Any discussion among genealogists nowadays will eventually lead to social media, and more specifically, Facebook. They may not be discussing it as a venue for serious research or a way to find that crucial elusive record to break through a brick wall, but Facebook is neither a search engine nor a research focused medium, so though it may be tempting to want something out of FB that it is not intended or suited for, it would be foolish to consider it that sort of venue. But what it does, it does well.
What Facebook (and Twitter) does provide is a way to interact with contemporaries — family members and other genealogists. I’ve posted interesting research discoveries and started conversations with my siblings and cousins who generally show little genealogical interest. The presentation of small doses of background on one 19th century ancestor allows my sisters to take in a bit without being overwhelmed by the onslaught of info I might present when I have a captive audience. Our exuberance to share the passion of genealogy with family can make it overwhelming leading to the dreaded eyes-glazing-over. Facebook allows this information to be shared in discrete nuggets, which may capture family’s attention or pass them by if they’d prefer.
I’ve searched for distant cousins and found them on FB, along with other information like their siblings and the names and birth dates of their children allowing me to fill out my tree whether or not I contacted them (though I do suggest caution with this method — who knows if a child is adopted or someone is lying about their own birthdate as many do). In one instance, a cousin’s mugshot as a profile picture made me question whether I even wanted to get in touch. Facebook gives a snapshot of someone’s life as it is now, or at least, how they present themselves now.
Despite its attempt to be the sole destination for everyone on the Internet, Facebook’s lack of quality archive capabilities means they will not completely replace boards like rootsweb. Inquiries will have a more limited time to be viewed. I contacted someone based on a rootsweb board posting from 2002, nearly a decade ago. On FB, on the other hand, I can’t look at status messages more than three days old unless I go into the individual’s “wall.” Facebook isn’t about archiving information, but rather about being in the moment.
Recently, the “groups” function of Facebook has provided a newer method for genealogists to come together to share techniques, as proven by the growth of groups like “Social Media for Genealogy” or “Technology for Genealogists.” And due to it’s appeal to commercial interests, Facebook gives everyone a ripe target to applaud or complain about the policies of our favorite (or least favorite) genealogy website.
You wouldn’t look to a marriage record for a death date, nor a city directory for a probate record. Equally, Facebook is unlikely to be considered a source for intense genealogy records, but rather a way to keep in contact with other members of the family who are living.
So when considering what place Facebook has in your genealogy, keep in mind what it does well. Resist the temptation to consider any website for something for which it is not suited. Social media is not everything. But what it does, it does well, and I would encourage using it.