My first job was working for the Washington County, Indiana Historical Society (note: I did not design that website. I wish I could again.) I spent most of my Saturdays and school vacations doing monotonous data entry to allow people to search old records electronically. But it was a fun time and I didn’t mind the $5.75 I got paid per hour. I was in high school and it was a way better and cooler job than working at Dairy Queen.
One of the things I learned while working there is that genealogists, people who study and construct family trees, often first turn to an unlikely source for their lineage: the family Bible.
Early pioneers would write the names of people born, died, or married into or out of the family on the front and back cover pages of their Bible. It was often the only piece of paper they had. It was also assuredly going to be passed down and saved for generations.
Today, genealogy museums and archives are filled with old family bibles dating back one to two hundred years. On those initial pages you have the story of Genesis, but also, the genesis of families. It’s an accurate trove of data mapping out who was born, who died, and who married and when.
My boss, Willie Harlen, used to opine that the worst thing a genealogist could discover is a photograph “with nothing written on the back”. You’d have two or three people in a photo dating back to the start of the 20th century or earlier and you’d have no idea if that was Great Great Aunt Margaret or Great Great Great Aunt Betty. You’d have to find more photos, make educated guesses, and reverse-engineer the discovery.
Often, people would come to the museum to do research on their family history only to find just one photo and have no confirmation who was in the photo. Sometimes, people were pictured with an ancestor and they had no idea who it was. It would always be a mystery for them.
We don’t print photos much anymore. We have digital photos that are treated ephemerally. Sometimes people get tagged, often they don’t. Un-tagged photos on Facebook or elsewhere are the modern day equivalent of “photos without any names or dates written on the back”.
We can pull meta data from photos to determine an approximate creation date, but sometimes that meta data just becomes the last time something was modified or uploaded, not the date it was created.
Facebook’s ability to link people together by relationship, track marriages and divorces, and as time goes on, kids born from parents who have almost always been on Facebook is like the family Bible of yore.
In 80 years, people will go into research labs or libraries of some sort, sit down, and pay to access the trove of data that existed within Facebook.
Amateur and professional researchers will spends days or years of their lives reconstructing their family history by pouring over your selfies, vacation photos, tags, and likes. They will know so much about you because you’ve told them so much without even knowing it.
Today researchers get excited when they can figure out their ancestors hailed from Germany, arrived in America on the Santa Maria, colonized Jamestown, became a Quaker, moved to Indiana, and then established a series of generations that ends up with them.
Soon, researchers will get excited when they can figure out that and their 21st century ancestors liked Spongebob, Budweiser, who they voted for on American Idol and for America, every date they ever had, and a nearly unlimited supply of documentation from status updates, Tweets, Instagrams, and more documenting your chicken salad sandwich for lunch to that awful play during the Hoosiers basketball game you “totally could’ve done better”.
So long as the Library of Congress continues to archive tweets, and Facebook’s data is made available in some fashion when it inevitably dies off or goes out of fashion, genealogists will have more information to pour through and sort out than anyone has ever imagined.
Just remember to tag your photos, or at least yourself, so your future relatives will know who you are. I’d suggest losing the duck face look, too. Otherwise anthropologists in 10,000 years will start erecting statues and models of “21st century homo sapiens with duck bills, presumably for breathing and filtering the earth’s polluted air”.
One assumes Google Plus will be viewed as Stonehenge. No one will find anything or anyone there but some basic infrastructure in the middle of nowhere.