James Gross: The Usage of Social Networking Websites for Genealogy

JGSLA Members Only Content: Member Articles

by James Gross

For those genealogists who seek to connect or reconnect with their known relatives, the development and popularity of online social networks may prove to be an invaluable communication and genealogy resource.

Depending on when one began their genealogy research, some of you may recall a time in the not so distant past when genealogical inquiries to family members were conducted via postal mail or the telephone. But, these avenues of communication were useless unless one knew the correct mailing address or telephone number.

In recent years, due to the increased availability of computers, these traditional methods of communication have been overshadowed by the increased usage of email for communication. This is thanks to the lowering of internet access costs plus the embracing of computer technology by the general public.

Some readers may have similar experiences in terms of how they personally experienced the evolution of computer technology in their lives. This march in technology has resulted in faster computers, faster internet access, and increased access to online information and databases. People have found that computers can be very useful tools for communication and information retrieval.

And, as computer use has become more popular, the usage of email has emerged as a commonplace and accepted method of communication. Many people, including genealogists, have been quick to take advantage of this tool for communication with family members.

Recently, another communication forum has emerged which may serve to further enhance genealogy research and family contacts. It is the advent of the online virtual social networking website. These online social networks, which include such websites as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, act as virtual playgrounds where people can choose to interact with their friends and colleagues. Users can also choose to be identified by name, or to be anonymous.

According to one website, www.compete.com, of the top 25 social networking websites, Facebook was ranked #1 with 68 million unique visitors and MySpace was ranked at #2 with 58 million unique visitors.(1) Per Facebook’s statistics, there are more than 350 million active users, more than 35 million users update their status every day, and there are more than 1.6 million active pages on Facebook. (2)

And, according to one source, Facebook is apparently adding new users at a breakneck pace of 50 million every couple of months and is generally considered to be the world’s largest social-networking site with 5% of the global internet audience. (3)

In my own social networking experience, I have found Facebook to be the most useful networking website for the goal of locating relatives. It is simply amazing to see how so many relatives, especially the younger ones, are on Facebook. For example, a blogger named Robyn recently posted the following timely comment:” I have often wondered if Facebook could be a good tool for today’s genealogist.” (4) A similar view on the merits of Facebook was voiced by blogger Robert Ragan. Ragan, in his blog entitled, “How do You Feel about Facebook – Waste of Time or Great Genealogy 2.0 Online Social Tool,” discussed the merits and advantages of using Facebook for locating relatives. (5)

Terri W. in a post on Robert Ragan’s blog, commented,” Facebook has helped me keep in touch with cousins I haven’t talked to in years. It also tells me when friends are online and allows me to “chat” with them (6) And, Aaron S., a sophomore at Vassar College, observed that Facebook had helped him keep in touch with his parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Suzuka commented that, “Facebook allows all of us to keep in touch, even though we are all over the country or in different countries.” (7)

I will admit that the search engine options within Facebook may not be perfect, but with some perseverance, one can still manage to identify a number of relatives. I have found that Facebook contact is a much faster method of locating relatives, especially younger ones, as opposed to depending on slow postal mail.

I have also observed how the usage of social networking sites appears to be a less invasive method of initial contact as opposed to usage of the telephone. As many of you know, in today’s mobile society, many people are wary of phone calls from unknown people. Per my experience, it is very easy to brush off an unexpected caller whom one doesn’t know. In contrast, due to the relative anonymity of the online venue, it would appear that internet users feel less defensive in regard to first contacts.

According to an online article reprinted from the National Genealogy Society newsmagazine, social networking sites such as Facebook, “provide a way for genealogists to quickly and easily share information about their research with their families, especially with people who think they are “not interested” in genealogy.” (8)

In order to use Facebook or MySpace to locate someone, you must first sign up for a free account. After you are signed up, you can begin to locate friends and family. High school buddies, old college friends, fraternity buddies, the list is endless.

In terms of methodology, I have found it useful to begin by first locating a known relative who has a unique name. I first locate relatives with obscure names and then attempt to mine their “friend’s list” for other known relatives. This method has worked well for me, especially when faced with the alternative of a name search involving a common surname. The reason is that those users with common names, depending on their identified city and state, can be more difficult to identify as relatives.

It is best if one strives to locate someone on Facebook whom you know is related to your family. Go down through their list of friends. Look for names of other known relatives. Check each of their friends list for known relatives. When you locate a relative’s name that you recognize, send them a message. There are apparently so many relatives of mine on Facebook that I am slowly identifying and contacting them as I go through my various family lists. Users of social networking sites, such as Facebook, should be aware of some current issues related to privacy concerns. Recently, there have been number of articles and blogs, including an article in PC World, regarding Facebook’s decision to change their policy on user data. (9) The issue is how the user data is collected and how it affects user privacy.

User privacy can be a very important issue for some people. In fact, this issue is so important, that one consumer advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), recently filed a complaint with the FTC (10). Their complaint was focused on Facebook’s recently proposed changes to their privacy policy and default user settings. In addition, groups including the Consumer Federation of America, the American Library Association, the Privacy Rights Now Coalition, and Foolproof, also added themselves to the EPIC complaint. (11)

So, what is all the fuss about? An important issue deals with Facebook’s decision to change user default website settings. The new settings could result in user’s Facebook data to be preset so that more of user information would be public rather than visible only to friends. There is also the risk that some personal user information, could be deemed publicly available information and shared with Facebook’s commercial software developers. As social networking web sites, like Facebook, have gained popularity, they have also exponentially increased the potential to attract dishonest people and schemes. And, unfortunately, there is the ever present concern that some of these people could be stalkers looking to prey on children. As Jordan Jones noted,”the biggest concerns voiced about Facebook over the years have been about privacy and security … ” (12)

Whether it is the inclusion of a town name, an identified organization, or some other identifying information, some Facebook users are becoming more concerned about personal safety. Hopefully, social networking websites will soon realize the importance of ensuring that their users feel free to engage others without worrying about safety. Issues such as privacy mining and human predators are real and should not be ignored by the user. Of course, the ultimate guardian of privacy is the user. If social networking users do not want their wild Spring Break photos or other potentially embarrassing activities made public, then they should keep their photos private, delete them, or take a few minutes to review their privacy settings.

In closing, social networking websites, such as Facebook, can a real asset to one’s genealogy efforts. While one should be cognizant of the pitfalls, social web sites such as Facebook can be a real bonus for locating relatives. Privacy issues aside, I can attest to the usefulness and benefit of conducting searches for relatives on social networking web sites. Even if you can only locate the younger relatives, they can often refer you to their parents or other older family members.

About the author

James has worked on personal genealogy research since 1991. He has also contributed genealogy articles to various genealogy publications, including Avotaynu and Chronicles. James is presently a Masters in Library Science (MLS) candidate at Drexel University. He is active in genealogy via his affiliation with the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Philadelphia (JGSGP). He is also assisting the JGSGP as the coordinator of the Jewish Exponent Indexing Project, which is being jointly conducted with the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center. He can be reached at navistar96@yahoo.com.


(1) Wilson, D. (2009), Top Twenty Five Social Networking Sites – Feb 2009, In: Dave Wilson’s social media optimization blog. Retrieved 11/22/09 from: http://social-media-optimization.com/2009/02/top-twenty-five-social-networkingsites-feb-20091
(2) Facebook (2009). Facebook Pressroom: Statistics. Retrieved 12117/09 from: http://www.facebookcomlpresslinfo.php?statistics
(3) Munarriz, R. (2009). What’s next on Google’s buy list? The Motley Fool, November 12, 2009. Retrieved 12/24/09 from: http://www.foo1.comlinvesting/highgrowthl2009111/ 12/whats-next-on-googles-buy-list.aspx
(4) Kimberly, P. (2008). Collaboration & Networking for Genealogists, In: About.com Guide to Genealogy, Kimberly Powell’s Genealogy Blog. Sept 9, 2008. Retrieved 11122/09 from: http://genealogy.about. co m/b/2008/09/09/Co llaborative-networking-forgenealogists. htm
(5) Ragan, R. (n.d.), How do You Feel about Facebook – Waste of Time or Great Genealogy 2.0 Online Social Tool?, In: Robert Regan’s Treasure Maps Genealogy Blog. Retrieved 11/22/09 from: http://amberskyline.com/treasuremaps/social-media-genealogy/facebookgenealogy-waste-of-time-or-social-research-too1.html#comment-1074
(6) Ibid.
(7) Grudnikov, K. (2009) Eww! Mom’s on my facebook! Jewish Exponent, Vol. 227, No.9, p. 32.
(8) Jones, 1. (2009). Facebook for Genealogists. In: Jordan Jones’s Genealogymedia.com blog, dated Nov 22,2009. Originally published in the NGS Newsmagazine, Volume 35, Number 1, April-June 2009. Retrieved 11/24/09 from: http://www.genealogymedi a.com/blog/2009111/facebook-for-genealogists.html
(9) Raphael, JR, (2009). Facebook privacy complaint ignites war of words, PC World, Dec 17,2009. Retrieved 12/17/09 from: http://www.pcworld.com/article/185033/facebook privacy complaint ignites war of words.html
(10) Rubenstein, J. (2009) Foolproof joins FTC facebook complaint. Credit Union Times. Dec 21, 2009. Retrieved 12/22/09 from: http://www.cutimes.com/news/2 009/12/PageslFoolProof-Joins-FTC-FacebookComplaint.aspx
(11) McDougall, P. (2009). Facebook Hit with FTC Complaint. Information Week, Dec 17, 2009. Retrieved 12/17/09 from: http://www.informationweek.com/news/ security/app-security/show Artic1e.jhtml?articleID=22200261
(12) Jones, J. (2009) Ibid.