The Problem

I was hoping to write about the European Championships which begin later today, but I am not sure if that will be feasible because of my work schedule (when I blogged about last year’s World Cup, I was unemployed, and believe me that helps for writing long and hopefully thoughtful posts.)  It is not a coincidence that the one thing I posted about regularly this year was a television show that aired on Friday nights. Sleep was not an issue on weekends.

And speaking of Who Do You Think You Are, has been in the financial news lately.  According to Bloomberg, Ancestry is trying to find a new buyer.  This is not completely surprising; Ancestry’s stock price has gone way down, especially following the cancellation of Who Do You Think You Are.  For me personally, I think Ancestry is at a stage where it is too big but not big enough.  For the genealogy market, Ancestry is the giant monster that consumes all potential competitors.  Frankly, I am surprised the Justice Department has not gone after Ancestry for antitrust violations.

The weed-like growth has not benefited the company’s flagship site, either.  Now I don’t want to be a churl.  One cannot deny the greatness of Ancestry’s collection, nor can I ignore the innovate ways Ancestry presents them.  For example, the 1940 Federal Census for New York has gone online (along with several New York State censuses), and now the way the census sheets are viewed is just awesome–the family is highlighted in green, the individual in peach, and you can see the categories at all times rather than scrolling up and scrolling back down. Just the fact that the 1940 New York Census is online is a wonder.  For descendants of Eastern European immigrants especially, this is the mother lode, and no other site has completed a New York index.

On the other hand, Ancestry has gotten rid of some of the best non-records parts of its site in order to maximize profits.  For example, Ancestry used to have a site where you could hire an independent genealogist.  Ancestry was just the forum for making the connection.  Ancestry replaced that by offering its own (Utah-based) company ProGenealogists.  I really regret that loss because sometimes you just need someone local to do one little task.  No need to spend thousands of dollars.

Ancestry is in the odd position of trying to become a major Internet corporation based around what is ultimately a niche hobby–perhaps a common hobby, but a niche one all the same.  Who Do You Think You Are did not do for genealogy, and by extension Ancestry, what Roots did in the 1970’s.  Ancestry cannot be the major player it wants to be (and spends to be) because it will never have as vast a user base as the true Internet giants.  Additionally, Ancestry has a major problem on its hand–the LDS Church.  I have never minded paying for an subscription, because I understand and accept that we are not paying for the (free) records but rather the indexing (which is outsourced to another country).  But the LDS Church through its website is going to make its entire collection available online.  Many of these records will not be indexed for years (decades?), but they will be available.  The LDS Church is the one rival that Ancestry cannot swallow up.

The most alarming news in the Bloomberg article was the suggestion that Ancestry could be bought by either Google or Facebook, and that would be a disaster.  It’s not a large sampling size, but check out the comments in this post about the possible takeover.  That bodes ill for Ancestry and whoever purchases it.  There are two major concerns about a Google/Facebook run Ancestry: (1) they will ruin the site; and (2) privacy will be completely eliminated.  It is this second concern that I am particularly worried about.  My tree on Ancestry is private, but I keep it online for so that I can invite relatives to look at it.  Any relative may view it; the outside world cannot.  I don’t believe that this desire for my privacy and that of others will be respected by Facebook or Google, both of whom have shown repeatedly that they don’t care about such concerns (unless it is their own privacy).  It means I will have to take down my tree and probably end my Ancestry subscription.  At best a Facebook/Google run company will be something like Geni–there is an illusion of privacy, but that’s not the reality.

Don’t cry for me though, I have backups.  I would not however, have a venue of easily sharing my tree or finding long-lost relatives.  I have found some whose ancestors split off from mine generations ago and completely lost contact.  That I would no longer have that makes me feel very sad.

In fairness, not everyone is convinced that Facebook or Google will come in and buy Ancestry.  I hope not, although I still fear for whatever comes next.  Ancestry was a benefactor of but now a victim to what Louis Brandeis called “the curse of bigness.”


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