I am seriously in like with Ancestry.com. Whatever its shortcomings, the site simply has the most and the best genealogical resources currently available. Ancestry.com membership isn’t free, and I’m not suggesting that it should be. The company provides useful information and a great system for organizing it, and they deserve to be paid for their service. But, despite the enormous pleasure I derive from researching my family history, I do sometimes feel like one of Tom Sawyer’s suckered friends: a paying volunteer who organizes their raw data into family trees, adds content and corrects records. After all, they’re making much of their money by selling us back our own public records.
Then I saw Jaron Lanier on the PBS NewsHour and a light went on. Lanier, often called the father of virtual reality, has recently written a couple of books about income inequality and job loss in the digital age. He posits that the current system is rigged so that the guys with the biggest computers win (wealth concentrates around the biggest computers), that our technological models are destroying old jobs without creating enough new ones, much less creating enough that pay a middle class wage.
Ancestry.com offers at least one good example of this. It used to offer a service, “Expert Connect”, for people who wanted professional help with their research. Expert Connect was a contact list of genealogists for hire. It was recently replaced with “Hire An Expert”, which redirects to one of Ancestry’s mega-companies, ProGenealogists. This move cut off a major income stream for a lot of independent genealogists.
Information is increasingly becoming our currency, but the vast majority of us are giving it away for free. In an attempt at rebalance, Lanier proposes that we be paid for our information in the form of micropayments. The more valuable a piece of information turns out to be, the more we would get paid. It’s easy enough to imagine this model applied to Ancestry.com. Starting a family tree might only be worth a little, but adding content (photos, stories, etc.) would add more value. Correcting errors in the census records clearly adds value. (It’s nice that Ancestry.com sends a “Thank you for your contribution” email, but cash is king!) Value is obviously demonstrated every time a member saves some piece of another member’s tree to their own tree.
Ancestry.com is the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world. As they are privately held, I have no idea what their profits are. But according to Wikipedia, they agreed to be purchased in October 2012 for $32 per share, or 1.6 billion dollars. It seems like they’re making a couple of bucks. Enough to share.
I’m not going to attempt to expand on Lanier’s ideas here. You can find his interviews on the PBS NewsHour by searching under his name on their site. I’ve included the link to one discussion, because it was so astonishing to hear one of the other guests, Esther Dyson, championing the power of the internet by saying “…the Internet has given each of us the power that you needed three secretaries to have and an institution behind you”. She seemed oblivious to the realities of job loss suffered by those three secretaries.
Jaron Lanier’s books are:
You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2011)
Who Owns the Future? (2013)
There are great Q&A’s with the author on Amazon.com under the books’ editorial review sections