Next Generation Genealogy: The Story Takes Center Stage 11


[Editor's Note: Genealogist, Tech-Head, and IDG Contributor Michael Maglio continues today in his series of tech-related blog posts from RootsTech 2013 with this third installment. For the first in the series, read "Is RootsTech More Roots Than Tech?"]

For technology to evolve, sometimes the metaphor needs to change.  Think of the 90s when most of us switched from text based computing (DOS) to windows based graphical computing.  Even now, that interface is evolving again into an ‘app’ centric model.  I have no doubt that the computing user interface will change many times in my life.

What about the genealogy metaphor?  Genealogy is and has been centered on the person and their events.  Historically this view of our ancestors has been dry and uninteresting.  This week at RootsTech we’ve been talking about making genealogy more accessible to all groups and more interesting (entertaining) for the next generation.  How do we change the interface?  My own experience working with the teen and twenty crowds is that they want to know about the drama.  What hardships did their ancestors face, what wars did they fight and what dirty little secrets did they hide?  They want to know the stories, not the vital records.

From a knowledge management point of view, organized data becomes information.  Information is then absorbed and recombined to be disseminated as knowledge.  Knowledge is inherently formatted for easy consumption.  The ‘story’ of our ancestors is synonymous with the creation of knowledge.  A story is entertaining and memorable.  The story format worked extremely well for millennia before writing was invented.


TheStory - Rootstech Day2


We’ve come full circle.  The story is the new metaphor.  As I walked around the exhibit hall, the story theme was everywhere.  How do we capture, record, document, preserve, present and tell the story of our ancestors?  I was very happy to see that the ‘little guys’ have embraced the new metaphor.  The best new ideas come from the fringe.

What is most important is that all of these companies have taken different approaches to the ‘story’.  Unfortunately, they won’t all be right.  Each had a different focus.  They centered their ‘stories’ on photos, maps, documents, timelines, objects or right to the story itself.

Objects, documents and maps play a supporting role.  They are data to our knowledge.

Photos are a great way to tell a story.  A virtual album captures an entire event.  You can add story content to each photo.  Yet, focusing on the photo gets in the way of the story.  The image itself wants to tell its own story.  Photos are invaluable, but should only be there to enhance the larger story.

Jumping right to the story was the most popular direction.  A few folks offered prompts to get your stories started.  They seemed to be just methods of story collection, missing the bigger picture.  I’ll give Travis Peterson and an honorable mention for having a clean, intuitive story interface with great collaborative capabilities.  They did miss tying things back to genealogy though.

I have to agree with the RootsTech judges that Tammy Hepps and was the most innovative and well-conceived story focused application.  The story is the center.  You can draw upon your imported genealogy and its key events to develop your story outline and select the characters.  Then just start writing.  A good story can’t be prompted; it unfolds and grows.  Connect your photos, documents and maps to enrich the story.  Publish.

The story flows in a well-designed interface along a timeline (animated Treelines) without being constrained by it.  Underneath beats the heart of true genealogy program with facts, documents and sources.  Welcome to the new genealogy metaphor.

The application is missing a collaborative element, but hits the mark with all of its features.  Considering that Treelines just launched this week, I’m not worried about the development team filling the minor gaps quickly.  This is the type of innovation that I came to RootsTech to find.

This is an opportunity for a win-win situation.  We can start building our ancestral stories and spread the word about this new storytelling platform.  Our support will help Treelines be successful, grow and in turn enrich our family histories.

Repeat after me, change is good.


Michael Maglio

About Michael Maglio

Michael Maglio is a professional genealogist, writer, and speaker. He graduated from Northeastern University with a B.S. in Engineering and has spent his career developing collaborative technologies. As a genetic genealogist, Mike advises on the use of DNA as a tool for genealogy. His focus combines science and history to unravel ancestral genetic migrations. Find more to read at Mike is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Deep Into DNA.

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11 thoughts on “Next Generation Genealogy: The Story Takes Center Stage

  • TheHeritageTourist

    Ah, Michael. Change is Good. This story is very encouraging, to me. This is what I’ve been looking for. Technology is great, but it is still a tool. Telling the story is the most important thing. And, we need to tell one story at at time. Wonderful news of the start of something good… something more good.
    Keep those reports coming. 😉

    • caelm

      Technology is just a tool. Everyone has a different learning or organizational style. Tool usage is no different. There will not be one perfect technology that fits all needs. I mentioned two of the best sites that I liked at RootsTech. For some, a pen and paper will never be replaced for storytelling.


  • Mariann Regan

    I enjoyed this post! I so much agree that “A good story can’t be prompted; it unfolds and grows.” It’s fascinating to see people working to interface narrative with technology.

    You might like to contact @LynnPal just to get some links with her favorite parts of her Family History Writing Challenge. It was for the month of February. A big challenge! Here, stories were unfolding (with much effort) in a collaborative environment, supported by the encouragement and attendance of many other human beings and writers. You might be interested in the metaphor of Story from this angle!

    • caelm

      I see your comment about stories unfolding with much effort. One of my criteria for looking at story based technology was that it didn’t prompt me. I wanted to write the way I like to write. There were a number of technologies that provided story prompts – to encourage the interviewee to tell their story. Those prompts could just as easily help propel a writer through a story. I worry about the results being formulaic.


  • Tammy Hepps

    Thank you, Michael, for your kind words and support. It was wonderful meeting you at RootsTech and I appreciate the time you took to get to know me & Treelines. Can’t wait to see your stories on the site. 🙂

    • caelm

      I hope to give Treelines a test drive over the next month. An in depth review of storytelling technologies would be worth writing about.


  • Travis Peterson

    Michael, this is Travis Peterson, the founder of halftale and I appreciate the mention. I did want to clarify that we intentionally (we did not “miss”) cut out genealogy from our site. Genealogy, or the tracing of lines or descent, is already made possible by familysearch, ancestry, myheritage, and many others. At the conference I heard many complain that these genealogy websites are already too scattered. I don’t intend to draw those lines of descent nor can I do them any better. I intend to record the unrecorded and build a family legacy starting. We want to aid the family (parents and children) to write their story starting today, not when they have passed on.

    Granted, our website is not ready to launch and the vision might be hard to see. We had a great conference and we were able to listen to the customer and I know we have something everyone will want to use. My favorite quote from one other Rootstech attendee was, “I have been looking for something like this for 10 years.” And we can’t wait to finish it.


    • caelm

      Technology is very personal. Folks want tools that fit their style. I like tools that give me a workspace to do as much as possible. Others like separate tools for everything they do. I don’t envy the decisions that developers need to make to satisfy the needs of their clients. Halftale is a great product (which is why I mentioned it out of the dozen that I reviewed) – it just wasn’t the right tool for me. I look forward to giving the site a test drive and writing more.

  • Taneya

    Thanks for the post. When I heard of Treelines winning, I immediately signed up for a Beta account. Last night my invitation came and I created my first story. It was so very cool! I hope to be able to share it soon.