SALT LAKE CITY, March 22, 2013 - When I was younger, family history was for old folks. Now that I am older, family history is for kids adept at using computers and mobile devices.
What accounts for this change? Personal computing and broadband. Nowhere is this remarkable change -- from the province of the old to a playground for the young -- more visible than at the RootsTech conference that kicked off here on Thursday.
RootsTech 2013 is the third annual conference hosted by FamilySearch.org, the non-profit family history organization that describes its purpose as "connecting families across generations." FamilySearch.org is funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is also based here.
This conference is all about the convergence of genealogy and technology, and the ecosystem supported by an internet-connected web of familial relationships.
Family history used to be about names, dates and places: a solitarily researcher looking at microfiched records in a dimly-lit family history library. Finding one ancestor did not guarantee that you'd find another. Whether entered on a pen-and-paper record, or in desktop family tree software, this was a painful and tedious process.
But today, family history is about making connections online. It's about sharing those connections through an internet-based common family tree. And the everyday user may be surprised to find out how many of their ancestors are already populated in "the tree."
In preparation for this year's RootsTech, this month FamilySearch.org made access to "the tree" available to everyone, whether members of the LDS Church or not. Any users can simply go to FamilySearch.org, create a free log-in and password, and begin entering their family data.
By entering just a few generations of ancestors (parents' and grandparents' birth dates, locations, and death dates, if applicable), many users find that their "tree" suddenly populates with the details about hundreds or thousands of ancestors.
FamilySearch officials say that there are between 800 million and 1 billion names accessible within "the tree."
"We are trying to create a universal family tree where family communities work to create the best tree," said Paul Nauta, senior marketing manager for FamilySearch.org.
FamilySearch.org and its predecessor organization, the Utah Genealogical Society, has been collecting these records for Church members for 109 years. The organization rebranded itself as FamilySearch.org in 1999, when the church began to catalog its growing volume of data into computer databases.
But in its original version, FamilySearch.org didn't link individuals' family trees into "the tree." Instead, individual church members would conduct their own family histories. Then they would submit them to the church as individual computer files. In addition to learning about their ancestors, LDS church members are interested in family history research to perform religious ordinances, such as baptism, on behalf of ancestors who have already died.
But over this past decade, FamilySearch.org and the church "became how painfully aware how much duplication of effort has going on around the world,” said Nauta.
In part to remedy the situation, FamilySearch.org began to allow users to see other relatives' genealogies online. In fact, as more Mormons began to have access to broadband internet services, and logged on to conduct online family history, they began to share the results of their research with other, distant relatives.
Over the past year, the process has accelerated. FamilySearch.org updated its interface and launched "Family Tree," a new way to quickly and easily visualize generations of ancestors. The next natural step was to open up the nearly one billion person database to any FamilySearch.org user. "We realize that the turning of hearts of the fathers to the children is not indigenous to our faith," said Nauta.
At RootsTech, FamilySearch.org announced that it had launched two new features on “the tree”: photos and stories for each person in the database. Just as a multitude of users have been sharing names, dates and locations about deceased family members, relatives will now be able to share archival photos and personal memories with others.
Unlike some commercial internet services, all of FamilySearch.org’s services are offered free of charge.
Calling it Facebook for the dead may not be too far of a stretch.
In fact, one key facet of RootsTech this year is Saturday's youth family history event. Young people have already begun helping embracing the family-history task known as "indexing," or translating information from census records into archival materials that help verify names and dates in "the tree."
Now, the addition of the Facebook-like tools has already begun to accelerate teenagers’ engagement in family history. "A lot of the youth are bringing their grandparents down to our family history centers," said Nauta. "It is almost skipping the parent generation."
And now, the addition of new features will enable teenagers to engage with and tell the stories of their grandparents, interviewing them, writing stories, cleaning out the proverbial shoebox of photos and posting them online and in "the tree."
There may be an additional, tangible benefit for the living. As grandparents educate their grandkids on their own life struggles and stories, grandkids help their own seniors see and understand the benefits that are available by getting online.
An example of FamilySearch.org's new photos feature, which enables multiple family members to upload, tag and share photos of their deceased relatives.
Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club, the premier Washington forum advancing the conversation around broadband technology and internet policy. You can find him on Google+ and Twitter.