Why Geni’s Membership Changes Punish Contributors – and their Families
It’s not often in the pursuit of genealogy that your heart rate reaches red-line levels.
Researching family history is, after all, a mostly quiet endeavor, spent marking time combing through documents and records, digging through photo albums, chatting up great-aunts, gingerly stepping through graveyards to pay respects to our ancestors.
So, credit Geni.com with at least this much: their recent changes to pricing structure have, at minimum, gotten my blood pumping. Not to mention gotten me seeing red.
How do I put Geni.com’s November move to limit free accounts to 100 relatives and 1GB of media, while pricing unlimited family members and media at $7.95 a month, in perspective? I’ve been thinking about this post for several weeks now, and since I’ve heard from several relatives wondering what the deal is on Geni.com, let me respond.
UIOADUIO ASIPUHAS ASJIH SHIOUGNKM @()*)(*D SKJHSNJKS
OK. Just let me unclench my fists first.
Imagine you were a physical therapist. You’d spent months of close work with a client who suffered an injury that rendered them unable to walk. Through your tireless work and dedication, the patient eventually regains full use of his legs.
How does he thank you? By proceeding to kick you repeatedly in the most sensitive parts of your body.
Or, say you were a local architect. Your town badly needs a community center — a place where young, old and families can gather and, well, be a community.
You offer your design and contracting services pro bono. You spearhead the fundraising efforts. You draw up the plans, hire the builders, oversee construction. You get the thing done.
Then, in appreciation, the community bars you from ever entering the facility.
These two examples, to me, almost describe what Geni.com has done with its new, um, “membership tiers”. How to make these analogies more accurate?
Have the patient not only kick you but every one of your colleagues and other patients.
Have the community ban not only you, the architect, but every member of your family and all your neighbors and friends.
Oh, unless you pay them just shy of $100 a year to stop.
A Family History Site with No Memory of its Upbringing
I joined Geni.com in August 2008, on an invitation from my wife’s cousin, Carl Knutson.
I was coming off book tour, and looking for something new to do before the next writing project. I decided to see what I could accomplish by working primarily from online sources — digitized censuses, birth and death records, other archived trees on other sites, etc. For awhile, Carl and I had a friendly competition about adding family members.
Geni’s look and design supported everything I was looking for in a social genealogy site. It was easy to build and view a massive tree. Ancestor profile pages were clean and supported multiple documents, notes and photos. Birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones were recorded and called out on the Home page. And communication between family members active on Geni was easy, intuitive and fun.
I soon invited dozens of family members to join the tree. I not only hoped that they’d be able to easily view and appreciate the work I was doing to unearth our shared history and ancestors, but they’d pitch in and add their own relatives, make their own discoveries.
A lot of them did. In fact, the combined tree for my wife’s and my families has more than 180 living relatives in it. Hang onto that number for later.
Still, most of them aren’t doing any heavy genealogy research. They primarily utilize Geni.com to send birthday and anniversary wishes, and pay respects to mothers and fathers and grandparents long gone. Hang onto that info for later, too.
As I got deeper into genealogy, I expanded and organized my arsenal of research tools. Geni, for all its interactive perks, has no research capability of its own. Let me say that again (and make note of it, too): Geni.com has no archives or collections or materials to aid you with genealogical research. Its stated over-arching focus is to build the One World Tree. (Kind of like Tolkien’s One True Ring, with apparently the same nefarious tendencies, judging from recent missteps.) To that end, on Geni, you add profiles, you post pictures, you record dates, you add documents, you manage your tree. It’s entirely user-generated content. That info has to come from somewhere. And relying on Mom’s memory only goes so far….
So I joined sites that actually have information and research materials to offer their paying members. And organized my approach, realizing that to truly map out my family’s history, I’d be committing years, not weeks. Genealogy is a marathon.
I began to use Ancestry.com as my main research site. For $13.25 a month, you gain access to all U.S. Collections, with the ability to browse internationally, and their collections are extensive: every U.S. census, digitized; birth, death and marriage records; newspaper collections; military collections; yearbooks and more; and the ability — though Geni.com seems to be blind, deaf and dumb to the competition here — to browse and connect and collaborate with anyone who shares an ancestor with you. In fact, Ancestry automatically notifies you when your ancestor is matched to records or other users’ trees. You’ve probably seen that in TV commercials — the leaves that pop up. Ingenious.
So, I divided my workload in this way: do the speculative work and hard research on Ancestry.com, bolstering that effort with all the free sites I visit, many of which, like Geni, build the data they boast on the backs of contributing members, sites like findagrave.com and familysearch.org. I’ve also traveled extensively in my genealogy work, documenting graves and homes and locations and digging through boxes of photos. When I confirm this info, I share it on Geni.com with my family, and, as a benefit to the site — everyone.
To date, on Geni.com, I’ve added 620 relatives, invited 76 family members, manage 579 profiles, added 622 photos (including documents, all from sources OTHER than Geni). Through my work, I’m connected to 2,717 people in the combined Foutz-Knutson tree, and 60.6 million others through the site.
And I’m sure my story is not unique. And I know I’m not the biggest contributor to Geni.com by any stretch. So why is there a Geni.com in the first place? Why do they offer as a perk to “Pro” members the ability to search and browse all the profiles and info added to the site? BECAUSE MEMBERS LIKE ME HAVE SPENT COUNTLESS HOURS BRINGING THAT INFORMATION TO GENI TO HELP BUILD THE WORLD TREE.
And now they want to slap all of us green-thumbed genealogists growing the world tree on our callused hands. As I mention above, repeatedly. And our family members, too. But what do I mean by that?
I mean exactly this: if you’re in my family and have joined Geni.com, whether you’ve added 600 other relatives like me, or you’ve just dropped by to view your beloved grandmother’s page or wish someone a happy birthday (or done absolutely nothing but log in), YOU ARE GETTING THE SAME MESSAGE BLOCKING YOU FROM ADDING PEOPLE AND INVITING YOU TO PAY UP THAT I AM.
That’s right. Because you’re connected to me, and I’ve added 620 people and 622 photos, you’re locked out. Can’t add a new son or daughter or grandchild. Can’t add that long lost great-great-great-great you’ve discovered. You’re stuck.
Gee, when you multiply that $95.40 annual PRO membership by the 187 living relatives listed in my tree you get $17k and change, and you begin to appreciate how the goal of building One World Tree has shifted to compiling One Big Stack’O Cash. All on the backs of contributing users and their families’ history. Nice.
My Modest Proposal: Get Social, Geni
My initial thoughts when Geni.com made these changes, before I heard about relatives getting fleeced too, were simply befuddlement over why, in the age of Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, they couldn’t come up with an ad-based model to support what is, essentially, a social site.
And a social history site at that, which is what they do best and is fairly unique out there.
My experience, as someone who works in digital advertising, is that people aren’t going to pony up dough for what historically has been a free service, particularly if they’ve contributed the very assets that Geni is selling. But that people are savvy enough to accept changes that help support the longevity of the site when the on-screen advertising formats are regulated and controlled by the site and don’t affect functionality.
Basically, anything short of the site reaching into your pocket is reasonable.
What I would advocate — if indeed Geni must reach into your pocket — is some sort of model that rewards you for contributing to the site, for managing profiles, for adding the source records Geni lacks and building a World Tree that is accurate, comprehensive and, most important, accessible.
You add profile photos for 50 profiles in your tree? Great, you get a month of premium access. You actively manage 100 profiles that go back more than 4 or 5 generations in your tree — great, tack on another 2 months.
Otherwise, what, exactly are we paying for? The ability to send birthday greetings and anniversary greetings to parents and in-laws? Hell, practically all of them are on Facebook now. The ability to share all the info I’ve dug up (elsewhere, Geni.com, remember that?) I’m already doing that on this blog, though admittedly, the graphical ease of navigating profiles on Geni.com (or Ancestry) is, to me, the best way to really dig into a family tree and learn about your ancestors.
In short, Geni.com needs to capitalize on what it does well — the social aspects, the collaboration aspects — and put its collective braintrust to the task of finding a funding model that does not stick a hand out to the very people who are helping to build the world tree. There are too many other alternatives out there, paid and not.
Otherwise, when somebody kicks me in all my sensitive places or bans my family and friends from enjoying what we’ve worked to build? I take that resourcefulness and apply it elsewhere.