Using Social Media For Genealogy Research

by Katrina McQuarrie | Feb 5, 2010

Katrina McQuarrie

Over the past few years, social media has received a lot of hype. But what is it, really? Why would you ever want to use social media? What kinds of Web 2.0 sites are there, and could they improve your genealogy? This article will answer all those questions and help you get started with social media sites. It won't provide step-by-step guides for setting up with a specific service - those instructions are easily found elsewhere. But it will list the major sites in each area, so that you have a starting place. Even if you have accounts at the sites mentioned in the article, chances are good you're not utilizing them to their fullest genealogical potential.

What Is Social Media?

Social media is simply a website or other online service that connects people with other people. It often relies on user-generated content, instead of having a controlled editorial team make updates to a central page. Genealogists can use social media to make three distinct kinds of connections. You can:

- Share your content with consumers. This is particularly good for sharing the results of your research with younger family members, who probably spend a significant amount of time online.

- Collaborate with other researchers and distant family members. Keeping in touch online is much quicker and cheaper than using letters or phone calls.

- Learn from mentors and keep up with organizations. This lets you keep growing in your genealogical skills and knowledge.

Why Do I Want to Be So Connected?

In a nutshell, you want to make all these connections because of efficiency and speed. Social media gives you a near-instant platform to reach out to other people who are interested in what you're doing, or trying to do it themselves. Increasing your connections significantly raises your chance of reaching your genealogical goals. Within 3 months of getting online with my own genealogy, I found two distant cousins who were able to provide tons of information on "lost" branches of the family.

What Types of Social Media Are There?

The social media sites you might be interested in are aimed at one of two audiences: either general or genealogy-specific. This article will only cover general sites, because they give the best return on time invested. The wider scope of a general site means that most genealogists are on them already. However, most of your family members are not on a genealogy-specific site. Having everyone on one site makes it a "one stop shop". Also, you are probably already somewhat familiar with some of these sites, which lessens the learning curve and time required before you can fully utilize them.

There are also many different kinds of social media sites. We're only going to cover four. Other kinds are either so ubiquitous you're probably already using them (like message boards and blogs) or they haven't reached the critical mass required to be a useful genealogy tool (like virtual environments such as Second Life). So what kinds of sites are we covering? For now, we'll stick to wikis, photo-sharing sites, social bookmarking sites, and "general" sites.

Before We Begin: Privacy Concerns

With rapid connection comes the sharing of information. Many of these sites prompt you to enter an astounding amount of personal data when you join them. You might be concerned about this, and if so, you're not alone. There are a number of ways to deal with this topic.

Many sites don't make you fill out every field of information, and even if they do, you can put in dummy data to fool the system - by typing "prefer not to disclose" instead of your hometown's name, for example. Also, all of the site types below offer some way to choose how your information is exposed. Usually there are three tiers of privacy: allow everyone, allow only trusted or pre-approved people, and allow no-one but yourself. Take some time with your chosen sites' help pages to see what sort of security controls they offer. Think about how you can strike a balance so that others can find you and make contact, but you still maintain your privacy.

Site Type #1: Wikis

Wikis are websites that contain a bunch of pages on different parts of a topic. Those pages can usually be edited by certain people. Wikipedia is a famous wiki. But how would you use it in your family history? Why, to make a genealogical wiki for your research, of course! This has a number of intriguing benefits.

First, wikis provide a way to share your information online in a format that is easy to browse and understand. It provides relevant information in small chunks, and allows you to link to related items. Second, if you set a wiki so (certain) others can edit, it creates a collaborative environment and leads to a communal sense of ownership. And isn't community what family is all about? Last, if your wiki is set so the public can read it, search engines and people who are researching the same family can also find and connect with you.

The easiest way to get started with a wiki is to go to PBWiki and set up a personal account, which is free. Set the privacy settings for visibility and edit permissions to your desired level, then start inputting information. Don't forget to let your family know about the wiki and the privacy settings you have put on it so they can check it out or add more info if they like.

Site Type #2: Photo Sharing

Photo-sharing sites let you upload photos and share them with others; often with the public, sometimes with a restricted set of users. They improve your genealogy in two ways. First, you can use them to scan and upload old family photos, tag them so other researchers can find them, or let other researchers identify your mystery people and tag them for you! Second, you can upload heirloom scrapbooks or share your own digital scrapbooks, possibly behind a privacy wall, to let others look at the creative ways your family's memories have been preserved.

To start sharing photos you must first get the images on your computer, either by scanning them or using a digital camera. Then, you need to upload them. The most popular site is Flickr. Note that a free account is currently limited to 100 MB of upload per month, so make sure you are not uploading too many files or too large sized files. Don't forget to email your family links to your profile so they can explore your work.

Site Type #3: Social Bookmarking

Social bookmarking sites let you bookmark webpages just like your web browser, except these links are stored online and may be accessible to others. Social bookmarking can help your genealogy by letting you build an organized, tagged, collection of links that you can access from any computer with an internet connection. It also has a second useful feature: you can share useful sites with others and stumble across handy sites you wouldn't otherwise have known about by browsing their links.

To get started with social bookmarking, you can visit Delicious and set up an account. When adding links, choose whether you want them to be private (only you can see them) or public (everyone can). Add your favourite genealogy-related sites, with appropriate tags. When you're ready to explore, search the site for various words to see all public bookmarks that are tagged with that topic.

Site Type #4: General Social Media

General social media sites don't focus on one type of media; they focus on connecting with other people in general. Famous examples include Facebook and MySpace. Despite their seemingly unfocused nature, these sites have the potential to be the most useful of all. Because of their massive popularity, you can find and follow friends, family, co-workers, and celebrities, all from one account. And because they don't focus on only one aspect of life, you often get to see a more well-rounded picture of an individual. Instead of only talking to another researcher about their genealogy, you may find you share a love of film or gardening. General social networking sites are far and away the best way to connect with your larger family and keep them abreast of your research.

Facebook is currently the largest general site, with 175 million users logging in every day. If you don't already have an account, you should definitely set one up. Make sure you do it when you have some time to go over the privacy options; Facebook's choices are pretty complex when compared to other services. Carefully examine the personal information they allow you to input and decide how much you want to actually share. Once your profile and privacy settings are complete, search for your family and well-known genealogists you want to follow, then add them as friends.


This article has covered the basics of why you would want to join four different types of social media sites and given you four popular services to start your journey. These are not the only sites in their categories, and aren't even the only types of sites out there (there is still microblogging, for instance). If you are already familiar with the websites listed in the article, here are some others for you to try: Picasa and Snapfish (for photo-sharing), StumbleUpon (for social bookmarking), and Twitter (for Facebook-esque interactions).

As you become more accustomed to the general media sites listed above, you may want to branch out into genealogy-specific sites. These are easy to find, either through the recommendations of other genealogists who are using them, or though an internet search for "genealogy social media sites". In the meantime, though, pick one of the sites listed above and just go for it. See if your genealogy improves as a result.

If you have any stories about how a social media site was involved in researching or sharing your family history, please feel free to leave a comment on this article.

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