by Michael Marcotte

The “Web” has, for years, been synonymous with the Internet, but in the past couple of years, you have probably started encountering the less-familiar term “Web 2.0.” So what exactly is Web 2.0, and what relevance does it hold for genealogists?

 Web 2.0 is most accurately a concept describing the changes in the Internet environment in the wake of the post-dot-com fallout that occurred in 2001. The term was originally coined during a brainstorming session between two tech organizations, O’Reilly (a technical publishing firm) and MediaLive International (a producer of information technology trade shows and conferences), to describe a model of the commonalities between survivors of the “.com bubble” bust.¹  In short, Web 2.0 describes a fundamental shift in the way people now use the Internet. Under this new model, instead of simply consuming information, people interact on-line with one-another and with content, and publish their own content on the Internet.

 But there is more to Web 2.0 than this growth in the use of the Internet as a platform for interactive digital publishing and consumption\proliferation of often unfiltered information (a problem which is much lamented by professional genealogists and other researchers). Several elements that characterize Web 2.0 are highly technical in nature, and transparent to most Internet users, so only those which provide insight as to why Web 2.0 has become such a beacon for many family genealogists will be discussed in this article. 

 Originally described by Tim O’Reilly as a new model for enterprises on the Internet, ¹ Web 2.0 has since extended beyond commerce, and well into areas such as genealogy.  Instead of just the older pay-for-access database search sites, on-line versions of print journals and websites of professional researchers/journalists with simple informational text with graphics, Web 2.0 is far more interactive.  Not only are Internet users increasingly reliant on the Web for instant gratification in their search for and consumption of specific family trees and ancestral biographies,  but we have also seen a boom in Web use as a genealogy publishing platform through family web pages, blogs and even interactive social sites not too dissimilar from those at Facebook and MySpace. 

 One of the Web 2.0 characteristics that O’Reilly cited was its use as a place to read and write “rich content.” Rich content is a technical term used to mean information that combines text and basic graphics with more interactive multimedia, animations, and other technical design elements that provide a target audience with more involvement and a more “enriching” experience of the material than they could derive from a book or journal. The flexible combination of new on-line blog-engines, site-based search engines and other “plug-in” components over the Internet, without the necessity for a particularly strong technical background is another attractive characteristic of Web 2.0, often referred to as “SaaS” (Software as a Service) by the more-technically-inclined, and the compose-able, composite use of multiple tools of this sort are commonly referred to as “mash-ups.” 

 Genealogy buffs should certainly be able to relate to these trends. In addition to the evolving commercial sites, family genealogy pages now abound, displaying multi-generational ancestries, name searches, photos, histories, video content,  theme music, virtual maps, and personal speculation and opinion (either in the form of actual blog pages, or brief topical articles about personal research experiences). Technical acronyms like gedcom and netiquette have become so commonplace among genealogists as to be almost expected in our conversations.  Most genealogists (whether professional or amateur) are aware of various Google Groups or other on-line forums where discussions are specifically dedicated to specific national or ethnic ancestries, descents from antiquity, DNA testing, and/or specific surnames.

 For many, Web 2.0 is an exciting advancement in the field of genealogy.  Others embrace the new model reluctantly, via necessity, or shun it as an annoyance/obstacle to the refinement of genealogical and historical accuracy.

 The growth of nearly inundating quantities of easily-available genealogical information (of varying quality) has been accompanied by a social and collaborative use of the Web, which is another primary characteristic of Web 2.0.  In the past, a published work or journal article might go relatively unnoticed except by those vocationally-involved. Errata might go unreported or corrections be circulated only in a relative small circles, until such time as a new journal article or second edition was published.  Such works often took months, years or even decades to filter down to a point where a more casual or avocational researcher was able to access it --sometimes only at substantial financial expense.  Nowadays, one can sign up for free via a search engine like Google to be alerted via e-mail whenever a new Web page, article or discussion group item is newly detected containing a specific name, title or other set of words. The ability to communicate by e-mail or even via Instant Messaging (IM) has allowed researchers in the United States to meet and collaborate with distant relatives and other genealogists in Canada, Europe and elsewhere around the world who have more proximate and easier access to relevant archives and church registries. 

 This social and collaborative aspect of Web 2.0 is perhaps the most relevant for genealogists.  “People naturally want to communicate, shape and discuss; this communication is a key part of understand, learning and creativity. This unique element that Web 2.0 brings is that of social networks and community, which are typically enabled by blogs, discussion groups and wikis. In Web 2.0, the sheer scale and number of people on the Internet creates an ‘architecture of participation’ where the interaction between people creates information and systems that get better the more they are used and the more people who use them. This harnessing of the collective intelligence creates systems which have more and better information than any one person could generate; it provides the “wisdom of the crowds.” 5    Wikipedia, which is increasingly growing in its content of genealogical data for dynastic medieval families, is a good example, despite recent publicity that might indicate otherwise.  The banned use of Wikipedia as a research source by one university raises the question whether it would make more sense to grade the paper, rather than the source.

 Personal genealogy sites often contain blogs or commentaries that reflect the subjective views of the site owner and author.  Many feel that there is little or no room for speculation and opinion in genealogical publications, although subjectivity is inescapable. It’s as much a part of human nature as is fallibility, and even the most renowned genealogical experts occasionally fall prey to their own “situatedness.” 6    Self-expression is however a vital element of dialogue, and speculation and interpretation are expected if not necessary ingredients in any on-going conversation.  Where interpretation ends, begins repetition and lecture, and any search for truth should be open to the self-expression and dialogue as has accompanied Web 2.0 in its path through genealogy on the Internet.  Demanding historical veracity as a prerequisite for truth is another kind of tunnel vision.” 7   Both scientific proof and recorded history have had a tendency to be more “fluid” over the course of a century or two, than the solid foundations with which most people are comfortable, and which they expect will remain enduringly constant. To paraphrase the French poet Paul Valery, “the Future is just no longer what it used to be.”

The same can be said for the Past.

 While the notion of web-bound research as a trustworthy method still has numerous weaknesses and outspoken, prestigious critics, the contrasting idea that a person must travel to a remote location and spend hours perusing actual registers, deeds and tombstones, or hire a professional researcher to do so for you is one that, as a technology professional at a state university, I find particularly to be naïve, albeit well-intentioned.  There remain very few areas of academic research where a professor at one university does not electronically correspond with, consult on-line papers and journals, and actively collaborate with peers around the country, if not the globe. While there are certainly those who still shun the Internet as a research tool, I frankly cannot imagine an institute of higher education where such electronic interaction does not occur routinely among the majority of researchers. The Web often acts as a huge collaborative net of researchers adding bits and pieces to the larger puzzle, until the collective body of evidence ultimately provides the proof that no single document was able to provide.  It is not difficult for me to cite several examples of personal experience where decades- or even centuries-old family mysteries, not solved by any published work, have been solved after someone stumbled across a common ancestor on my website, and forwarded an obituary, birth certificate, census record, or other source reference, which had not previously been cited in any published genealogy.  Success at finding a census record is usually closely related to knowing which county or parish to research. Sometimes, it’s the distant relative across the country that knows that a city in Kankakee County used to be a part of Will county, before 1870. Online forums, for example, greatly aid in the dissemination of such knowledge, so that Internet genealogists do know where to look for that primary source.

 Nothing good comes without a price, and though Web 2.0 is “free,” it is not without problems. “An explosion of availability of content of all sources (and of all types of quality)…has at the same time created a whole new set of issues around vandalism, intellectual property, and integrity of data.” 5

 Personal Web sites tend to change location with often frustrating frequency, breaking a series of source reference links from numerous other sites.  Permission to quote or use graphics is often granted by someone who may or may not have legitimately obtained it from the original author or artist. It sometimes becomes virtually impossible to ascertain the primary source of a piece of information or an image. 

 To be certain, the Internet now contains a vast amount of unfiltered, unedited and untrustworthy information.  But likewise true, there is an increasingly amount of publication of very scholarly, scientifically-researched, professionally-edited, and highly reliable information available, as well. In some cases, where a publication has passed into the public domain, an entire book may be accessible online via “open libraries.”  In the latter case, among those redeeming qualities listed, those of availability and timeliness should not be overlooked or underestimated.

 In addition to Web sites such as Gallica, (a digitalized library maintained by the Bibliothèque National de France), JSTOR (an on-line archive of scholarly journals),  Hathi Trust Digital Library, and even Google’s Scholar Search,  the technology for document imaging has now been around long enough in larger government and educational institutions, that those responsible for the preservation of archival documents should be considered remiss if they do not in fact routinely complement traditional storage and protective measures with such technology as a method of storage and disaster recovery.  A side benefit of such digitalization is that rare and fragile documents may now be more easily shared and remotely accessed by a virtually unlimited number of people.  There are, to be sure, certain undeniable nostalgic advantages in traveling to, and reviewing actual original 16rth century documents in the parish archives where one’s ancestors long ago resided. Some very accomplished living researchers have stated that the only way to find anything new (by this they mean previously unpublished) is by traveling to the original archives and working one’s way arduously through pages and pages of deeds and other records, not by surfing the Web, spending one afternoon in the Archives while touring the area, or requesting help on the Internet.  With all due respect and appreciation for the wonderful contributions of such researchers, while such may certainly not be the norm, that scenario is not only possible, but not altogether uncommon, in this author’s experience.  Granted the ancestors in question may not be particularly illustrious. It is more a question of what you are seeking and who has sought it before. In the majority of cases, far more qualified researchers have spent much more time researching the ancestry of notable or controversial ancestors than those who were obscure, simple farmers whose descendants comprise a much smaller and commercially less lucrative consumer subset of the population.

 While there are ample reasons for a cautious approach to reliance on the Internet as a primary research vehicle, there may also be in some of these cases an element of technophobia. Not so much in the sense of fear of using computers, because surfing the Internet is hardy rocket science, but rather in the stricter dictionary sense of a fear, distrust of or revulsion for such technology itself.  That, however, is a topic outside the scope of this article.

 The fact that Web-based data may not always be in-step with hard copy publications is not a fault of the vehicle, but rather the author.  It does also not mean that a printed source is automatically more dependable.  On-line sources are by nature more dynamic, and easier to correct than a publication already in hard copy.  Likewise, one reads the New York Times, Washington Post, the local newspaper, a family newsletter, and (if so-inclined) the National Enquirer with decidedly different eyes.  Internet sites (genealogy-included) are little different, except they distribute via different media, and in a majority of instances require no editor’s scrutiny or approval.

  Although modem-accessible networks such as ARPANET and SprintNet were around as early as the seventies, The term Internet did not even exist until 1974. A public Internet as we know it did not exist until 1990,² and was not generally accessible, except to a select few until 1993, which saw both the introduction of the first graphical browser, Mosaic, and the announcement by CERN (the organization initially responsible for the creation of the World Wide Web) that the Web would be free to anyone.² Although a few genealogy websites claim a slightly earlier existence, I’m doubtful that much of anyone was accessing them before 1993, simply due to the awkwardness of websites and Internet connectivity prior to that date  Unlike a printed dictionary, most on-line genealogies have undergone and continue to experience numerous revisions and corrections in that period of fourteen years, or even the first fourteen months. Publishing off-line is usually the culmination of months or years of research. Corrections either appear in someone else’s book or a second edition years or decades later, or in a journal that may go largely unnoticed by the masses. Information placed on a personal website is likely to change frequently and often instantly over time with the author’s experiences and discoveries, and as other Web surfers report errors or inconsistencies. 

 A noted earlier many older sources now fall into the public domain and have been placed in digital form on the Web for free access, while other digital collections such as the University of Montréal’s PRDH are fee-based at the more detailed level.  Many new articles by renowned experts appear simultaneously on-line, in lieu of, or shortly after the print version is published. Almost every major newspaper and television channel in the U.S. has a companion website that reproduces the main articles, as do many print magazine and journals. Since many genealogy sites reference or link to such articles, it is often easier to learn of them via the Web counterpart, than through printed distribution.

 Like it or not, the Web 2.0 model is a huge part of the future of genealogy, because the Internet is increasingly an accepted media in publishing.

 During a series of lectures, in 2000, in New York, Random House’s Editorial Director and co-founder of the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein said. “The book has been held captive by its binding, but now it doesn't have to. The future of publishing - indeed its salvation - is on the Internet. Publishing has been a one-way business for the last hundred years. The Internet is going to change that.  In a 2005 article, Epstein added, “In the electronic future, everything ever published will be recoverable by searching on Google or sites like it.”8

 Overstatement?  Perhaps not.  In 2005, CNN placed the Internet at the top of its list as the #1 Innovation of the past 25 years. At, it was selected as the overwhelming #1 choice. The National Academy of Engineering includes the Internet as # 13 in its 2007 list of greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century.  The Web has also been included in numerous other rankings of  greatest inventions, including a 2005 BBC national survey in the UK, AskMen’s  Top Ten Inventions of All time, and Time magazine’s Top 100 Most Important People of the (20th) Century (for  CERN’s Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web).

 Perhaps another vital, but mostly overlooked characteristic of Web 2.0 is that it is an impartial model.  A media and distribution method do not define quality.  The Web is a neutral channel of distribution for information, and provides a vehicle for participation and expression that is largely unavailable to the masses via traditional publishing methods. Erroneous, misinformed or speculative data can appear just as easily in print as on the Web.  Quality of content is an ingredient supplied by the author and where applicable the editor, not the information distribution method, and to be fair, quality is often defined in very subjective criteria by each different consumer.

 So what conclusions, if any can be drawn about the overall quality and trustworthiness of the Internet as a source of information?  Is it worth it?

 In countries like the U.S. where 70% or more of the population now have internet access from home, ³ (Canada: 62% 4) is the matter not already settled by popular decision?

 Even if these home Internet users categorize their main reasons for such home access as primarily entertainment-based, ³ it is worth noting that far more people enjoy genealogy interactively as a hobby/entertainment than those who practice it by vocation. The purpose for which such individuals access and publish genealogical information is only akin, not identical, to the purposes of historians and professional genealogists.  By design, Web 2.0 is a vehicle for everyone, everywhere, not just the professional researcher, author or commercial enterprise. If you don’t care or are skeptical about the “wisdom of the crowds” and are only looking for ancestors that hopefully appear in genealogies recorded by one or two experts, then perhaps you have missed the point of this article and of Web 2.0 in general.

 Accuracy is achieved via the use of standards, methodology and self-discipline. Although such tools are as applicable to Internet research as they are to off-line genealogy, Web 2.0 is not an enforcement technology for these. Web 2.0 is about rich content, participation, learning, social networking and collaboration.  It is an explanation for why genealogy content is growing on the Web, not a prescription for how that content should be researched or presented.

This article was 3,153 words, too long for any of the genealogy journals or printed magazines. That is another advantage of the Web. An online, self-published article can contain much more insight, statistics or facts, than can be offered in the increasingly-shorter articles available in the older, more traditional media, which have to leave more and more space for paid advertisements, in order to stay afloat in our increasingly-digital world.

1 “What Is Web 2.0, Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” Tim O'Reilly, Sept 30, 2005,

2 Hobbes' Internet Timeline Copyright (c)1993-2006 by Robert H Zakon

3 Nielsen/NielsenNet Ratings, March 18, 2004 (Reuters)

4 Industry Canada, Electronic Commerce Branch, April 2007.

5 ”Web 2.0 \ the Enterprise,” Michael Platt, The Architecture Journal, journal 12 (Microsoft).

6 “Situatedness” is phrasing for this human characteristic used by Gregory Laughery, PhD, Director of Swiss L’Abri; ”Language at the Frontiers of Language.” After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

7 Charles Kimball; Wake Forest University (PhD Harvard),“ When Religion Turns Evil.” Harper, 2002.

8 Jason Epstein, “The Future of Books,” January 2005, Technology review.

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