It has taken me some time to work up this response to the blog post What is the Nature of Genealogy as an Activity? by James Tanner of Genealogy’s Star. I found it a fascinating and thought-provoking read, but I don’t really agree with what James is saying. Trying to explain why, succinctly, has proved something of a challenge.
The discussion revolves around whether many of the websites, software etc. that are being ‘sold’ for genealogy are actually aimed at the ‘genealogical majority’, which he defines as predominantly female, over fifty and happy working at their research alone, while others do the same in parallel. James acknowledges that he is not part of this demographic, but he draws on his observations and his experience as a seasoned researcher to suggest that this is an established demographic with no movement towards or desire for change. The implication is that products are mostly being aimed at what he perceives as a two-fold yet very small ‘minority’: 1. the younger ‘beginner’ genealogist; and 2. collaborative efforts, particularly within the extended family. He ends by posing the question:
If the programs emphasize family cooperation and ‘beginners’ at the expense of providing support for the established genealogical hub individuals, doesn't that at best ignore the present structure of the community or at worst alienate the people who are actually doing genealogical research?
though I can’t be certain, I would imagine that some of these large companies that James refers to are not just guessing at their demographic; that they are carrying out at least some research to identify their ‘target audience’ and its ‘needs’. I can’t imagine that they really are producing products and marketing that are aimed at a non-existent customer. And if they were getting it that wrong, they’d all have gone bust by now!
I would venture that the interpretation of who is doing genealogy is not quite as clear-cut as James suggests. After all, just because he doesn’t see a certain type of person at the conference doesn’t mean they’re not involved in genealogy (I’m living proof!). This week I read an interesting article about homophily – best summed up by the phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together’. To my mind, James is flocking with his like-minded solitary researchers precisely by not collaborating; it doesn’t mean the other, more collaborative birds don’t exist!
That’s not to suggest that he is entirely wrong. The chances are that his assessment of the majority of the genealogical community – women in their fifties working alone – is fair. I simply propose that, combined, the ‘minorities’ may be a significantly larger segment than he thinks. And perhaps it is also a more influential one?
The existing majority is the majority because it is established; it is made up of the traditional genealogist. Probably many of them started some ten or twenty years ago, in the pre-internet, even pre-personal computer age. They rely mainly on archives and work primarily from original records, books and microfiche; they even record their findings on paper perhaps?
Ok, so this is a bit of an exaggeration, a stereotype even. Before I get bombarded with complaints a lot of older ladies who think I’m implying that they can’t even turn on a computer, let alone exploit the internet (in which case how would they even be reading this?), let me explain: My point is that they are already working in their own way and happy in their methods, in the tools they have, online or off, and that they don’t need new technology to excite and engage them in their research. They are, for the most part, excited by genealogy because they love it as a long-term pursuit with an established methodology, not as a new discovery with all the possibility that holds.
The new researchers – the young and even the older converts – are more likely to come to genealogy as part of the ‘facebook generation’ (to employ yet another stereotype). They expect and therefore demand that their genealogical tools offer them the opportunity to share, discuss and be collaborative. This is not to belittle them or imply that they are somehow less ‘serious’ as genealogists; it is simply to recognise the influence of the here and now. Of course, the traditional genealogist can choose to try out these new tools, just as the ‘newbie’ (no pun intended) can equally choose not to go down that root, but instead to follow a more traditional methodology. And of course, we can all do both – it’s not necessarily a choice of one over the other.
The demands of the newbie, however, are more accessible to a business looking to make money. The emerging niches are readily apparent, and the technology is continually evolving, which only serves to feed demand among tech-savvy consumers. In that sense, the newbie is more influential perhaps than their more traditional counterpart. These companies are simply responding to the group that may be smaller but is expressing a stronger ‘demand’ for a product, and one that is achievable.
To return to James central question then, does this focus on the ‘newbie’ and their demands mean that the makers of software developers and website owners are ignoring the present structure of the community and alienating what James describes as ‘the people who are actually doing genealogical research’ – those that I have termed the ‘traditional’ genealogists?
The simplistic answer to this question is yes; these companies are at present not providing for the traditionalist. But perhaps this is because such companies do not have the tools to cater for their needs? Or perhaps it is because this group doesn’t seem to be expressing any emerging needs at all, much less needs that these technological enterprises are able to respond to?
As James says, he is perfectly happy working in the way he always has done, alone and using what tools are already available to him. His post does not express any lack of resources or suggests anything he requires, so I wonder what exactly he thinks they should or could do? I certainly can’t think of anything further that websites and software developers could be doing for them – their ‘needs’ seem to have already been met.
My questions is, can a group that on the face of it appears to be content with the resources available to it really be ‘alienated’ by resources that cater to another group that is expressing a demand for them? I don’t think so.
Of course, it is in the interests of genealogy software and website companies to address the needs of their largest group of potential customers, so I can’t imagine that they haven’t explored this. It may be that they simply don’t see a potential product for them, and instead choose to focus their efforts on a group that is smaller, and one that may well be growing as a result.
As I said earlier, the right tools may allow co-operation to become collaboration, and this may attract those of a naturally more sociable nature to what was previously a somewhat lonely, solo pastime. This in turn enlarges their market and thus eventually the nature of the majority will change.
Whether this is a desirable development is another matter, for another post. But it goes to show that genealogy as a pursuit is not immune to market forces. The way to rectify it would be for this ‘majority’ to work out what its need is and express it, so that it can be met. Only the majority itself can change the way the market responds to it.