Saturday, March 31, 2007

Web 2.0 and Family Networks

We didn't necessarily walk to school uphill both ways in the snow, but Web 2.0 technologies were still a distant dream. Back in the 80's, we didn't have the same technological advances that we have today. As a result, living in Maryland, I didn't see much of my relatives who lived in Delaware.

My grandmother was the first of four children, each of these children has his or her own family, and many of their children have their own families now. I can remember being 6 or 7 years old and having a lot of fun at "The Family Reunion", so titled because it was one of the few large family events I remember that didn't involve a wedding or a funeral. I remember wishing that we had more of these kinds of events when I was little.

In 1987, people kept in touch through the phone lines or by writing letters. Family memories were shared in real, tangible photo albums. Get-togethers and keeping up to date on family events was much more difficult than today as it involved real-time collaboration, a lot of planning, and in some cases, quite a bit of travel.

Now we have virtual photo albums that can be viewed anywhere, anytime, as long as an Internet connection exists. Using such a service offered by a hospital, my sister sent me a link to show off my niece. Through such services, I can view pictures and leave messages and comments. As a result, our lives are less disconnected although we live many states apart. My younger brother and sister both have MySpace pages, as do I, and we can link to each other and our friends simply by adding each other to our "friends list".

Back in November, my grandmother passed away. Once again, the four families were reunited; unfortunately, this time it was without the company of one of the four eldest members. I saw family whom I hadn't seen in years. I talked to people I barely knew who were friends with my grandfather, whom I never had the opportunity to meet. Some of us exchanged emails; we even spoke for a few months. However, now we've all gone back to continuing our lives.

RememberWell, founded by Heather Swain, is dedicated to end of life issues, celebration, and remembrance. While creating a memorial for my grandmother, I realized that there could potentially be a market for family-centered Web 2.0 websites that provided the means for families to link their trees together. Some websites, such as MySpace, allow members to create groups, which could serve a similar purpose. However, Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe have not included this in their marketing efforts. When I think of MySpace, family collaboration is not what comes to mind.

Of course, I'm not the first person to come up with the idea of family-centered websites. I found Geni in my search results for "Web 2.0 family tree", which is one of 15 companies that is part of a $50 million dollar venture capital fund. In just minutes, I created an account and added members to my tree. Each person I choose to add will, upon my request, receive an invite to join the service. They will have the ability to add members to their own tree and connect them together.

The Geni family genealogy is presented to viewers as a tree. As it grows, navigational buttons are provided to allow directional scrolling so that different sections of the tree can be viewed. Geni uses Ajax to send and receive information from the server without needing to reload the entire page. Combined with Flash development, the user interface is smooth and responsive, which once again demonstrates the power of the Web in terms of creating a rich user interface. In addition, users of this website can zoom out to see more of the tree in the browser.

As a result of my lack of family genealogical knowledge, my tree appears relatively flat when zoomed out, but I'm hoping that the tree will grow -- both upwards as well as downwards -- as new members accept invitations.

In addition to the family tree display, each person has an associated profile to add information. This includes the basics, such as age, height, place of birth, a biography, current occupation, interests and activities, and much more. Furthermore, each profile contains an "immediate family" section that lists the members of that person's immediate family and provides links to their profiles.

Conflict Resolution

After editing my profile, I returned to my family tree to find that one of my cousins had already accepted my invite and has been adding more members to the tree. Alas, a bug of sorts has crawled its way into the tree. While Google Spreadsheets does an excellent job of instantaneously updating a collaborated spreadsheet without conflict, Geni still has some work to do in this area. In the Help section, Geni outlines some of the design challenges their developers face in order to implement a confict resolution feature; they do acknowledge that this is indeed an issue that should eventually be addressed.

Most of these conflicts could be avoided if my changes were instantly recognizable, as is the case with Google Spreadsheet collaboration. Despite the use of Ajax to reduce page reloads, there are now two profiles for my grandmother, mother, and aunt. Apparently, my cousin must have added them and not realized that they were already there due to a delay in the system. Of course, after my changes were recognized she must have realized that there were duplicates and removed them.


When creating a profile, users will notice a status bar which reflects how far he or she is from its completion. Next to this status bar in the top right section of the window, there is a link to add a password to the profile. Afterwards, an additional 10% will be added to the status bar. Just out of curiosity, I wanted to find out what would happen if I logged out before completing this part of the process. If I was able to regain access without a password then this could present a privacy issue, and if I wasn't able to regain access, there could potentially be a lot of new members who would simply go somewhere else, frustrated by the loss of the time spent entering irretrievable data. As competition is almost a guaranteed in this industry, Geni has ensured that these issues are handled appropriately.

I found that if you do disconnect from the system without first creating a password, as long as you've entered an email address you can click the "Forgot password" link on the login page and a temporary password will be issued.

In summary, I'm fairly impressed with this Web 2.0 technology, and now that I've got the ball rolling, I look forward to seeing how my family tree grows.