Out on a Limb: Mind Over Manners

Out on a Limb: Mind Over Manners

The importance of online etiquette.

Managing editor Diane Haddad’s special report on online etiquette reminded me of an e-mail I got several years ago from an infuriated genealogist (I’ll call her “Linda”). She’d found a family tree on GenCircles <www.gencircles.com> that contained incorrect information about her ancestors and personal data on her living relatives. The submitter, “Bill,” had offered to remove Linda’s personal details, but ignored her request to change any other data.

Incensed by this, Linda threatened Bill with legal action. She then contacted us to report the violation of GenCircles’ privacy policy, saying it was our duty to warn the genealogical public against using GenCircles because of what had happened to her.

What Linda didn’t realize — and some of you might not, either — is family tree databases operate on the honor system. No laws exist to prevent users from posting living people’s personal details (legally, names, birth dates and addresses are public information), nor is an army of fact-checkers working behind the scenes to verify the facts in uploaded family files.

Instead, it’s up to each of us to be thorough, accurate, judicious and respectful when sharing family history online. Linda’s case, though extreme, never should’ve gone so far. After receiving her e-mail, I contacted GenCircles’ administrators (a step Linda hadn’t taken, as it turned out), who quickly intervened. Bill was told to adhere to the site’s privacy policy, or his file would be deleted (an outcome he might’ve avoided if he hadn’t rebuffed Linda’s concerns).

The moral of the story: Had Bill and Linda both followed online etiquette guidelines such as those outlined in our report — and exhibited a little common sense — a potential genealogical collaboration might not have escalated into a family feud. Don’t let your own family tree suffer a similar fate.

From the July 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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