Back in the day—that means a few years ago, in tech speak—genealogists could share findings by emailing a GEDCOM file, joining a mailing list or laboriously starting a family website. Today, getting the word out to other online genealogists is far easier, even for the non-tech savvy.
Online sharing can help you discover new family information, find distant cousins and get research tips, as you’ll learn from my new book Discover Your Family History Online (Family Tree Books). Even if you know Twitter only as something a bird does and respond to the word “blog” with “Gesundheit!,” this advice from my book will help you use the web to start sharing your family history finds and networking with other researchers.
At their heart, social networking sites are like the 19th-century country store, except they’re online. Social networks are places where you can check in during the day, say hi, share an interesting news article, let everyone know about a helpful blog post, or spend an hour talking about genealogy. Where else can you instantly meet new researchers, share findings, join special interest groups and get help from across the globe?
As you visit social networks, you’ll quickly get a feel for which ones are a good fit for you and which ones aren’t. Nonmembers can usually view limited content, such as profile pages of businesses and organizations. On the sites you want to join, you’ll need to set up your profile. If you’re private, you may not want to post anything about yourself. But we do recommend sharing enough information so other researchers have some idea of the surnames you’re searching. We don’t recommend including personal details, such as your address, phone number or date of birth. On Facebook, you have to enter an email address and birth date, but you can opt out of having this information displayed on your profile.
Your social profile will go only so far to attract the attention of other researchers. To interact, you’ll need to post updates, such as new research finds, questions, or helpful articles you’ve come across. Remember that these are public forums, so everything you post has the potential to be read by anyone. Etiquette here is the same as it would be in person.
Many social networking sites exist, but to keep from overwhelming you, I’ll recommend a few of my favorites to start: Although Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may seem like playgrounds of the young, they’ve become popular with genealogists.
“Tweeting” is a quick way to read and spread brief updates and breaking news. You create a profile, chose other Twitter users to “follow,” and then post and receive messages limited to 140 characters long. It’s similar to text messaging, but with a much larger potential audience. How can this help a genealogist? You can follow leading researchers and genealogy-related businesses and stay up-to-date with their work. You also can find links to great blog posts and photos. Which “tweeps” should you follow? Our recommendations are in the box, opposite.
In the summer of 2011, Facebook users totaled 750 million, more than double the US population. For families with members spread across the country or the globe, Facebook offers an easy way to keep in touch, chat in real time and share photos. You even can find free apps just for the genealogy crowd, including Mundia (for searching Ancestry.com’s public member trees) and Live Roots (for finding family history resources).
Once you’ve warmed up to Facebook, think about starting a surname page (use the Create a Page link at the bottom of your Facebook homepage) or a group. To start a Group, log in to your Facebook account and click Home at the top of the page, then click Groups on the left, then Create a Group at the top. You can now invite anyone to join. Want to limit who can access it? Not a problem; it’s easy to set up a private group so you can OK membership requests. When members post within a private group, only other group members—not their friends—can see the posts.
Are you interested in sharing ancestral photos with Facebook friends? You can create albums for old portraits, cemetery pictures, and even records you’ve digitized. Click the Add Photo/Video link at the top, then Create Photo Album. Click the Share button to post pictures to your profile or send them to friends. You can even click the image to tag it with names of Facebook friends.
Genealogy forums are one of the oldest online methods of sharing what you’ve found with other researchers, asking for help with a research problem and broadcasting the names and places you’re researching. Unlike social networking sites, where messages rapidly fade from view as new ones replace them, forums give your posts longevity. Your genealogy query on a forum may bring you a quick, positive response, or you may have to wait a year or more before you learn anything new. But at least the query is out there, and one day the right person may see it.
Using forums and posting queries are two good reasons for you to acquire a “genealogy-only” email address. Some of the queries you’ll see online are from 10 years ago. Sadly, when you try to connect with the person who posted, you may find that the email address no longer exists. With a free email account dedicated only to genealogy, you can always keep the same address, no matter how many different cable or DSL providers you have. And, when that right person—perhaps a distant cousin who’s been researching your lines—finds your query, he or she will still be able to contact you even if it’s years after you made the post. It’s easy to create a free email account using services such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail.
Some of our favorite forums for posting or reading genealogy queries are:
Writing about it
Blogs are free and easy to set up, and the quickest way for you to share family tree research details with the world. You create an account, choose a “theme” or appearance, come up with a name for your blog (such as “Smith Family History”), and start writing posts. You don’t have to write something every day; using a blog format makes it easy to build a site you can add to at your convenience. Two excellent free services for blog building are WordPress and Blogger. In a nutshell, WordPress offers more flexibility—you have more control over the look and setup, but you need more tech knowledge to exercise this control—while Blogger is a little more user-friendly. Both services afford you the opportunity to quickly and easily build beautiful family tree sites to share, and both have privacy settings if you want a family-only site not viewable by the rest of the world.
If want more guidance on building a blog, Family Tree University offers a four-week Build a Family Website course. At the end of four weeks, your site will be up and running.
Social networking sites give you the ability to connect with nearly everyone. Where to begin? Use the sites’ search boxes to look for organizations related to your research interests, such as genealogical societies in the places your ancestors lived, historical societies for wars relatives fought in, and heritage groups for your family’s ethnicities. For example, on Facebook I like the National Archives and Records Administration and on Twitter I follow the Virginia Historical Society and Kentucky Historical Society. Here are other folks I recommend friending or liking on Facebook and following on Twitter:
- your local library
- your favorite bookseller
- genealogy data sites, such as FamilySearch and Fold3
- Allen County (Indiana) Public Library
- Association for Gravestone Studies
- Family Tree Magazine
- Find A Grave
- Olive Tree Genealogy