There have been major changes in SE:Genealogy and Family History in recent weeks. The number of questions asked per day has fallen. Those questions that have been asked are attracting fewer responses. Perhaps most significantly, the focus of activity has shifted from addressing genealogy issues to introspection here on Meta.

Is this an inevitable pause to regather strength after a hectic three months to establish the public beta, or an indication of a fundamental disconnect between the structure imposed by Stack Exchange and the needs of family historians?

  • 4
    Maybe we're all trying too hard and should relax our ideals a bit.
    – lkessler
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 4:00
  • As a new user, I have puzzled about how (why?) Stack Exchange has all these sites. Why does it do it? How does it make any money from Genealogy & Family History?
    – Banquo
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 5:59
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    @Banquo The Genealogy.SE community is here to solve problems. Do you have a Genealogy & Family History problem with which we might help?
    – GeneJ
    Commented Feb 4, 2013 at 15:39
  • I understand that is why individuals are here. I wondered why the corporate entity SE was involved.
    – Banquo
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 1:24
  • @Banquo A fair question. I think it's always good to consider "what's in it for me?" especially when it comes to online activities. I think that many internet startups begin with altruistic ideals, but then find that a web presence incurs costs that need to eventually be supported in some manner. I think SE started to save time for programmers... & time=money. Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 2:46

5 Answers 5


You've asked a good question, Fortiter. I'm not concerned about the stats as much as I was earlier. The simple fact is that very few genealogists know about Genealogy SE because the users here have basically not been promoting it. As a result, it is being found via the search engines only by a handful of genealogists each day. So I now just shrug and realize that if no one wants to promote it, it will just stay like this.

If you compare Genealogy SE to a tight-knit programmer-based community that has a solid Q/A need such as Expression Engine that's doing fantastic during their beta, you'll see that they need a reference tool, have told each others about it, and are using it heavily. Genealogy is a bit too fragmented, with people everywhere on the web for that to happen.

However, if some of the big players, e.g. FamilySearch, Ancestry, About.com, FamilyTree Magazine or even some of the grassroots guys like Dick Eastman would take an interest in Genealogy SE, then I feel it would be able to get to critical mass and be successful.

Most of those players, though, are interested in their own properties, in their own moneymaking and self-promotion and not in the general populous.

I also feel that the question rules on Stack Exchange may be correct for programmers and technical people, with the goal of keeping "quality" of questions higher than other technology forums on the web. But genealogists are 90% beginners. They'd like a place to answer their beginning questions. The goals here of keeping the so-called quality up is resulting in questions about very specific problems to be solved that almost go into so much detail that they become totally localized to that one person asking the question. So much so, that no one else would be interested in them.

Note that we have been pushing for localized questions - but that is one of the reasons that a question should be closed, i.e. too localized.

I feel family historians can really use a site like this. I think it would be working out fine if we had 5,000 people here. It would have enough traffic and would quickly figure itself out. But with barely 500 people (fewer active people), it has nowhere near the base it needs to get going.

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    There's a world of difference between "localized" and "too localized". The vast majority of questions on any site are localized in some fashion - indeed, questions that apply to everyone tend to be rather problematic. "Too localized" means there's absolutely no chance that anyone else will ever care about the answer... I don't know much about genealogy, but I would have to assume such questions are fairly rare, with the possible exception of questions from terminally ill last members of a family line.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 0:24
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    Re promotion, I don't think you're being fair. For most users, I suspect it's not that they "don't want to" so much as they "don't know how to do it effectively". For example, I don't blog; I don't tweet; I don't attend conferences/conventions; the traffic on my websites is miniscule; the 'big players' could care less about anything I promoted (and anyway, others have already contacted them). And I doubt I'm in the minority in all this. I have one idea which I'll post as a separate Q, so as not to get it lost in this discussion.
    – user104
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 15:40
  • I agree that it's an awareness thing. I'm also encouraged to see that SE questions have a great Google pick up. I've queried specific problems and been pleasantly surprised to see Q&A from this site near the top of the Google search results. I'm encouraged and will stay around contributing until we reach that critical mass ;) It takes a long time to start a train movin'. Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 2:53
  • @CanadianGirlScout - I plan to stick around as well. I still think it is a great site that genealogists will love if they can just be coerced to try it. I was actually very surprised that it didn't take off right away. I thought we really had something here and thought the initial publicity by some big names would be enough to start the fire. Unfortunately that fizzled, and showed that genealogists don't word-of-mouth that well. Now it will be much tougher. But to grow, we've got to get to the point where more people are joining and contributing each day than are giving up and leaving.
    – lkessler
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 2:00

Stack Exchange has a single, simple business focus -- to generate and maintain an archive of content that will be targeted by third-party search engines. Everything else that might be imagined to be central to SE (reputation, badges, tag wikis, and hats) are simply enablers to keep the content generators engaged and productive.

That is not a criticism of Stack Exchange as a corporate entity. The organisation is open about its rationale and its methods, and their business model has been proven to be (very) successful in a range of areas. But it is equally true that there are several areas of human interest and activity where the SE model has not proved productive.

Gardeners know that if you deploy sufficient time, effort and resources (water, fertiliser, insecticide, etc) you can keep most plants alive in even the most hostile setting. But, despite all the effort, the plant will never thrive as it would in its appropriate environment.

Before we commit to extra-ordinary efforts to remedy "what we are doing wrong" in growing SE:G&FH, perhaps we need to ask whether it might not be that this is simply the wrong place for this plant.

The SE model rests upon a steady supply of good questions. If you look across a range of productive SE sites, you can infer that a good question is one that does not depend upon particular contextual variables so it has very broad (if not universal) appeal. It will have one correct answer or a small set of competing answers. And (fundamentally) that answer (or answers) will be "known" to experts in the field.

A good question is assumed to attract good answers, which are delivered comprehensively and authoritatively. They are not negotiated or developed collaboratively. If the answer draws upon information published elsewhere that must be acknowledged, but also restated rather than included by hyperlinking.

When it comes to the way I "do" family history, I find the questions that meet the SE criteria are not challenging and the answers that SE prize are uninteresting. When I review the 455 questions that we have considered, there are perhaps 10% that stand out as being particularly worthwhile (in my terms).

Each one was (on the surface) very specific in its focus and highly dependent upon a particular context that took some time and effort to elaborate; but at its core it rested upon universal principles and techniques that engaged other researchers with no direct interest in the family or location or time period. In almost all cases, the answer designated the best is not a comprehensive response to the question asked but it has either built upon, or contributed to, other responses that (taken together) provide a truly expert response to that question.

There was a period in the heady first weeks of this site when the conversation bubbled and there was a sense of anticipation in monitoring new questions and answers to see what new avenue of investigation might have opened up. It was evident that there is a real niche for that type of collaborative problem-solving in family history.

Now we have begun to learn the rules that go with being a part of Stack Exchange. The focus must be on the product (searchable content) not the development process. Answers should be self-contained (but fully referenced) to keep eyeballs on the site rather than leading them away to (more) appropriate resources. As a result, we now argue about which questions ought to be closed rather than work to construct appropriate answers.

When I declined nomination as a moderator pro tem because of what I described as "concerns" with the SE model, I wondered if I would come to regret that decision. While I have the greatest admiration for the herculean efforts of those who have undertaken those duties, I am very comfortable with the fact that I do not share them. I am now convinced that the SE model has fundamental flaws that prevent it being an hospitable environment for family historians. No amount of "gamification" (at which I am apparently very successful) can make up for those deficiencies.

  • 4
    Agree 100% with the idea that there are areas of human interest where the SE model just doesn't work. Disagree that a good question must have universal (or even particularly broad) appeal. Yes, questions should generally be potentially useful to someone other than the person asking them, but it doesn't have to be a lot of someones - as you say, the bulk of readers come in from search engines, so in theory your potential audience includes anyone on the planet with access to Google. Agree that answers should ideally not depend entirely on external resources, or devolve into discussion.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 0:29
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    I have worried over these same issues for while, but recently given up trying to raise awareness. The SE approach is rigid, and I felt it was not really appropriate for collaborative answers, but I held back in case I was out-of-step. However, the issues over phrasing/framing a question correctly, and what subjects are "in" or "out", may have riased the bar too far for many. If I were coming to this site as a beginner - someone who had a burning question but no "personal obligation" to the site, then I think I would find it very hard to participate.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 10:16
  • @ACProctor, which elements of genealogy.stackexchange.com/faq and genealogy.stackexchange.com/about set the bar too high?
    – user104
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 17:20
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    As I said, the difficulty phrasing/framing a question appropriately, and the allowable topics. Pointing at FAQ on this or insisting this is necessary because ... does not help a beginner who simply wants an answer to their question. I fear the bar may be set too high because it's unreasonable to expect such a beginner to pre-read all the rules, conventions, FAQ, etc., before posting their first question...
    – ACProctor
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 18:23
  • ...The usual approach to participating in something new is to watch and learn for a while before diving in, but that will give the impression that we can't agree on those issues, and that we can be a bit blunt in applying the rules. I sometimes wonder if questions could do with a "holding area" where we can help the poster get the most out of the responses before releasing it.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 18:25
  • @Acproctor if you don't '@ping' me I won't see your responses except by accident.
    – user104
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 20:16
  • @ACproctor, I think that if we work to the FAQ as currently constituted, the allowable topics are broad and shouldn't need us to point at the FAQ (except for blatantly off-topic stuff, which isn't a lot). What do you think is excluded that shouldn't be? Ditto the pre-requisites: Google or dictionary, and personally I wouldn't insist on Google (as I've explained: meta.genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/1545/104)....contd
    – user104
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 20:25
  • @ACproctor ... Yes, OPs might be asked to clarify their question and what they already know and it'd help if they read the about page to avoid surprises about how things work around here, but it isn't essential.
    – user104
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 20:26
  • @ACproctor, We forget that we haven't been at this long and -- patently -- we actually do disagree on some core issues. I keep trying to move discussions about the suitability of questions to meta instead of the comment thread to a particular question (which ought to be used only for seeking clarification from the OP).
    – user104
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 20:29
  • 1
    Re a holding area, that's what the 'Closed' state is for -- to allow the question to be clarified before it's answered. There are changes under consideration (both to closure reasons and the process for re-opening closed questions) that I hope will particularly suit this site -- I'm also hoping that @LUke will find time to document them for those people who don't have time to listen to blog.stackoverflow.com/2013/01/…
    – user104
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 20:31
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    @ColeValleyGirl - Maybe that is "officially" what it is for, but that's not how its perceived by the newcomer (or even how I as an experienced StackExchange person perceived it). Therein lies the problem.
    – lkessler
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 16:16
  • 1
    @lkessler and therein lies some of the underlying reasons for the forthcoming changes to 'closing'/re-opening that are mentioned in recent StackExchange podcast
    – user104
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 16:26
  • Let me attempt and put your mostly solid post in a few sentences: "Stack Exchange is all about giving good answers to good questions. Genealogy has been giving good answers to bad genealogy questions. Therefore, Stack Exchange is not the right place to ask genealogy questions." No, that's not the logical conclusion of your argument. Accepting the premises as true, the correct conclusion is that you've been indulging bad questions: you may want to stop that and require questions to be more about teaching how to catch fish than they are about the catching of a particular fish and its ancestors.
    – user644
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 17:59
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    I maintain the way to the se business model is good specific content - which includes fish not just 'how to fish'. Although all of us would enjoy more 'how to', what we really want is answers our specific questions (ie fish).
    – Duncan
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 1:02

I'm really enjoying the discussion on this question. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to read it. I too got a little weary of the meta discussions about 'is this a good question or not' 'what should go into the FAQ', etc. (sorry to those who worked hard on the FAQ, just trying to be honest). I will be the first to admit that the FAQ is not where I'd go as a newbie (to be perfectly honest, the only reason I've ever gone there is to get the badge or because a more experienced member has pointed me there due to an oops/boo boo). I think @ACProctor's comments on this are sound.

I disagree that the SE model won't work for family history.

Here's what I see happening with G&FH:

  • The site gives people (newbies to genealogy especially) an opportunity to compose their struggles and brick walls into coherent questions.
  • It encourages people to be okay with admitting that they do not know everything and to step out and engage with a larger community of researchers to ask for help (genealogy can be a very solitary, sometimes isolated activity).
  • It helps people to become experts by giving them opportunities to research a diversity of subjects (that their own lines may not afford), in small snippets and manageable amounts, with no strings attached. i.e. It is a way to practice doing genealogy with nearly automatic feedback, options for editing & improving your answers, learning from others, et al.
  • It is well indexed by Google, making what is posted in Q&A format here something for posterity; something that is recognized as having value and points others to it for its quality.
  • It offers a different vehicle to exchange information than a gen. forum or message board (messy hard to follow strings of unedited and often abandoned Q&A), many of which are seeing declining use even though genealogy is becoming more popular, or a blog (which is mostly one-way communication).
  • It is fun. It embraces web 3.0 People can customize it and subscribe to topics (tags) that interest them. If life gets busy, they can abandon the site with no worries and then come back if a question is asked about a tag subject they're interested in.
  • It is an easy to find site and will only gain in popularity as people around the world learn about SE, its reputation and the method of how to use it.

Regarding that last point, my intro to one StackExchange site leads me to investigate another, which leads me to another, etc. If I have immediate, burning questions, I now know that I can likely find an answer amongst the SE universe. If my plant was ailing with brown tipped leaves, one of the resources I would quickly use is Gardening SE. I have done the same with religion questions regarding the appointment of the new Pope. Once people get on that SE learning curve, it is addictive, helpful and fun. That is why I think that this site will succeed in the longrun.

  • 1
    Some good points here. FWIW, I see the FAQ as a backstop -- somewhere to point people if they need its guidance -- and getting it sorted was a necessary chore. Hopefully we won't need to invest any more effort in it soon unless a scope question comes up that we didn't anticipate.
    – user104
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 17:11

"Good questions" is the key. I think "good questions" include both beginner questions and 'about particular ancestor' questions. People search for their ancestors, therefore to have content for search engines to find, we need more content with those ancestors in them.

Each one of the 83 avid users probably has hundreds if not thousands of their own ancestors and ancillary people in their own archives. But the experts don't ask 'how to fish' questions and there appears to be a prejudice against 'doing fishing for others'. The fish analogy is a bad one for this discussion because it assumes that you no longer have your fish when you 'give it away'. It's the exact opposite - the fish is likely to grow and both you and many others have more fish for it.

I think the participants could do two things that would improve the site:

  • allow beginner questions about individuals. This site is extremely intimidating to those who don't spend hours per day doing genealogy - which is the vast majority of interested people.
  • put more of your own content on this site. If an ancestor is 'fully documented', then do the exhaustive docs and ask the 'please review' question. If they aren't, go ahead and ask about the facts you don't have sources for, etc.

If I were to ask about one of my ancestors that I have not spent 10 hours researching already, I am NOT asking you to do the work for me. I'm asking if any of you (or more importantly the thousands of people who search that name and haven't found se yet) have ALREADY DONE IT. If no one has - then let it sit for awhile (like a year) until somebody who has comes along. And of course I'd welcome answers on what I could do to find more info myself. But I think the 'finding info already found by others' is a much more fertile fishing ground that we are discouraging anyone entering.

All I ask is people consider the unwashed masses of people interested in genealogy, not just the people who live and breathe geneaology many hours a day.

  • 1
    Perhaps "have [you] already done it" questions should be posed in the context of "where should I go to find out if someone has 'already done it.'" I don't pretend to have a crystal ball, but suspect most questions that directly ask if someone "has already done it" aren't questions about a problem someone is actually confronting.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Feb 4, 2013 at 15:48
  • @Duncan Some of those masses wash :-) I've been rereading this discussion in relation to the question asked about attracting more participants.
    – Jeni
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 15:58

A shift of focus to Meta?

Perhaps most significantly, the focus of activity has shifted from addressing genealogy issues to introspection here on Meta.

In the period since the site went into private beta, almost 3 times as many questions have been asked on the main site as they have on meta.

In the last 28 days, 3 times as many questions have been asked on the main site as they have on meta.

I'm not seeing this shift you refer to, Fortiter. Nor do I think it's a bad thing for us to discuss how we want this site to work.

[I'll contribute on some of the other points made here in other answers.]

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