Embracing Facebook as a genealogy tool

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Back when I started my genealogy research in the late 1980s, there was no social media to speak of. Heck, there was barely internet access! So during the formative phase of my research, when I was attending classes and genealogy groups and conferences, there were no presentations on techniques for using social media for genealogy.

When it comes to Facebook and its use for genealogy, I am “a completely self-taught idiot,” to borrow a phrase from Monty Python. I never attended any presentations on “Facebook For Genealogy,” so the ideas I have are based purely on my own experience.

Let’s start with addressing those of you who refuse to join the Facebook craze. I understand and I agree with you in principle. If you use Facebook in all the ways they want you to, you end up spending a lot of time trading messages and reading about peoples’ traffic backups and head colds! However, if you want to gain genealogy information from Facebook, the only way to do so is to jump on the bandwagon.

I’ll explain what you can gain from Facebook before I give you a few tips on reducing the amount of wasted time. I mainly use Facebook to get updated photos. For the relatives that I see all the time, I can take new photos when I see them. For those who are out of state, or indeed living in the Motherland (Italia), it is difficult without Facebook to get updated photos. I have some branches of the family tree with 55-year-old cousins and their official photo that prints on the charts is from their kindergarten picture!! I have written a lot of people in the pre-Facebook years and called many others asking them for photos, and many have been helpful, but most people either forget the request, or they don’t want to go through the trouble to print the photos and mail them out. I don’t blame them. But if these same people (or their kids) post photos on Facebook, I can download them and I don’t have to bother these people over and over.

When selecting photos to use for family trees, always keep in mind that people will be upset if you select a photo in which they are not at their best. They may post a picture of themselves passed out on the couch after a wicked game of beer pong. Regardless of whether they think it was fun, they probably don’t want to see that image on every family tree chart you print and give to other relatives. I try to pick photos of people when attending weddings. They are dressed to the hilt, groomed well, and they know they will be photographed that day so they try not to look ridiculous! I have never had anyone object to using their photo from someone’s wedding. Once in a while, someone goes on a crash diet and loses 100 pounds, and they probably don’t want their “before” photo used in the chart, even if they are well dressed. Other times, people have a health situation that affects their appearance, and they may prefer you keep the older photo before they got sick. Keep this in mind. This applies to photos on Facebook or not.

Another piece of information you can get from Facebook is the person’s birthdate. Actually very few people post their exact birthdate and year on Facebook, but there are ways … . When you find the cousin you want, click the “About” and see if it mentions their birthdate. It might mention that they are a 1975 graduate of St. John the Apostle High School. So it is reasonable to assume they were born about 18 years before then. College graduation dates are less reliable because people work for five years and then go back to college and take 10 years to get their degree, so you can’t just subtract 22 years from the year of the Bachelor of Science degree with any certainty that it will reveal their age.

Another way to get a birth date is to scroll down the cousin’s wall, or use the search bar and search for someone wishing them a Happy Birthday. So if you scroll to August and you find that 94 people wished them a Happy Birthday on August 9th, at least you have the date. If you scroll to last year or the year before that and a number of people comment on how cool it is to be 40 finally, then you know the exact birthdate and year. You can potentially find the wedding anniversary this same way.

When searching for a cousin with a common name, if you are not sure that you found the right person, check their friend list. If you start to see familiar names, you probably are in the ballpark. If you don’t see anybody you know, chances are you picked the wrong John Smith.

Keep in mind that some people have set the security of their Facebook accounts very tightly, and you might not be able to do much without them accepting the friend request. Hopefully you have talked to someone else who you both know, and you can use this to introduce yourself to the cousin who won’t accept your friend request.

One great way to get people to post older photos of themselves and their relatives is to create a private group and invite only the cousins who belong. Then, you can safely post anything you want without fear that it will be public. You can invite the distant cousins into the group and this may help them accept the friend request, if they haven’t already. My family has built up a great collection of photos on our private group, which has been a great help since many family photos were lost in a fire. Just make sure you save the ones you want on your own hard drive for your collection, especially if you plan to use any of them in a slide show or as part of the family tree chart.

Ok, back to those of you who would rather not be a Facebook junkie. You will probably be one of those people who won’t post very much. Good start. Now if you don’t want to see too much from other people, just go back to their wall and “unfollow” them. There are folks who post every time they get the sniffles, or every time they get a funny photo forwarded to them, etc. Just unfollow them. This will minimize the amount of junk you have to see. Set your smart phone to not send Facebook notifications. The best thing you can do is to only use Facebook when you need something. If you ignore all the other fluff, people will catch on that you’re only a part-timer and that will make life easy for everyone.

As a wise man once said, nothing is free!

Write any questions to me at italianroots@comcast.net and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject.













About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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  1. And if you really want to use Facebook for genealogy, check out Katherine Willson’s list of all of the genealogy groups on Facebook! https://socialmediagenealogy.com/genealogy-on-facebook-list/

  2. Facebook is also great for tracking down living descendants. Finding an obituary mentioning “22 grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren” can be disciuraging, but if you can find the children (who are usually mentioned by name) in Facebook, their Friends list will often include their spouse, children, siblings, cousins, and in-laws.

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