RootsWeb, founded in 1993, was one of the first to offer collaborations via online forums or message boards and mailing lists. It is the oldest free community genealogy research site on the Web, and it is still a force in the genealogy community. RootsWeb was acquired by MyFamily.com in June 2000.
Another early social network related to family history was MyFamily.com, allowing families to establish a web site, give it a name, and invite others to participate. The MyFamily web site was (and is) private and password protected, accessed only by those invited. Users were able to post news, add photos, share recipes, upload histories, and upload and a GEDCOM, providing access to a family tree for all members. Features such as a calendar, chat, polls, and other services were available. In the beginning, users were able to start and maintain a web site for free, but it soon became a fee-based service.
Over time social networks began to crop up everywhere, many originating on college campuses before becoming commercial enterprises. Another phenomenon of social networking was the advent of the Wiki software which allowed users to "comment on and change one another's text" online, on the fly. Put to use most notably in the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Wiki created an even great collaborative environment for online social networking. The so-called Web 2.0 development concept has also impacted social networking, facilitating greater online collaboration—it was simply a new way to conceive the web, allowing users to interact online, rather than just to retrieve information. The New FamilySearch, utilizing Web 2.0 now allows users to interact on the site, rather than access information only.
Today there are dozens of social networks, and even those serving the genealogy community are too numerous to list. Most notably, in additon to RootsWeb and MyFamily mentioned previously are MyHeritage.com, based in Israel—the first to adopt the face recognition technology, and WeRelate.org, a wiki-based genealogy web site managed by the Allen County Public Library. With the exception of MyFamily.com, these sites are free. Among fee-based web sites, Ancestry.com, Footnote.com, WorldVitalRecords.com (now called FamilyLink.com), and Origins Network.com (UK) offer various social networking features.
Today, the most popular general social networking sites are Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—also Linkedin, which is business oriented. Through Facebook users can add friends, go in search of long lost friends (or family), and send messages, and is finding increasing use among genealogist. A new FamilyTree application is now being integrated with Facebook, MySpace, and other similar social networking sites, adding another dimension. YouTube is the place to find videos of pretty much anything from every walk of life. Anyone can upload a video on YouTube so long as its content is legal. Twitter is something else again, allowing people to "stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing." Twitter has been noted for helping victims stay in touch with the outside world during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Other sites, in some ways similar to YouTube, are Flickr and Photobucket, which allow users to network through photo sharing. User can upload, download, organize, comment, and even edit photos online.
There was a time in the not too distant past where a web presence became necessary if anyone was to be taken seriously in any enterprise—something akin to being listed in the yellow pages in the "old days." Now, it's not enough to have a web presence, you must also have a presence on all the popular social networks if you really want to reach an audience.
For an in-depth look at social networking as it relates to genealogy, see Social Networking for Genealogists by Drew Smith, published by the Genealogy Publishing Company. For a more comprehensive list of social networks worldwide see Wikipedia: List of social networking websites.
And while these social networks can be fun and beneficial, they can also be dangerous. A second article will address Social Networks and the Issue of Privacy. In the meantime, keep in mind that too much personal information shared anywhere puts you at a disadvantage, even when its as innocent and well-intended as in the field of genealogy.