In yesterday’s New York Times, A.J. Jacobs wrote a mostly facetious article about the phenomenon of crowd sourced genealogy, “Are You My Cousin?” Crowd sourced genealogy refers to the practice used by some people doing family research where on websites like Geni a researcher can link his or her tree with other trees once a
common relative is found. As Jacobs points out, many experienced genealogists have expressed concern about this practice because the trees that are being connected may not be well-researched or accurate. As a result, people end up incorporating those mistakes into their own trees, and then those mistakes can be repeated over and over again as new people begin linking to these inaccurate trees.
Although ancestry.com is not set up like Geni to promote the idea of one World Family Tree, their site also allows researchers to view other family trees which list people with the same names and dates as those on their own tree. When I first started using ancestry.com, I relied on this tool to add names to my family tree on my father’s side. I soon, however, realized that it was a dangerous practice. I thought I had found some English cousins because we shared a relative named Boomer Cohen. I contacted them and was very excited—only to be very disappointed and embarrassed when I learned that their Boomer Cohen was not the same as my Boomer Cohen. Who would have thought there were two women with that name?
I’ve run into other problems with relying on the family trees I find on ancestry.com. Often trees were created without any documentation, so I can’t double-check to be sure they are accurate. When I was researching Harry Coopersmith, my great-aunt Frieda’s husband, I found Harry on a tree with parents who did not match the parents I had found after research and with documentation. It had Harry’s children correctly and his birth and death dates, but the wrong parents. I contacted the tree owner, Harry’s grandson, and asked him about it because I assumed he was right and I was wrong. But it turned out he had linked to someone else’s tree with a different Harry Coopersmith and assumed it was his grandfather. He was very happy (and probably embarrassed) when I was able to provide him with the correct information and the documents to back it up.
As a result, I am very skeptical of sites like Geni and the whole notion of crowd sourced genealogy. Not that I have stopped looking at those other trees on ancestry—I always do, and I have found many helpful people by doing so. For example, I found Becky Schwartz Goldschlager’s nephew Jon by finding his family tree on ancestry. But I have learned to use these trees very carefully. In fact, when I return to researching my father’s family lines, I will need to go back and pare some limbs from those trees unless and until I can find documentation to back them up.
Jacobs also expressed skepticism, but seems to be overall in favor of crowd sourced genealogy. As I said, his article is mostly facetious, pointing out the ridiculously long and convoluted paths that connected him to Albert Einstein and Gwynneth Paltrow, among others. Although the idea of finding hundreds of celebrities and famous people to whom I have some very attenuated connection is somewhat intriguing, it’s not what I am after by engaging in genealogy research. I want to know more about my real ancestors — who they were, where they lived, and how they lived. I don’t need to know my great-great-uncle’s wife’s brother’s daughter’s husband’s cousin’s mother’s stepfather was Abraham Lincoln. What good would that do me?