Irish Genealogy: Social media and genealogy

Facebook: If you want to move sideways on your family tree, there is no better way.

In preparation for the return of my most recent DNA test, I am trying to be as comprehensive as possible with my family tree’s list of living relatives. Second aunts, third cousins, and on into the once-removed, twice-removed, endlessly-removed categories.

There is a compelling reason for this. DNA tests tend to connect you with many more distant relatives than they do close ones. This is useful, as sometimes they have been working on their family trees independently, and, if you can figure out how you’re related, this can help fill gaps in your genealogical research.

Building your family tree sideways also tends to be relatively easy, if time consuming. Social media has connected everybody, and anybody who participates in social media has put information out in public that can be used to fill out a family tree. There are at least three generations of people who use social media, so if you locate one distant relative, you’ll often find their parents and children on social media as well.

Facebook is especially good. People post photos of themselves with their family, tag them with links back to family members, and there is an “about me” section that is usually full of useful details. People are encouraged to identify family members here, and, even when they don’t, a quick glance at their friends will usually produce a few additional family members. And there are other sites that add information: LinkedIn, G+, and even older sites like Flickr and MySpace can offer useful information and point to more relatives.

I must say, however, that it is an odd feeling. There’s nothing really all that peculiar about building a family tree, and I keep mine private to preserve the privacy of people who do not want their information public, even though it is all culled from public sources.

But it feels intrusive, as though I were compiling dossiers on strangers — and most of these people are strangers. All of them were before a few months ago, when I was connected with my biological family. It’s one thing to dig into the past when doing genealogy, and to learn things about long-dead ancestors. It’s another thing to be peeking in on still-living relatives, most of whom don’t know me.

And this sort of research was historically done in a rather limited way, as family trees tend to be more focused on direct lineage. In genealogy circles, working sideways is called “collateral” genealogy, and is occasionally used as a technique to work around snags in research (along with another technique, “cluster” genealogy, which includes researching friends, neighbors, business partners, etc.) But it can be easy to be overwhelmed by collateral relatives. On my biological mother’s side of the family, I have nineteen cousins. When I add in second cousins, that number is multiplied by about five. And it continues like this, exponentially, every time I move a step sideways.

And the further removed I get from my immediate biological family, the more it feels as though I were intruding on the lives of strangers. But, then, we need not go back very far to find common ancestors — we look back only a few generations and we share a common grandparent or great grandparent.

Further, although all this research feels a bit intrusive, there’s also something very science fiction about it all. I do think we’re closing in on a time when people commonly get their DNA tested, and obviously is also looking forward to that day, because they are at the start of building a mechanism for using DNA to build family trees. I expect one day we will look online and see our DNA connecting with that of millions of others. These will be cousins that are hundreds of generations removed, all converging in the past on common ancestors at the dawn of humankind.

And there will be great benefits to this as well. We now make health decisions based on a few generations of close relatives, but when we have multiple generations of very distant relatives, we’ll have an enormous sample size. We will be able to see certain health issues that have cropped up in one particular DNA line, and follow it through the generations, and see what sort of risks we have.

This also generates an astonishing sense of interconnectedness. We have a long history of frequently useless tribal thinking, in which our identities were defined by our nuclear family, or our skin color, or our nationality, or other self-imposed and sometimes invented ways we distinguished our group from another.

But when you learn about your DNA, you discover relatives flung around the world, speaking an amazing variety of languages and practicing a dazzling variety of religions. A person who looks just like you might share almost none of your DNA, while somebody who looks very different, so different that in the past we categorized them as being of a different race, may share a lot of your DNA. Suddenly all sorts of borders collapse. And DNA looks into our distant past, to a time before borders, to a time before my family was Irish, but came from Asia, and back further, to when we were all Africans.

It’s interesting to couple what we learn from DNA with researching a family tree sideways. As intrusive as it sometimes feels to peek in on the lives of people who don’t know you, the result is that you get a glimpse at the life of somebody who previously was a stranger, and now is a family member, no matter how distant. You can find the exact spot on the tree where you and they shared an ancestor, and you can follow how you wound up where you are and they wound up where they are. We didn’t choose the route our ancestor’s lives took — a different marriage, a shift in fortune, a war that began sooner or ended later, we might have been very much like even our most distant relatives.

I suppose I am doing this, in part, imagining a future in which someone like me, who doesn’t know about their biological heritage, will be able to put a few cells of skin into a computer and immediately see the results online. They will discover that they are part of an enormous genetic and genealogical heritage, made up of real people — hundreds of them, thousand of them, millions.

I imagine, if they look hard enough, they may even see me in there.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.

One Comment

  1. Max, I’m totally absorbed in your blog right now. I love reading about your genealogy discoveries and thoughts. I know I’ve peeked at your social media info to learn more about you too. Must run in the family!

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