Social Butterflies

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

The raging success of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr  and YouTube isn’t due just to kids collecting loads of friends, or to unlikely Joe Schmoes achieving video stardom. No, sir. Plenty of people use such sites to create online communities of those pursuing the same passions. Genealogists are right there among them, sharing resources, spreading news like wildfire, cheering research successes and finding internet cousins—smoothly blending their family history hobby into their nongenealogical networking.

If you’re already lurking around on Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and YouTube—or you’ve thought about it—you can grab a piece of this action to discover ancestors and enhance your genealogical enjoyment. The seven following strategies show you how to take advantage of these four social networking sites to enhance your family tree search.

 1. Get going.

Social networking is “a way of using online resources and services to create and maintain a community of individuals who share a common interest,” says Drew Smith in Social Networking for Genealogists (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
It’s the online version of a research tradition. “Genealogists have always networked socially one-on-one, from personal letters, to magazine queries, to online message boards and mailing lists, to blogs and Facebook,” says Randy Seaver, who blogs at Genea-Musings.
You already may have taken the first step to joining in: Become familiar with these sites. Smith advises reading about and visiting them to see how other genealogists use them. A quick web search on how to plus the name of a social networking site will result in instructional articles, tutorials and blog posts (such as those on the Facebook blog). At eHow, enter the name of the site (such as Flickr) in the search box and select Articles or Videos above it, then click Search for a list of how-to articles. For instance, Melissa Schenk offers free Facebook video tutorials, starting with “How to Register & Join Facebook

“Genealogists should realize that no one site will do everything well,” Smith says. “Flickr will be best for sharing photos, YouTube for videos, Twitter for [sending] short messages (especially at events, like conferences), and Facebook for keeping in touch with friends. Which site you spend the most time on will depend on your own interests and needs.”

 2. Find fellow researchers.

Social networks are to genealogy now what message boards and e-mail lists were years ago—ways to find new resources and other people researching your lines. Here’s how:
Make yourself known. When you set up your profile on any social network, you want to share just enough personal information to give genealogists and distant cousins an idea of your research interests. I keep the information in my profile to a bare minimum, with my city of residence, birthday and website, but not contact information. Include a list of names you’re researching or places your ancestors lived so that individuals can find you. You also can choose whether to let anyone, friends of friends, or just friends, see your profile.
Seaver points out that others will form impressions about you based on your postings. Unless you select specific Facebook friends when you post a status update, all your friends can see what you post. If you have private words for someone, e-mail him rather than posting to his wall. But do share your research triumphs, brick wall busters and tips for researchers.
Make friends. Search for and friend people on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, add them as contacts on Flickr or subscribe on YouTube. Thomas MacEntee, who blogs at GeneaBloggers, advises you to be picky about whom you friend on Facebook. When you get a friend request or suggestion, look at the person’s profile before accepting. Click the Mutual Friends link to see whom you know in common.
Be proactive about expanding your network—use Facebook’s Friend Finder to search out and friend people in your genealogical society, genealogy bloggers you read, and researchers you meet at classes and conferences. Use the same principle to “follow” people on Twitter.
Search for people and groups. “One of the first things I did when I joined Facebook was search for members with all the unusual surnames in my family,” MacEntee says. To try it yourself, type a surname in the search box at the top of the screen. MacEntee suggests you first send a message—rather than a friend request—to a potential relative.
“I’ve found more than a dozen distant cousins on my mother’s side through Facebook, and I would’ve had a much harder time doing it with traditional research,” says Chicagoan Jackie Fry. She always looks through a potential cousin’s profile to compare names and birth dates to her research, then sends a short introductory note explaining the possible relationship.
Also consider searching for (or starting) a surname group. Do a surname search as before, then click Groups on the left. Click a group name to see its page; to become a member click Join Now. To create a group, click Home at the top, then Groups on the left, then Create a Group at the top. Once you’re a group member, you can post your genealogy interests to the wall: “Anybody related to Horace and Henrietta Wilson in Wellington, Ohio, in 1922?”
On Twitter, MacEntee suggests joining in on the Surname Saturday theme by posting one or more surnames you’re researching with #surname, like this: Strazinski Evans Fascinelli Martin Whitehall #surname. The surname hashtag designates your tweet as a surname-related topic. So when another genealogist searches Twitter for Evans #surname, he’ll get your Surname Saturday post but not other unrelated posts that happen to contain the words surname and Evans.
Use apps to find family. A Facebook application (“app” for short) is a program you add to your profile that works with the site. Apps exist for all kinds of things, including expanding your family tree. Type genealogy into the search box at the top, then click Applications on the left. You’ll see a list of apps such as Family Builder’s Family Tree (suggests other relatives on Facebook and helps you build a tree) and’s Relatively Me (also searches for realtives on Facebook). Click View Application to learn more; the info tab tells you what it does and shows you friends who use it. Click the Reviews tab to see how others rate it.
When an app suggests you’re related to someone, it may be wrong, so take what you learn with a grain of salt, Seaver cautions. “[The applications] are relatively primitive, take a long time to load and use, and, in some cases don’t permit a GEDCOM upload,” he adds.

 3. Make research progress.

Other researchers or repositories may be posting data relevant to your family on social networks. Find them using these strategies:
•  Find photos. Major institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian use Flickr to post pictures and get your feedback. John Jackson of Chanute, Kan., has posted a virtual cemetery of Civil War veterans’ graves in Kansas on Flickr (his work was featured in the May 2009 Family Tree Magazine).
You might find photos of places your family lived and worked, or be able to contribute new information. Type surnames and places into the search box on the Flickr home page. Anyone can search and post, but signing up for a free or Pro ($25 per year) Flickr account increases your odds of linking with family. How? If you find a photo a relative might’ve posted, you can add the person as a contact, friend or family member. Then you can email him or her through Flickr or comment on the photo.
Share research finds. Like Jackson, you can sign up for a Flickr account and share your own genealogy finds or photos for someone else to discover (free accounts are limited to 200 visible photos). Tag photos with keywords such as surnames, dates, places or occasions so others can find them through a Flickr search. Keep the title simple (maybe the name of a person pictured), and add a description in the caption. You can make images public or private (visible to Flickr friends and family). It’s best to keep images of living people private.
Want to tell the story of your genealogy search? You can use Flickr or the free Picasa photo software to create a slideshow or video of digitized photos and documents, then upload it to YouTube.
If you find an ancestral record on, you can share it with Facebook friends and Twitter followers by clicking the Share This Record link in the Page Tools box on the record page. Use the share link at the top of Footnote’s recently updated record viewer to do the same thing.
Facebook and Twitter are natural places for sharing research successes in status updates: “Found 2nd-great-grandpa Hiram Hanover’s 1874 property deed in Adams Co. Ohio.” You can link your Facebook and Twitter accounts so posts show up in both places—just go to <> and hit the Link to Twitter button, then click Allow.
Create albums on Facebook for ancestors’ photos, cemetery visits and digitized records, then click the Share button to post them to your profile or send to friends. You also can tag, or label, an image with names: In the edit album page, scroll over the image, click the part you want to tag and a pop-up box will appear. Type a name or pick someone from your list of friends.
To post photos to Twitter, you’ll need to register with a free website such as Twitpic or TweetPhoto.
•  Feed your blog. “Tweeple” (Twitter users) often tweet links to posts on their blogs about new genealogy finds. You can do the same. If you want to automatically send posts to Twitter and Facebook, you’ll first need an RSS feed for your blog. If you don’t have one, you can get one at <>. Once you’ve registered, follow the prompts to create a feed. Then you’ll need to register with a free app such as Twitterfeed and set up feeds to send your posts to Twitter. An app such as Networked Blogs will import your blog feed to Facebook.
Ask—and answer—questions. “I can post a genealogy question on my Facebook status and get lots of friendly responses,” says Cathi Wiest Desmarais of Burlington, Vt. Consider taking a similar tack, especially if you’re friends with genealogy fiends.
On Twitter, MacEntee says, the potential for retweeting—one of your followers rebroadcasts your tweet to his followers—means your genealogy questions might reach an ever-wider audience.
What goes around comes around twice as fast online, so be sure to give back by advising others, too. “I just answered a question on the New England Historic Genealogical Society fan site, and now I’m helping a woman in Australia trace her ancestor’s line in my hometown,” says Heather Wilkinson Rojo of Londonderry, NH.
Find records. Besides helping you find family, apps also come in handy for doing research. One of my favorites is WorldCat’s Facebook app, which helps you locate a library with the book or microfilm you need. Your search for genealogy apps on Facebook will turn up Live Roots (finds online and offline resources and researchers) and FamilyLink’s GenSeek (lets you search the Family History Library catalog from within Facebook).

 4. Learn about the latest, greatest resources.

The social networking world is abuzz with genealogy news, shared instantly. Catch the buzz with these tactics:
  Follow and fan newsmakers. Web-savvy organizations often post announcements in the social networking sphere first. Seek out the mainstays of genealogy, such as , Footnote, FamilySearch and (of course) Family Tree Magazine to fan, friend, follow, or set as contacts or favorites. Add genealogical societies and libraries based where you research, bloggers you read, and your favorite family history sites and heritage groups. You’ll be among the first to know about new genealogy resources, events and developments.
Can’t attend a particular conference? Keep up with the action by searching for tweets with the conference hashtag (such as #FGS10 for the 2010 Federation of Genealogical Societies conference Aug. 18-21 in Knoxville, Tenn.) and following Tweeps who are attending.
Use Tweet-tracking tools. Twitter followers can use tools to help them navigate and locate appropriate tweets. To tweet and keep track of tweets from those you follow, try a free Twitter app such as Twhirl or Tweetdeck.
Find video tutorials. Search YouTube to find video tutorials that help you use genealogy resources more effectively and efficiently. For instance, I typed census records genealogy in the search box at the top of the page, and among the videos I found was the first in Elyse90505’s instructional series on the federal census. Don’t forget to check out the videos on the Family Tree Magazine channel.

 5. Connect with experts.

The great thing about social networking is that it “flattens” the genealogy world—you can become a friend or follower of anyone, including experts such as Genealogy Guy George G. Morgan or New England Historic Genealogical Society researcher David Allen Lambert. You’ll find most of the writers and editors in this magazine participating in social networking, too.

•  Fan and friend. Look for professional researchers whose articles you read in genealogy magazines, your favorite conference speakers or the leaders of major genealogy companies. If you have a favorite family history book, look for a fan page on Facebook.

Start a dialogue. Don’t underestimate the power of a status update, video or photo. You could post a video of your research quest or slideshow of mystery photos and who you think they show. Got a question about a genealogy product or website? Contact the company through Twitter or Facebook (but if you have a complaint, give customer service a chance to address it before going public with a rant).
6. Save time and money.
The best part of all this social networking is the price: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a basic Flickr account are all free. But you can save in other ways, too:

•  Look for sale news. Companies and organizations you’re following often post special offers on Facebook and Twitter, adding up to savings on subscription websites, CDs, books, classes, genealogy events and more. Good deals often go viral as fans and followers share the news.

Find free stuff. You may be able to enter a giveaway by leaving a wall post or retweeting a message. Be sure to check the contest details to find out how winners will be notified. If the lucky folks will get a direct message on Twitter or an e-mail through Facebook, log in on the appropriate day to see if you’ve won.
•  Take shortcuts. Take advantage of features and apps that save you time. On Facebook, you can embed your Google Calendar in your profile with the My Google Calendar app (search on calendar for more apps) and search Google from your profile with the Google Search app. My Flickr automatically adds your Flickr photos to Facebook, so you only have to upload them once.
Get a conference roomie. Last year I read a Facebook friend’s post about her plans to attend the Who Do You Think You Are? Live! genealogy conference in London. Before long, her London-bound Facebook friends had friended me. One woman took on the task of coordinating lodging for all of us. The end result was a great time and several new genealogy buddies.

 7. Keep in touch with relatives.

Don’t get so focused on the past that you forget that these four sites—Facebook and Twitter in particular—are ideal ways to communicate with your family, especially the younger generation, and far-flung relatives. Remember, social networking is a worldwide phenomenon. Genealogist Gonzalo Alexis Luengo Orellana of Chile is using social networking to gather information for a book about his great-great-grandparents, who emigrated from Italy to Chile in the 1880s. He uploads family trees as digital images and tags relatives’ names in them. He says this visual presentation clarifies relationships for new family contacts.

Post family news. It’s easy to reach all your friends and family with a single status update about your child’s school trip or your new granddaughter. Create a family group on Facebook (make it private, so others join by invitation only) to limit sharing to group members. You also can assign friends to categories (such as genealogy society and relatives) and share individual posts with certain categories.

Organize events. Family Tree Magazine’s own editorial director Allison Stacy planned a Christmas Eve family gathering over Facebook. To create an event on Facebook, click Events on the left and then Create an Event at the top. You can make it an open invitation to all or pick invitees from your friends list. Keep in mind, though, that you should e-mail or call any relatives who aren’t on Facebook or who rarely log in.
Memorialize loved ones. Footnote has an “I Remember” Facebook app that lets you create a special Facebook page to memorialize a deceased relative. Others can add memories, too, by writing on the person’s wall. You also could create a Facebook group or Flickr page dedicated to a person’s memory, or post a YouTube video as a tribute.
With so many ways to bend Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube to your genealogical will, I have to wonder along with Carole Riley: “How did we do without social networking?” You may soon be asking yourself the same question.
Here’s where to find Family Tree Magazine on popular social networks:

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