Mapping the Family of Man

Consider that the Internet now allows you to access rare databases, assemble a genealogical tree and share what you've learned with heretofore unknown relatives around the world.

He grew up in a typical German family and had what you could call a normal childhood. However, at age 21, just before his wedding, Juergen was astounded to discover that the man who had raised him was not his biological father, and that the latter was actually an American G.I. who had served in Germany during World War II. Juergen also learned that all contact with his biological father had been severed many years earlier, and that no further information on him was available.

But that did not stop Juergen, who began tracing his family roots via his computer. He succeeded in finding out where his natural father was buried, as well as some information about his extended family. What helped him in his search was the MyHeritage Web site, which provides Internet surfers with access to numerous data sources and the possibility of building an online family tree. The climax of his search took place when he arrived in the United States two years ago for a meeting with some 70 American relatives he had never seen before. Another get-together is scheduled for next month. Now in his 60s, Juergen is working on a book that will sum up his private detective work and reveal his family roots.

Like Juergen, millions of people around the globe have found their way to the world of genealogy as they try to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of their extended family. The discoveries are a valuable asset to future generations. Tracing one's past has also become a popular activity because people consider their root-tracing to be a vehicle for learning new things about themselves.

In the 1970s, genealogy became a favorite hobby in the United States, partly due to the immense success of the best-selling "Roots," by African-American author Alex Haley, and the production of a television miniseries based on that semiautobiographical book. The events in it were based on a 10-year genealogical study Haley conducted on the story of his African-American family, whose patriarch was born in Ghana and was kidnapped in 1767 by slave traders.

Over the past decade, genealogy has only increased in popularity. Today it is said to be the most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening. A similar trend can be observed in Europe.

Before the Internet era and its capacity for transglobal information-sharing, amateur genealogists could learn about their relatives only through libraries, archives and cemeteries around the world. Today, there are online genealogical data banks, and they are accessible and available to everyone for a small fee - or, in some cases, at no cost whatsoever.

Says Dr. David Levine, a scholar of culture and the Internet at the school of communications at Rishon Letzion's College of Management: "The Internet's basic features enable easy access to everyone. The simple search operations on the Web that yield a massive amount of data have replaced the years of research required in pre-Web days.

"A recent study reported that 46 percent of those looking for data in Google are seeking information about other people. In addition, operations that were the private domain of professionals 10 years ago, such as the use of graphic interfaces and the uploading of material to databases, can now be carried out by everyone."

Internet sites that allow users to build a family tree and share it with other Web surfers have become extremely popular, and now serve as a leading platform in the field of genealogy. They constitute a form of social networking that connects relatives, and enable the updating of old photographs and the sharing of video clips and mementos, as well as facilitating the management of Web events and chats between members of a family tree who are registered participants of a given Web site.

Top sites

The leading genealogical Web sites are geni.com, ancestry.com and myheritage.com. The oldest of these is ancestry.com, which was set up in 1983 and operates out of Utah. In the pre-Web age, the company sold family-tree software applications. With the emergence of the Internet, ancestry.com launched an interface that permits surfers to share information in five languages. Use of the site is free, with the firm's business model being based on fees it charges subscribers for access to rare databases. Ancestry scanned these databases at a cost of some $80 million. Subscribers can receive, for example, data from the U.S. population registry of 1910 or 1920, and from other rare databases.

Myheritage.com, under Israeli ownership, offers the possibility to "smart-search" such databases as those belonging to Beth Hatefutsoth and Yad Vashem.

A few weeks ago, ancestry.com submitted a prospectus to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that provides an interesting look at its operations. The company wants to raise $75 million from investors and, as its prospectus indicates, it has been profitable for several years. It finished the first two quarters of 2009 with sales totaling $108 million; the preceding year it had $200 million in revenues. During the past five years, the revenues have grown at an annual rate of 13 percent. The most surprising piece of information in the prospectus is that the immense growth capacity of the entire family tree Web site industry is due to the company's large number of paid subscribers. While popular sites like Twitter and Facebook are trying to find a business model that can effectively bring in revenues and profits, ancestry.com's prospectus reveals that the company has a million subscribers who pay an average of $16.50 monthly.

Says Gilad Japhet, founder and CEO of MyHeritage: "In the various sectors, there are a few Web companies that have such a large number of paying customers. Many sites rack their brains on how to charge for visits. According to recent studies, ancestry.com is in second place regarding the number of paid subscribers, after the online edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Japhet refuses to reveal the precise number of paid subscribers that his site has, although he is willing to state, "Tens of thousands of subscribers, who pay a minimum of $75 yearly, joined over the past year." He also anticipates "a steady rise in revenues" in the coming year.

Japhet established MyHeritage in 2003, and since then the company has raised some $24 million to set up and operate its site. Investors include Aviv Raiz, one of the shareholders in the Livermore Investments Group, and Yuval Rakavy, a founder of the BRM Group and an investor in Check Point. Additional investors include European venture capital funds that have also invested in Facebook and Skype.

"We do not want, nor do we need," declares Japhet, "to raise any more money from the public, and we do not want to issue shares. What we do want is to become the Facebook of families, so that everyone can become interconnected and so that humanity's family tree can be created."

Japhet notes that the immense power that the family-tree Web sites can command stems from the fact that the moment users become paying subscribers, they can be relied on, in nearly all cases, to remain loyal customers: "When a Web surfer from a Western country invests time, builds a family tree, uploads photographs and shares data with other relatives online - they will have no problem continuing to pay the annual subscription fee. They would not dream of telling their families that they have decided to stop managing the family tree because of the annual fee. We have subscribers who have paid five years in advance. This is immense power. Who takes out a five-year subscription on the Web?"

Japhet qualifies his remarks, noting that a willingness to pay depends on the individual's income, and that the number of paid subscribers is smaller in developing nations than in industrialized ones: "In order to research your past, you must have enough to fuel your present." He adds that, according to the company's internal data, there are presently no paid subscribers in the entire continent of Africa or from the Far East, "although you would naturally expect the Chinese to be gung-ho about family-tree-building." Israelis are high on the list of paid subscribers, behaving much like their European and American counterparts.

Jewish trend

Luba Plinner began tracing his roots more than 20 years ago. Old photos and reconstructed memories led him to search for blood ties around the world. He likes to sketch detailed family trees. After his retirement, seven years ago, he began devoting more time to relative-hunting. His sketches have been upgraded into unique software applications, and last year most of the data was uploaded to a Web site specializing in the subject, making it possible for other surfers to build their own family trees and to share them with relatives online.

Today, the family tree created by Plinner, who is in his 70s, numbers 1,800 persons, ranging over a period of seven generations. "I have located relatives all around the world," he notes. "In Australia, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Europe - including, of course, Latvia, where I was born. I have sent everyone links for the trees; they have visited the Web site and have had an opportunity to assess the online family album. I have never even met some of them." He points out that a number of relatives were so delighted with the project that they joined his search team and helped him expand the tree and locate additional relatives."

"I began collecting data in 1985," he explains, "and I still have the sketches I did back then. With the development of appropriate software applications and the setting up of Internet projects enabling people to share data online, everything has become much easier. For instance, I found two relatives in the United States who have in turn helped me find others. The better accessibility expresses itself in smaller ways as well. When I find a relative who has a photo I am interested in, I no longer have to beg and plead for him to part with it. I simply scan the original photo and return it."

Genealogy is more than just evenings spent reminiscing about the past and poring over old photo albums. Jon Simensen, a Norwegian user of myheritage.com, discovered that his surname had been altered over the years. After tracing his family roots, he changed it to Estensen.

In Estensen's case, the result of his research was a change of name. But discoveries can have more far-reaching consequences, affecting the lives of entire families, when individuals learn that they are not whom they thought they were.

"We deal with everything connected with genealogy," says Arnon Hershkowitz, who manages the Family Roots forum set up eight years ago on the Tapuz Hebrew portal. "It can range from the question of where we should store data to what other Web sites offer and the deciphering of old photos and captions." Hershkowitz, 34, is a Ph.D. student in the department of science education at Tel Aviv University. His academic research ("broadly speaking") involves online data mining and genealogy.

"I have always loved to hear stories about relatives I never met, to see old photos and to learn about what happened generations ago," he adds. "I collect relatives the way others collect stamps."

Hershkowitz has constructed 20 family trees. "Every grandfather and grandmother from either side already supplies four trees, and the thing just keeps on growing. I have even adopted my wife's family."

Bits of information about the different families, Web surfing and the assistance of "good people" in Israel and abroad have enabled him to discover relatives, some going back two centuries, not only at home but in South Africa, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Some people believe that Jews take a greater interest in tracing their family roots than non-Jews. "The history of the Jewish people includes the Holocaust and major Jewish migrations - processes that have led to the dispersion of Jews all over the world," explains Gideon Greenspan, who set up familyecho.com, a site for family-tree building. (Greenspan earlier made a name for himself on the Internet with projects that have nothing to do with genealogy, such as websudoku.com.)

And indeed, a noticeable Jewish presence can be detected in the ownership and management of many of the more popular genealogical Web sites. David Sacks, co-founder and CEO of Geni (geni.com), is Jewish. More than half of the senior managers at ancestry.com are Jewish, and myheritage.com is an Israeli project, operated from Bnei Atarot in central Israel.

"The attitudes that are typical of Jewish society," notes the College of Management's David Levine, "give it a nearly schizophrenic character. Prof. Elihu Katz, the celebrated sociologist and media scholar, proposed a distinction between 'friends' and 'family,' which he considered mutually exclusive terms. He said 'friends' is a code word for individualism, hedonism, the adoption of capitalist values and enslavement to the pursuit of wealth. In contrast, 'family' is very strong among Jews. According to a study conducted by the Guttman Institute a few years ago, 85 percent of Israeli Jews - including totally secular Jews - participate in the Passover seder meal, fast on Yom Kippur, light Sabbath candles and keep kosher."

According to Levine, one indicator of this Jewish-Israeli collectivism is the success of social networking sites in Israel. All the genealogical sites allow for the creation of family trees and for uploading of such material as video clips, photos and invitations to weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and the like. The Internet format enables all relatives to enter the family tree, to explore it and to add material. Despite the common platform, there are unique nuances to the various professional services these Web sites offer and to the sites' business models.

Whereas ancestry.com clients pay for access to all of the site's databases, the users of myheritage.com - which can be used in 35 languages - begin to pay only if their family tree contains more than 250 names or if 500 photos have been uploaded to the tree (payment is made by the tree's founder). The annual fee is then $75. For a tree with more than 2,500 names, the annual fee is $120, or $300 for five years.

At the Geni Web site, which is in English, and which is quick and very user-friendly, there are no limits on the size of the tree or on the number of photos one may upload. The business model is based on the users' desire to download data from the site or to receive statistics on the family tree they have built on the site. For instance, a user who wants to know what family members' average age was at the time of death will be compelled to become a paid subscriber.

Both Geni and MyHeritage allow for "smart matches" between the trees of different users. Thus, if two users have each created a tree and the system detects matching features, the users will each receive an e-mail suggesting that they check it and remark on the similarities. If, for example, the system identifies two users each of whom has a family tree that includes a couple by the name of Zvi and Yehudit Cohen, with an only daughter named Michal Cohen, the users will be notified.

The system can also detect corruptions of names. If, say, one tree contains Herschel and Yehudit Kagan, parents of a Michal Kagan, and another contains Zvi and Yehudit Kahane, parents of a Michal Kahane, the system will be able to identify the fact that Kagan and Kahane come from the same root, Cohen, and that Herschel is a nickname for Zvi, and thus there is the possibility that the two families are really one and the same family.

At Geni, only paid subscribers are provided with smart matches. If a match is discovered and both clients are paid subscribers, the system will convert the two trees into a single one. At MyHeritage, which also performs smart matches when dates of birth and/or death are identical, the trees are linked but not joined. This is apparently the preferable alternative because the two users might differ over such issues as the spelling of the name or perhaps they might not want to allow someone from another tree both access and the possibility of altering data there.

Size is an obvious advantage when it comes to comparing the smart matching offered by MyHeritage and that of Geni: The former has eight million trees, with a total of 360 million profiles, while it is estimated that the latter has one to two million trees, with a total of 60 million profiles. The likelihood of smart matching between trees obviously increases with the number of trees and profiles. An additional technology offered by MyHeritage is face identification; thus, users can upload many photos of relatives, which the system can identify and sort into appropriate folders.

How to do it yourself

b Define your goal: Your genealogical research will be more focused if you clearly define the reason for your having initiated it. Perhaps you are interested in mapping descendants for the upcoming celebration of your grandmother's 80th birthday, or locating a lost family in the United States. Or maybe you seek data on family members who perished in the Holocaust. Each goal raises very different questions.

b Begin interviewing family members in an orderly fashion: Talk with everyone: parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, even relatives you have never met. Even if you think that, "nobody in my family knows anything," these meetings are a must. Prepare in advance the questions that interest you and do not forget to document the interview.

b Adopt a skeptical attitude: Do not believe everything you are told. The most important details for discovering additional material later are contained, for example, in archived certificates. If your grandfather says to you that he immigrated to Palestine in 1923, consider that statement merely a possibility, unless it is backed up by a corroborating document. Stories about the family usually have a kernel of truth; however, there is also a common tendency among many to rewrite the family's history.

b Ask to see photos and documents: Ask relatives to indicate who is in each photo and to explain what is written in each document. It is highly recommended that you take along a digital camera and that you photograph both the documents and the photos. Direct your questions even to other relatives that you might not know and ask your relatives to spell the names of communities and families in their original language.

b Keep a research diary: You can set up the diary like a table, in which you will enter everything you do, together with the date, a summary of the activity and details needed for establishing contact with the relevant authorities and individuals. You should document the source for every piece of information. After you have collected the existing data from the members of your family, you will discover that you know much more than you thought you did when you began. Now, you have to place the data in order.

b Building the tree: After you have gathered the necessary materials, it is safe to assume that you have a fairly large quantity of names, details, photos, documents, stories - as well as many more unanswered questions, including new questions that have cropped up. Using a genealogical software application or a Web site, you can now sketch a family tree. The application can help you document all the material you have gathered in the course of your research, while the Web site can help you disseminate your message among your relatives. You should try out a few applications before you decide which one to choose. One of the best applications available today that offers complete a Hebrew interface is the Israeli MyHeritage application.

b Use of additional sources: After you have gathered the data and sorted it, and if you have enough material, you can turn to other sources: libraries, archives, museums, Web sites, cemeteries, others who share your interest in genealogy. The rule of thumb is to proceed from the known to the unknown. If you know that your grandmother was born on a certain date in Poland, try to locate the registration of her birth (sometimes you can use the Web, specifically those sites that will enable such a search).

Source: Arnon Hershkowitz, manager of the Family Roots forum on the (Hebrew) Tapuz portal