I have been rewriting this post for the past month, trying to figure out how to structure my discussion about online family trees. I was going to split this into a series of separate posts, but the flow never worked.
Public online trees are the source of immense problems. I have discussed some of them in prior posts. Ultimately there are two main sources of problems: transmitting erroneous information and transmitting "private" information. By private I am referring to information both about living people as well as information about the deceased that the family does not want publicized. I will discuss each of those in other posts.
Some of these problems can be mitigated by making the trees private. What is a private tree? Well, let me start by explaining what I mean by "online" tree.
Online information in family tree form really comes in from three sources. First, and probably best known from Ancestry.com, is a family tree that an individual puts online through one of the various commercial database services. Second, there are common trees that multiple people contribute to, such as the tree on FamilySearch.org and WikiTree.com. Finally, there are personal websites set up which contain navigable family trees.
Some of the commercial database services let the user designate a tree as private, allowing only invited people to view the information. Also, a personal website can be password protected, allowing the owner to choose which people allow access to family details. This is what I mean by a private tree.
There are a number of real benefits from having an online tree, some of which are reduced or eliminated by keeping information private.
First, most of the online database companies have some sort of automated search feature that rummages through the tree and locates possible matching data, The best known example of this is Ancestry.com's "shaky leaf" (technically it is called a "hint"). Not having a tree means losing access to this valuable information, and by making that tree private, one diminishes the possibility of transmitting errors in the tree or disclosing touchy information (such as that a cousin's deceased sainted mother was illegitimate or that her second husband was a bigomist).
Second, online trees are wonderful "cousin bait." I was researching one of my great grandmothers and found a descendant of her older brother who had been researching the family for decades, and we met last year. Making the tree private pretty much eliminates it from serving that purpose.
Finally, public online trees are a way of sharing real. accurate information with others. Over the past several years I have discovered that the memories of some of my older cousins died with them, and their children, not knowing what to do with the photographs and scraps of information that they did have, disposed of these mysterious relics. I wish that I had talked to them, to record their memories and to scan their photographs.
Another downside of private trees is related to that first benefit - unsearchable or inaccessible data is lost to us. It is like having a private library with the book you really need, but they are only open by reservation by e-mail, if they reply.
I find this particularly frustrating in the area of genetic matches on Ancestry.com, where a majority of my matches have kept their trees private and do not respond to entreaties to share the information.
This is particularly a problem with the branches of my family that are lost to the mists of time (actually, more commonly a long ocean voyage) and for whom a DNA match is either a light in the fog or a wisp seeking to lead me astray. (Potential DNA matches get more speculative the further back in time they go.)
An alternative is to maintain two versions of the tree - a solid, public tree and a more speculative, private tree. However, I have found that keeping multiple versions updated is actually more than twice the effort, as the private tree will keep getting search hits from the public tree. It is a lot of work.
So, now that I have given a little context re: the costs and benefits of online trees both public and private, I can start discussing some of the specific issues on my mind in subsequent posts. Hopefully this will mean that the blog will actually be up and rolling now.