion neutral.)

  10. In "perfect" little world I would do the following.
    1. Keep my genealogy in my own database so I know how things should be and what sources I have.
    2. Share that genealogy with FamilySearch Family Tree through a 3rd Party Affiliate - which are Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic
    3. Put a Watch on anyone that I am concerned about on Family Tree
    4. Someone comes along and messes up my Watched person I can just use a 3rd party affiliate to change it back until a little war comes about causing the person to be locked. Then we cool off and discuss our sources and resolve things the best we can
    5. Someone comes along and tries to delete my Watched person that record should automatically be locked, causing all parties to sit down and hash out what's going on. FamilySearch then has final say if that person is deleted or not and how the record should appear. Once a decision is made that record is locked. If new proof is found then you start discussions all over again.

    1. Renee - You are so right! In this conversation - "deleted my entire line" will most likely be one relationship or person was deleted in reality. I "lost" my ancestry on one line 12 time until I got smart and moved all the relationships of my ancestor to one of his IOUS (unusually large, unmergeable records). Once this was done peace has been restored. Tree is a work in progress but is moving in the right direction.


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