A Family Affair

By Melanie Rigney Premium will remind you of some members of your own family — a little rigid, quirky, slow to react and forgetful of promises made. But it’s hard not to love it anyway.

It’s a simple concept: The company hosts as many free, password-protected Web sites of 75MB as you want to administer. You get everyone in your family who’s online to join, post pictures, list special family days and exchange stories. In return, Inc. gets eyeballs for its advertisers and exposure for the company’s other genealogy-related products, such as and

The first sites went up in 1998 and by February 2000, the company counted more than 325,000 active sites with 800,000-plus members. Those sites featured more than 2.2 million photos, 2.7 million family news items and 4.4 million family events (birthdays, anniversaries, reunion planning sessions and the like).

Interest so far has far outstripped the company’s resources. For months, busy servers have made it difficult to get into a site on Sunday evenings. Features sound attractive but in practice, some don’t work and take a long time to get fixed. AOL and WebTV users in particular have had problems even accessing the sites. promised improvements, but as of mid-February, AOL users hadn’t seen them. Given the size of AOL’s membership, that’s a real problem. Realistically, people in your family who have trouble accessing the site are going to give up pretty quickly.

Other problems have affected all users. For example, a “Who’s Online” feature is supposed to let you know who else from your site has the Who’s Online box open and is online, even if you both go elsewhere on the Internet. But for more than two months in early 2000, Who’s Online didn’t work at all. Those who complained got form messages saying was working on the problem. People found work-arounds; for example, at a site I administer, we decided to all launch Text Chat whenever we were online and use it in the same way as Who’s Online. But while we all love each other, it was a bit restricting to know that any other family member who came into Text Chat could see your conversation.

At the two sites I administer and two others where I’m a member, there also have been problems with features as seemingly simple as changing your page’s cover photo. For more than a month, sites with larger membership weren’t able to add new members by having e-mail password and ID info directly to the newbies; instead, administrators had to handle notification themselves. The problem wasn’t so much the extra step as it was’s failure to apprise administrators of the problem or address it in some other way. Similarly, one day, previously loaded GEDCOM ancestry files just quit working on sites and had to be re-created.

In late February the company introduced MyFamily Mail, a free Internet-based e-mail, voice mail and fax service. But, given the problems with other features, I’d be cautious about rushing to take advantage of it.

In one instance, was just plain disingenuous. Administrators were told they’d get a free three-day, two-night vacation at one of more than 40 destinations if six members visit the site. What they then received from indicated they’d have to hear about future “opportunities” (read: time share) from the resort operator. The company last spring changed the lure to a drawing for seven free scanners per week for those who got eight new members.

So, with all these complaints, why do I and thousands of others keep our family pages at There are tangible and intangible benefits. Pragmatically, the basic setup is attractive, easy for members to remember and easy to administer. There’s not a lot of room for creativity, but the basic home page structure works just fine — Calendar with birthdays and other important dates at the top, followed by links for News, Photo Album, Chat, Family Tree, Family History, File Cabinet, Reviews (which doesn’t get much use at any of the four sites where I’m a member) and Recipes. It’s also extremely easy to move among your sites; you can set the same passwords for all of them.

For birthdays in the Calendar section, links to Blue Mountain Arts and Hallmark let you create e-cards. You also can go to the company’s Gift Center to view the family member’s wish list or ask for gift suggestions. Your e-mail service is linked to the site on your first visit, so you can e-mail any or all members simply by clicking on their name.

While none of my sites has delved into sound or video clips, the main site (with 25 active members) has more than 125 photos that total less than 3.5MB. So, we’ve got plenty of room for growth.

We’re organizing a family reunion that will involve 20-50 people, and of the eight main branches of the family, all but one has at least one person online. We’ve saved significant money already by using rather than mailings and numerous lengthy phone calls to pick the dates for the reunion and share hotel and agenda updates. We invite everyone to our reunion planning sessions, held in the Text Chat area.

My family isn’t shy about sharing memories or correcting information at the site, so participation isn’t a problem for us. For those who aren’t quite so forthcoming, sends administrators and users separate periodic newsletters, encouraging people to share their memories, post their pictures, select discussion topics and so forth.

Yes, there are problems and, for those with more technical know-how and time, there are alternatives to But for me, the hassles with Who’s Online and the access problems my AOL-using sister has fade into the background when a favorite uncle reminisces about how his mother, 79 at the time, sniffed and referred to people in her apartment complex as “old,” or when a cousin I hadn’t seen in years comments on how much I look like my mother. Thanks, MyFamily.
From the August 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine