How will you be remembered on Facebook?

Here’s a wonderful guest post from {grow} community member John White — one of my favorite writers on the web!

“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?

  1. 2020
  2. 2050
  3. 2100
  4. Never

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:

  1. “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.”
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.”

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  • Douglas Rawlings

    I think this post hits the nail right on the head! I have a buddy who past away over a year ago and his Facebook page still gets about 5 wall posts a week from friends and family. Facebook will, and already does, serve as a great way to look at people who have past and get a feel for how they lived their life and the kind of things they experienced during it. Someone who never knew that person can log on and check out their page and get a real feel for who they were.

    Facebook is also a great way to help family and friends who have lost a loved one feel connected to that person. You can still have a connection to that person and feel as though you can still talk to them by posting on their wall.

    I think it may be even sooner than 2020! love the post!

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  • Wow, that is an amazing story! Thanks Douglas!

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  • Douglas: I recall reading about consternation in Facebook’s ranks on the topic of what to do about the dead. I suppose nobody really has the authority to ask them to take a page down, so up it will stay.

    Sooner than 2020 – you’ve just proved that.

  • King

    This was a really good post, and I totally agree with everything that has been said. It’s also really smart of employers to use FaceBook as a way to check out their potential employees.

    There are a lot of kids who use FB as well, me being one (well, I’m fourteen…am I still a kid? 0_o). If you go to a party, and someone takes a few pictures of you and uploads them onto FaceBook, they’ll be there forever. Even if you decided to delete them, they’ll be floating around somewhere in cyber space. Now, if there was a FaceBook back in my grandma’s day, and I decided to look her up and saw pictures of her crumping and stuff, I think I would be disturbed for life. I kind of have this image of what my grandma was like my age, and I don’t really want it to be ruined by FB.

    FaceBook is a place to share private stuff publicly.

  • King: Be careful how /you/ crump; your grandkids will see it. Guaranteed.

  • This is an excellent post and one that I am going to bookmark to share with my students as we talk about digital footprints. Last year, I witnessed the “wall” of a friend’s sister fill up with well wishes and prayers as this young woman battled a grave disease. Unfortunately, she lost her battle leaving her husband to raise their young daughter alone. Her private profile and wall now stand as a memorial for her daughter (and husband) who will someday have questions about the person her mother was. The answer to your question is 2010 or perhaps even earlier.

  • That conversation will never happen John, because Daddy won’t be reading a newspaper. Not a physical one, anyway. 🙂

    Great article though. A lot of my friends say that Facebook is antisocial compared to real life interaction, but you’ve definitely made a case for it’s potential.

    How long do companies last? How long do technology companies last?

    History says, not long.

    Hopefully the conversation won’t be, “Well son, Grandpa had Facebook – but wait, you wouldn’t know what that was, Facebook folded have a century ago. All the videos and photos went down the drain too.”

    Now that’s a scary thought, no?

  • Anonymous

    Inside every old person is a former young person. And inside every young person is an old person waiting their turn. Few of us were thoughtful enough years ago to capture our essence. Today’s digital platforms capture it in a seemingly effortless way. Long live the servers who hold our history. They will help others see our stories after we’re gone

  • Eh. Great article and I do wish it would happen… but do you really think Facebook will allow something like this to develop in the long-term? They change everything so often and there are enough claims of lost data and deleted accounts that it wouldn’t surprise me if they sold the data/profiles of the deceased to a third party who would then charge people to access the data.

    Or something like that… Maybe they’ll just wipe profiles clean after x number of years. I’m sure they’ll surprise us. They always do.

  • Sobering yet undeniable.

  • John: Consider my use of the name “Facebook” a placeholder for whatever the servers that hold all of that rich content call themselves in the future.

    I can’t believe that anybody in this day and age with that much data would: a) really discard any of it permanently; and b) ignore its future value.

    New scenario: Facebook begins to crumble under its own weight, and is purchased by a joint venture of the Department of Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service and a consortium of health insurance companies. Now then, do you really want to post about scarfing down that Double-Double Cheeseburger and fries?

  • Carla: Yup, that’s it in a nutshell.

  • Martyn: See my apocalyptic answer to John Fitzgerald about where all those videos and photos will go…

  • Philip: “Digital footprint” is an good way of putting it. Consider calling it a “digital fingerprint,” though: it’s valuable, unique, and it can get you into a lot of trouble if it’s in the wrong place.

  • Ah, now you’re talkin!

    You’re right about discarding data – Facebook makes it so difficult to actually erase an account that I don’t think they’d ever knowingly delete anything, ever. However, it would be nice to be able to backup your data and post to a few different places – if you’re trying to keep a historical record of your life.

    And you’re new scenario is spot on. To answer your final question – ABSOLUTELY NOT!

  • Anonymous

    This is a very timely post in regards to how the “modern” family views their history, It is not only the manner in which it is displayed but how it was recorded and at what moment in time it was recorded. A happy snap posted to face book 30 seconds after the event with a comment then read by a family member / Tribe member somewhere else in the world is a very different dynamic, then puling out a shoebox of photos with Nana and reminiscing on the veranda.

  • Yes, probably not as gratifying to us nowadays, but who knows how people will feel about it in fifty years.

  • It’s not a question important for me. How they love si essential:

  • I hope my grandkids will think “grandma was hilarious” but those of us in college right now have started cleaning up facebooks for future employers. I never thought about cleaning it up for future kids.

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