“Daddy, tell me about Grandpa.”
“I’m reading the paper right now, Johnny. Go look him up on Facebook.”
How long do you think it will be before conversations like that start taking place?
If you answered #4, you’d better think about it again. Facebook is going to address a big inter-generational question that very few of us have ever been able to answer for our kids.
How will YOU be remembered?
Late in 2005, I started down the path of amateur genealogy with a sheaf of photocopies that my cousin’s mother-in-law had pulled together about our family. For much of the next four years, I sent away to churches, city halls, archives and other authorities around the country, trying to flesh out our family story for the last two or three generations. I pestered relatives near and far with phone calls and e-mail to harvest all their stories about where Uncle Hank spent World War II and who it really was that Grandma Catherine married.
One day, I was taking mental inventory of the heaps of steamship manifests, draft cards, social security index entries and death certificates scattered around my desk. It suddenly occurred to me that genealogy today focuses on satisfying Johnny’s curiosity about Grandpa and all the faithful departed by answering five tired questions:
- “Will you tell me a story about Grandpa?” Family lore is what Johnny wants to hear most. Everybody has at least some sliver of a memory of people from the previous generation, even it it’s as trivial as “I only saw your grandfather once, and he gave me a hug and a dollar.”
- “When was he born and when did he die?” Birth, marriage and death (not to mention divorce, nowadays) are the most important events for social order and line of succession, and their corresponding documents answer this question.
- “Where did he live?” This is a story you tell with county records, steamship manifests, census data and city directories. When you can show Johnny a map of the town in which Grandpa grew up, Grandpa is suddenly less imaginary.
- “What kinds of things did he have?” It’s gratifying for us and for Johnny to hand down an ancestor’s personal possession. When you give him the watch that belonged to Grandpa Benzino, you help him look back down the family tree toward his roots.
- “What did he look like?” We look for family photographs (and recorded audio/video) to keep our heritage intact and hand it down. You can always want more of these, but having a few pictures of Grandpa around the house helps keep him alive to us.
So, up to now, with the old, tired vehicles at our disposal, we’ve been genealogizing about those five old, tired questions, rarely answering a much more interesting question…
“What did Grandpa think?”
Maybe Grandpa kept a diary. Maybe you’re lucky, and he kept it on acid-free paper. Maybe you’re really lucky, and the silverfish haven’t devoured it, the Cossacks haven’t burned it and Grandma didn’t throw it away when she found Gloria Gooseby’s name in it. You can show it to Johnny – read it yourself first – and give him an idea of what Grandpa thought.
If you’re unlucky, then you have no real way of telling Johnny what Grandpa thought. Grandpa remains what most dead grandfathers are: a composite of exaggerated stories, dates on photocopies, old watches and yellowing photos.
Facebook is a new vehicle that will soon be able to answer a much more interesting question.
A generation or two from now, Facebook will be able to tell people what Grandpa thought. Your kids will be able to show your grandchildren your profile when they ask about you.
You’re already recording family history on Facebook
You’re putting up photos and content about yourself and your kids right now. If Facebook is around long enough, your kids will post comments and photos of their kids. The rich media that we preserve today will overtake the steamship manifests, birth certificates and draft notices that are the stuff of today’s family stories.
What’s more, your posts, groups, connections, comments and interests will be up there. Your grandchildren will have perspectives on your life that today’s genealogists can only dream of conveying. Instead of behaving yourself on Facebook because potential employers, spouses and the IRS can read about you there, maybe you’ll behave yourself because your grandchildren will be able to read about you there.
Mind you, not all researchers think Facebook has much of a role to play in genealogy, mostly because Facebook is evolving so quickly. And Facebook has been protecting its family history turf, mostly in the name of sticking up for its app developers. Still, the Library of Congress is already archiving all tweets since 2006, and Facebook will come up with a similar long-run play eventually. As long as Facebook is taking a swing at LinkedIn, it will almost certainly take one at genealogy as well.
“Wow. Grandpa rocked.”
Instead of saying, “Gee, Grandpa’s birth certificate shows he was only five and a half pounds,” your grandkids will say: “Look at this comment and photo Grandpa posted the day Mom was born. He was really funny.”
Instead of saying, “My grandpa was awarded a medal when he was in the army and he gave it to me,” they’ll say, “Here’s a video Grandpa posted just before he came home from the army. He lost three buddies in a year and was sick about it.”
Let me know in the comments what role you think Facebook will play in telling your family’s story someday. Meanwhile, get ready to put down the paper and show Johnny how Grandpa rocked.
John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”