Sunday, February 7, 2016

Family History's Future is Digital Storytelling

I've spent the past several days closely following the excitement of RootsTech from the comfort of my home (and office) over 2,000 miles away.

While nothing compares to the experience of attending RootsTech in person, which I was fortunate to do last year, I was glad for the robust virtual opportunities to participate remotely. This included a handful of live-streamed trainings and keynote remarks, and, of course, rowdy social media banter. 

My favorite session was David Isay's remarks. Isay founded StoryCorps, which is billed as "a national project to instruct and inspire people to record each others' stories in sound." People can sign up to record interviews in StoryCorps' mobile studios. The result is a collection of varied stories that paint a compelling, often emotionally moving portrait of American life.

I've been a huge fan of StoryCorps for years. Every morning on my commute to work I listen to the StoryCorps podcast. If you haven't yet listened to a StoryCorps interview (where have you been hiding?!) you need to familiarize yourself stat! The interviews are moving pieces of artwork that tug at the heartstrings (no, I wasn't teary-eyed. There was something in my contact...never mind that I don't wear contacts!). They're something more though. Take a listen and you realize that it's family history in its most compelling yet simple form. Don't underestimate the power of the human voice and an intimate conversation between two people.

David Isay explains it best, and, happily, his remarks from RootsTech are online.



Listening to Isay, he struck a chord and sparked an aha moment for what's missing from many of our genealogy sites - the human story.

I was glad to see MyHeritage's announcement at the end of January that they were introducing a new feature to their mobile app that enables users to record audio interviews with family and link them to your tree. Yes! This is exactly what's been missing from the monolithic online genealogy platforms.

Of course, Ancestry.com used to include an option to record audio directly into an individual's tree. But the technology never afforded the flexibility to upload pre-recorded audio or video. Great-grandma had to be sitting with you and recording her conversation directly into the site. Unfortunately, it looks like this basic audio-recording option is not yet available with "new" Ancestry.

My tree and much of my work is based with Ancestry, so I have a vested interest in advocating for them to integrate these offerings into their platform.

Ancestry.com has invested a lot of time in trying to enhance how users to track and tell family history. They created the LifeStory feature to get beyond the austere tracking of dates in order to better tell the story of the "life lived in the dash." The rollout of this component was met with lots of gripes (particularly from those who have a hard time with change) and criticism over pre-assembled LifeStory narratives that sometimes confused facts and created a biography with elements of fiction.

I applaud their effort to find ways in which family history can be more compelling, but we live in the digital age. LifeStory doesn't embrace the meteoric reality of today's digital storytelling. More photos are taken in a single day than were taken in all of the 19th century. Social technology like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram make sharing video and photos simple. Simply put, visual and audio media are today's bedrock of digital storytelling. They are also the future of how we tell and share family history.

I think there's a fantastic opportunity for collaboration between Ancestry.com and StoryCorps. Can you image what an army of family historians could do enlisted in the StoryCorps? It would be revolutionary; storytelling would never be the same. The ranks of genealogists would grow with new recruits drawn by the spellbinding allure of family history. Who's with me?!