Connecting Roots and Branches

Originally published in MediaPostDavid berkowicz emigration 1951Above: My grandfather's emigration card from Germany in 1951, found on Ancestry.com. Born in Poland, he escaped the Holocaust with his family through Siberia and Kazakhstan, settling in Germany after the war before coming to the United States.

Connecting Roots and Branches 

Some people compete around badges and mayorships (Foursquare), connections and testimonials (LinkedIn), followers and list appearances (Twitter), and gang members and farm acreage (Zynga). Lately, I've found a new addiction: racking up profiles added and managed (Geni).

Geni, one of the leading genealogy sites, tells me I've added 334 relatives to my family tree. I created the tree on January 17, 2007. Most of the connections happened in the past few weeks, and it's all thanks to social media.

The network effect applies to genealogy. Having more people active in a network increases the value of the offering for everyone taking part. In this case, when more people are part of my family tree, it increases the likelihood that I will connect with others in the tree and thus discover more people in turn. Additionally, as I create more spokes branching out from me, other family members will gravitate toward me as a hub, and all such hubs in turn will strengthen from the increased information flowing among us.

As in any network, you'll find hubs who actively create content, joiners who manage their own profiles and perhaps those of their immediate families, and spectators who passively peruse the content without contributing to it. In this case, hubs are both people and content. I'm a hub because I've connected so many branches of the tree together in one place, just as my David Berkowitz avatar on sites like Geni is a hub that links to branches such as those of the Silversteins, Baraks, Samuels, Freilichs, and too many others to name.

My "come to Jesus moment," if I can borrow the phrase given my lineage of Berkowitzes and Silversteins, came from using genealogy sites as social networks. I maintain a profile on another site, MyHeritage, and my father's third cousin discovered there that our trees overlapped.  He provided information that I then incorporated into my tree, and I built on it, wiki-style. He then introduced me to other relatives. I shared some details he didn't know. I discovered more far-flung family members, including one woman whose tree has about a thousand relatives; she is my first cousin three times removed's husband's third great nephew's wife. (Cue "Spaceballs": Dark Helmet: "I am your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate." Lone Star: "What's that make us?" Dark Helmet: "Absolutely nothing…")

If you're curious to see how the worlds of social media and genealogy collide firsthand, here are a few tips I've picked up along the way:

1) Use a Web-based program. There's some great software you can download, but even if you go that route, upload the tree periodically online to find other relatives. Thanks to a string of connections, I met a relative in his 80s actively managing a tree who reconstructed family lines I never knew of before, and he's doing it all on his computer. He's extremely generous with his information, but he'd be much easier to find online.

2) Use several sites. I'm partial to Geni, MyHeritage, and Ancestry.com. I find Geni to be the easiest to use. MyHeritage has led to the most discoveries of family members, but those relatives are in Israel and each site will undoubtedly have various geographies and demographics where they are strongest. Hedge bets if you're trying to find new family members rather than simply organizing what you know. If you start filling out one tree, you can export data to other sites using the standard GEDCOM format.

3) Fill out complete profiles. What's true of LinkedIn and dating sites is true of genealogy sites: complete profiles get better results. It's hard enough finding the right matches for names like Berkowitz and Silverstein. If you're Jack Smith, forget it. Yet if you're Jack Smith married to Elaine Harris Smith, you were born in Houston in 1954, and your parents are Roger and Millie, you increase your chances of finding more relevant relatives. Much of this is possible thanks to the matching technology (e.g., Tree Matches on Geni or Smart Matches on MyHeritage) that look for similar family relationships and allow you to reach out to those trees' managers.

4) Consider trial subscriptions. If you're already investing a lot of time in genealogy, investing a little money can help. All of these sites have premium offerings, and the value proposition is somewhat different with each one. At Ancestry, the advanced record search is invaluable; I found my father's family's emigration files when they left Germany for the U.S. in 1951, along with census information on my mother's ancestors in early 20th century New York. Geni promotes its tree matches, which linked me up with several relatives and greatly contributed to my tree. MyHeritage hooked me when it said I'd need to pay up to manage more than 250 relatives, a number I'll likely double by the year's end.

5) Repeat searches periodically. Ancestry seems to constantly add new databases to its search records. Search functionality across all of the sites keeps getting better. New databases keep migrating online. Every year or so, try some searches that may not have proved fruitful the first time.

6) Pick up the phone, and pack up your suitcase. Some relatives like keeping the past in the past, but there tend to be a few who are willing to recreate the past as best as they can remember it. Software will never replace that truly personal form of social networking.

If you have other tips, share them in the comments. If you've connected with relatives of yours this way, share your story. If you think we're related, share your tree. I have more relatives today than I thought I did a month ago — and always welcome a few more.