Automated History

It seems that I'm really not all that keen on genealogy.  I have eight great-great-grandfathers, and have accumulated full names and some biographical information for only two of them.  Of my eight great-great-grandmothers, seven are a complete mystery, and even the one whose maiden name I can instantly recall, remains a bit of shadowy figure.

For those who, unlike me, have been bitten by the genealogy bug, besides being a contagious and consuming passion, family history can be a serious and important study.  There are even people who make a living at it.  Many of them belong to organizations of professionals that adhere to strict standards for certification.  For most of us mere dabblers, our study fulfills a need to answer some basic human questions:  Who am I?  Where did I come from?  How did I get here?  They are the sort of questions that can make family historians sound somewhat self-absorbed.

In the sixties, when we started to worry about running out of room, and "The Population Bomb" was a hot seller, folk-singer and philosopher Tommy Smothers observed that, since each person has two parents, and each of them had two parents, and each of their parents had two parents, and so on, it's pretty clear that the population of the world is rapidly tapering off.  It’s a delightfully wacky and narcissitic way of looking at family trees as a set of championship brackets that finally narrow down until it's just us, in the winner’s circle.

Genealogy websites may have helped to make family research enormously popular by making it ridiculously easy.  Results we weren’t even searching for can pop up automatically.  I headed back to a subscription site to have a look at my own rather scrawny family tree to check out great-great-grandparents for this blog, and found names and details I didn’t recognize and don’t remember putting there.  No, it’s not necessarily senility.  Many of the names on the tree sprout green leaves to indicate hints which the website’s binary olfactory gland has spent its spare time sniffing out for me.  I’ve learned that some of these leafy appendages are really weeds.  The information is either of doubtful value or just completely wrong.  At some point I must have given way to the temptation to hit the “Save to Your Tree” button before conducting a careful review of a hint.  Don’t get me wrong - these sites are a convenient resource for some really solid information, but it’s also easy to let them lead you way, way far astray.  And once the misinformation is in your tree, it can spread to other trees like an airborne blight.

So, I have a family tree that I never really intended to grow, fertilized in part by software that seems to work overtime when my back is turned.  I’m afraid I even have an unintended Facebook page.  I try to warn people away from going there.  I acquired it quite by accident, and almost nothing of the small collection of items it may contain, was put there on purpose by me.

A few years back, the TV station I work for needed some video that had been posted to someone's Facebook page, and wanted me to grab a copy.  The only way to do so was to sign up for an account.  For the longest time, the only picture of me contained on my otherwise-empty page was the default male outline assigned at enrollment.  Then one day while I was visiting a software user forum, I attached a small photo of myself to a thumbs-up review of their inexpensive closed-captioning product, which I rely on at work.

The photo is one of a very few I’ve had someone snap of me over the last several years.  A friend and Disney fan generously shipped my family some  “Pirates of the Caribbean” logo wear, and I posed in the Captain Jack hoody she had sent, adopting what seemed an appropriately rakish Captain-Morgan leer, to attach to an email thanking her for the gifts.  That picture of me looked so tiny, tucked beside that software review, it hardly seemed to matter that, viewed up close, the pose seems rather silly-looking.  It happened to be the only recent picture I had.  However, the software company I was writing about, uses Facebook for its user forum.  I never imagined that the picture I submitted would swim upstream to my long-forgotten Facebook page and populate it like a hall of mirrors.

A few months ago another friend emailed me after visiting my Facebook page, to express her surprise at learning that my hometown is the same as hers - Beatrice, Nebraska.  I was equally surprised, since I’ve spent only a few hours of one day in Beatrice, during one of their “Homestead Days” celebrations.  It seems that, because some people who know me and also know each other, are all from Beatrice, Facebook's logic engine decided that I must have grown up there as well, and decided to add this obvious piece of information to my profile.  Or else, it's deliberately posting misstatements in order to lure me back to my page to fix them, and clear out the cobwebs while I’m there.

It all leads me to wonder how much of what we think we know about our ancestors is based on mistakes, misunderstandings, and bad guesswork.  Once these have become enshrined in print, like everything on the Internet, they’re lurking out there forever.  No, Thomas Lovewell did not wander the West, footloose and alone for sixteen years.  Despite what you may have heard or read, he did not scout for a wagon train that gave up one of its emigrants to be skinned alive by vengeful Indians.  Not everyone listed as a great-great-grandparent on my family tree is even related to me.  I am not from Beatrice, Nebraska, and I am not a pirate.  I just play one on my Facebook page.

© Dale Switzer 2023