Friday, 25 January 2013

Someone is WRONG on the internet

One of my distant cousins (well, she's something like my second cousin once removed which, in family research terms, is practically immediate family) just sent me an email apologizing for a flippant comment she had made about two babies in our mutual branch of the family tree who died "of teething". She said her comment was insensitive. Now, seeing as these babies died well over a hundred years ago, I thought they were well beyond hurt feelings, and told her as much, adding that steering around the sensitivities of the living is far more perilous, speaking from sad experience.

I must admit though, if I were as scrupulous as my cousin, I'd probably have smoother sailing online.

I've always thought of myself as a tactful person, but then everyone thinks s/he is a good driver, or has a sense of humour, so I may be deluding myself. Especially considering I don't drive. I can also think of way too many occasions where I either put my foot in my mouth or was simply misunderstood. Online, the opportunities for inadvertently pushing someone else's buttons seem to quadruple, no matter how meticulous the proofreading. Sometimes, all the emoticons in the world cannot save you. (Granted, there's compelling evidence that I shouldn't be allowed anywhere near emoticons.)

The area of family research is particularly sensitive, because, not only are you dealing with dead family members, but you are addressing people who feel deeply proprietary about said family members. I include myself in this feeling, you understand. It has gotten me into trouble more than once.

I have a public tree at Now right there, we have a controversy, because there are family researchers who will tell you that it is foolhardy to have a public tree. I can see what they mean. Over the ten or so years I've been researching my family online, I've seen more and more people simply copy down the information off others' trees, without a word to the original researchers. I blame ads such as this one from We'll do the searching for you.
You don't have to know what you're looking for...

Right. It turns out there are a lot of people out there who not only don't know what they're looking for, they don't know how to look for it. They seem to have no concept of research protocols, such as looking for evidence in more than one place, or noting where they got their information. With little idea of geography or history, they make assumptions and their family trees are full of other people's relatives, not their own. For some reason, the ads don't mention this.

There's no doubt that my public tree has resulted in stunning finds and wonderful connections. I'm loath to give it up. It's a bit too late anyway as scores of people have made off with my research and what's worse, my family photographs. Ancestry, of course, encourages you to add family photos, with a gentle warning not to post pictures of living people. Quite right, too. What they don't tell you is that other "researchers" will copy your photos to their trees. I wouldn't mind so much if these people were actually related to me, but I've checked, (it's not hard) and nine times out of ten, they've made a fatal error in their direct line. For example, there was the case of a woman in Ontario who had been painstakingly copying down everything in my tree. I'd make entries, within a day the data appeared on her account. (Ancestry notifies you when records you've saved are saved to another tree.)

I checked and quickly saw that she was claiming one of my great-great-great-aunts as her great-great-grandmother, despite the fact that her g-g-grandmother was born forty miles from the birthplace of my g-g-g-aunt, in a different year, and they had married different people.

As a matter of fact, I'd been in touch with her before on another issue, asking why she had my great-great-great-grandmother married to both my great-great-great-grandfather and his brother, having children well after her death. Pleasantly -- and predictably, she said she'd got it from another tree. I was reluctant to contact her again; besides, I have this rule for myself that I don't intervene with someone's research unless it involves one of my people in my direct line. (Otherwise, I'd be intervening all the time; the problem is that prevalent.) I watched for weeks as she added people, photos, and records from my tree to hers. The final straw came when she posted my late father's address from the nineties, a condo where his widow still resides. This was around Christmas Day and I made myself wait three days before sending a carefully-worded email a) pointing out that my father was entirely unrelated to her; b) laying out the evidence for my great-great-great-aunt not being the same person as her g-g-grandmother; and c) adding, a little unfairly, that my stepmother had had an unwelcome contact since her address had appeared in this woman's tree. (This was true, but I doubt the interloper had got the information from Ancestry.) I got a very apologetic message with the promise to dismantle that part of her tree. It's still up there, but my late father's address is gone.

So that worked out quite well. Within a few weeks, trouble came from another quarter. A lady in Australia was posting photos of some of my ancestors. That's not awful in itself, what usually happens is that a note will automatically appear on that person's tree stating who the original submitter was, along with any information about the photo that the original submitter included. This woman had copied the pictures to her computer, re-labelled them and posted them again, without the accompanying information. I knew this because, as these people are my ancestors, "her" pictures turned up in my list of possible leads. (These weren't pictures of her ancestors, by the way. My great-great-grandparents are her husband's distant cousins, not even in his direct line.)

I didn't wait three days before contacting her. I should have.

I was pretty damn mad and even through I tried to establish a tone of polite bewilderment, I probably came across as angry. (Gee, d'you think, Persephone?) I said that copying photos and re-submitting them as her own defeated the spirit of family research and that this was one of the reasons I no longer share my photos on Ancestry. At first glance, her response seemed quite charming. She explained that due to broadband limitations, she preferred to transfer photos to her own computer, that she derived great pleasure from sharing selectively photos that "gave faces to" relatives, and that she was sorry I would no longer be sharing photos because my tree was "wonderful". She rather spoiled the treacly stuff by apologising "if" I were offended. (Using the conditional tends to negate an apology; it suggests that somehow you aren't, or shouldn't be, upset.) She also put "copying photos and re-submitting them as mine" all in capitals, effectively shouting at me.

I replied that asking permission before posting other people's photos is not required, but that it is courteous, and she could consider at least giving credit to the relative who had carefully restored and digitalized the photographs. I also couldn't resist adding that the idea of her "selectively sharing" photos with strangers didn't give me much comfort.

You can probably guess what happened.

The return message was very short. She was deleting my photos, she said. Consider myself blocked, she said. Oh thank goodness, I thought. I was just on the verge of blocking you.

Sigh. What have I learned from this? Probably nothing I didn't really know already.

First off, and probably most important: I succumbed to the siren call of correcting someone who is wrong on the internet. This has been stated in beautiful simplicity by this xkcd web comic classic, entitled "Duty Calls" by Randall Munroe:

If someone has made an error in fact, judgment, taste, etc., and I'm falling over myself to set them straight within the next few minutes, I should stop myself. In this case, I should have waited three days for before posting each response.

I still believe she was wrong. Not in a legal way, of course, once I'd posted those photos, they belonged to the world, and I won't be posting ancestral photos on Ancestry again. In terms of research, courtesy, and the plain old Golden Rule, she was mistaken. However, I didn't fare so well in the Golden Rule department myself. I was too angry. Simple as that.


Audrey Humaciu said...

I like the 3 day rule for correcting someone. I have more than a few Facebook friends I need to do this with when they relentessly repost without bothering to check with Snopes first.

Persephone said...

Oh dear, Audrey, I hear you! And they're such bright people, too -- teachers, researchers and activists! It's so depressing!

Finding Grandma said...

Thank you for giving me language ideas for when I respond to people who copy my ancestors/pictures/whatever and have no clue what they are doing. I just wrote a woman who had copies my entire family tree of ancestors who emigrated from Ireland. She has them going to Australia - I wrote and told her they were my husband's great grandparents who got married, got on a boat in Cork and moved to western Pennsylvania. She wrote me back that I didn't have a clue about finding legitimate relatives.
(sigh) People make me tired...joanne

Persephone said...

Well, as you have seen, Joanne, my results were very mixed! I can only suggest waiting three days, then politely providing the evidence disproving who their relatives are, all the while saying that it is their business whether they want to consider your evidence. I think the important thing is leaving them a way of saving face. Obviously, I failed in this last item when writing to the lady who had been copying my photographs. I can only hope that, although she thinks of me unfavourably (if, indeed, she thinks of me at all), she might have an inkling that what she has been doing isn't quite right.

LLG70 said...

Great post!
One option for the your ggg-aunt vs. their gg-grandmother incident is to write a story. Point out the differences between them and attach it to your ggg-aunt. It will show up as a hint for them AND for anyone else who links to her in your tree. It won't stop the clickophiles from copying the error but it will give notice to those doing actual research ;-)

Barking Up the Wrong Tree Blog

p.s. You can see an example of what I mean in my blog post, "This Time It's Personal" from Jan. 2012.

Persephone said...

Thank-you, Loretta. In the Case of the GGG-Aunt Vs the GG-Grandmother, I had posted my ggg-aunt's marriage certificate, complete with transcription. One of her married sisters, who had a very unusual surname, had been a witness, and her father had a reasonably unusual occupation, so there was no mistaking who this woman was and whom she had married. Alas, it was up for months, to no avail, the "researcher" was too busy copying down distant relatives that weren't hers (including my late father)!

Your idea is a fine one, though. It could be a great face-saving device -- for those who are paying attention! Not much we can do about oblivious "click-o-philes", as you have pointed out.

JL Beeken said...

Good post; well written.

I've had over 10,000 people coming through the ancestry I've posted online. I've been contacted by less than 10 of them. I'm quite sure it's being copied whole.

The joke's on them because I "occasionally" correct data. Are they following behind correcting theirs? Not likely.

I've stopped worrying about them and stopped talking back. I know what's in my database and the odds of accuracy.

I've also had unidentified photos taken from my site, "identified" incorrectly and then re-posted on other sites. Lately, I've watermarked them with a big orange UNIDENTIFIED diagonally across the middle of each one. If anyone wants to download them, feel free. I have the originals and un-watermarked ones on my hard-drive.