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I have seen reference to online trees. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of me publishing my family information online?

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Have you seen my response to a similar question here Greg: genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/2165/108 ? It seems to answer your question but I didn't want to simply duplicate the text. –  ACProctor Nov 17 '12 at 14:18
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@ACProctor - The other question was asking "When", but this one is asking "why", so I think they are different questions. Although I do agree that your answer does apply to both questions, only because "never" and "don't have to" are the same things. –  lkessler Nov 17 '12 at 14:30
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3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

There are many advantages and disadvantages to publishing your family history online. Listed below are a few. Your decision to publish online will depend upon your willingness to balance risk with potential gains.

Advantages:
1. Family information can be easily shared with family members, in a format they understand. This might encourage them to help add to what you know about the family, or might just be a cool way of showing off the work you've done.
2. Unknown relatives might find your family information and add to what you know, or correct misinformation.
3. Established architecture and data-entry format can allow you to easily add your information, arrange it, create reports, etc. This can be true for offline software systems also.
4. Provides a backup of your research. Whether it's a paid or free service that you choose to use, they provide server space off-site (out of your house), so if you have a home fire your research is still safe.
5. Access to data sets and scanned or transcribed records. One of the only ways to access some information (without going to the archive repository in person), might be to access what work has been done or collected by the online provider.
6. Linking your research to established and reliable sources. This can happen, if you know how to attach the source material to typed-in data and if you take the time to do so.

Disadvantages:
1. Shared information online can be copied. Therefore, if you feel your genealogy research has taken many personal hours and financial resources to accomplish, you may begrudge someone acquiring it with the click of a mouse.
2. Shared information online can be rapidly dispersed beyond what you intended. Once the cat's out of the bag, so to say.
3. As with any software, its format may limit you in ways that you don't foresee at the moment. You may find that you want to annotate a record in a certain way, but are unable with the architecture you've committed to.
4. Online storage can get hacked.
5. Online software or companies can go under, change their access policies and fees.
6. There may be limits to the number of records you can create. Once your research expands, you may need to upgrade to a different fee level.

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If the software has an export feature, and exports to a common format, you could then host the data in multiple places to reduce some of the disadvantage of the provider going out of business or changing access policies. The downside is keeping it all synced up. Great answer! +1 –  jmort253 Nov 18 '12 at 23:21
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You have to think of what you will get out of publishing to an online family tree. So what is your objective?

I am a bit down on online trees, so bear with me a bit in this answer.

If your objective is to collaborate with known relatives on some sides of your tree, then that might be a good use of it and a valid reason. Then I would choose an online site that limits access to your tree to only approved people, Then you and your relatives can work on the tree together.

If your goal is to merge your tree to others and get others to help you fill in your blanks, then you will probably cause yourself more pain than good. Your tree will be corrupted by the masses as they merge the junk that is out there into your tree most often without any sources to verify their claims.

If your purpose is to find new relatives, then I don't suggest an online tree. I have attempted a few in the past, and the people who tend to find you are usually unrelated, or are so far off in the periphery of your family that you have very little to gain from them. There are other techniques you can use to find relatives that are better.

If you have a different purpose, please let me know in a comment. Maybe there is a good reason out there that I have missed.

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Perhaps I would feel differently if I had spent the time and/or money that many on this site have in pursuit of my genealogical research, but I am personally of the opinion that research should be shared as broadly as possible. I see my research not as something that belongs to me, but that is part of a larger whole, and is most valuable when it is shared.

Some other advantages:

  1. Putting research in a format that benefits others across space and time. For research to be the most useful, it needs to be on the web in some form or other. I want my research to be available in 20 years, and in 200 years, and I think that making it part of a large project (werelate.org and familysearch.org, in my case) gives the best chance of that happening.
  2. By putting information online, I can help others to avoid duplicating work that I've already done. The amount of research left to be done is vast - there's no point in redoing things others have already done.
  3. Making good research available online helps others to see what good research looks like. I've made some adjustments to my own processes just because I've learned from others' research.
  4. Community is good - it's motivating to feel like you are part of a community that is building a resource together.

Disadvantages:

  1. Cruddy collaborators - I definitely understand that much good research has been corrupted by sloppy research from the unwashed masses, but I would argue that this problem is solvable with technology, and is getting better already. With WeRelate, for example, the wiki format makes it very easy to simply roll back changes from someone who entered incorrect information, and the new FamilySearch Trees is also much cleaner and easier to collaborate on effectively. So, I agree that this is a potential problem, but it's getting better.
  2. It's stuck online - I see this as a potentially large disadvantage. Syncing an online tree with offline software is far from seamless, and it can be a huge pain.
  3. Privacy concerns - if you are planning on putting information about living people online, then you need to make sure that the information is not public. Even if it is protected, it's still less safe than on your computer, and some people may not want their information online, even if it's protected.

As you can tell, I believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and that as technology improves, the scale will tip further and further in that direction.

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Agree! Well said. The 'Talk' page on WeRelate also helps with improving collaborators quality. Also note it doesn't not have to be 'all or none'. For example many lineage societes let you publish just the proven line to that particular ancestor. That particular example hits all your 'pros' and avoids all the 'cons'. –  Duncan Dec 11 '12 at 3:23
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