Friday, June 22, 2018

An Interview with Chris Whitten: The Originator of WikiTree

If you haven’t yet done so, I recommend you use WikiTree as your free public family tree to share with others. WikiTree’s unique concept of having a single-entry per ancestor allows you to meet cousins you may never meet any other way. (I have found a bunch and many of us have even gotten to meet in person.) Some genealogists who are members of WikiTree do a DNA test and others don’t. WikiTree provides a way for you to connect with both. 

Here is a screenshot of only a part of WikiTree's "Get Started" page. They keep score of their membership statistics which is growing by leaps and bounds making WikiTree one of the fastest growing free online genealogical tools today. You can do searches on this page and there are links to all sorts of other interesting information.

You can find more facts and information about WikiTree HERE.

The best way to find out about how to use it is to give it a spin. You can signup HERE.

A curious person, I like to get to know more about the creative geniuses who are behind the tools that are driving the engine of a new resurgence of people interested in finding their families' roots. I am honored and thrilled Chris Whitten agreed to do this interview with me.

Chris, please share with us a little about your life outside of WikiTree. What do you like to do to relax and take a break?

I have a wonderful nine-year-old daughter. She is the light of my life.  In my free time I do a lot of gardening and landscaping. I
build stone walls. I really like to be outside and work with my hands.

(Chris may build stone walls. WikiTree members collaborate to help you knock down your genealogical brick walls. Stuck? Ask for help at the G2G forum--that stands for genealogist to genealogist. You find it under the "Help" pull-down menu at the upper right of the Wikitree page once you are logged in.)

 What is a typical workday like for you?

Some of my day is filled with mundane administrative tasks and problem-solving, of course. But I try to discipline myself to spend some time each day on a project that moves WikiTree forward. That's what keeps WikiTree improving, and what makes working on it personally rewarding.

At what age did you first get interested in genealogy?

I think I always had an interest in family history. The objects and heirlooms, especially ... the medals and mementos of my great uncle who died in World War II ... the model ships my great-great-grandfather carved to look like the ones he sailed in when he was young ... the pewter plate passed down through the hands of a dozen generations.

When you're young I think it helps to have something that you can hold in your hands. That makes history and your ancestor's stories come alive.

When I was 17 my great-aunt, Rebecca (Bartlett) Nally, helped with my first family tree. She was a great genealogist and a wonderful family leader, by which I mean she was one of those people who help keep a family together. She helped with my whole tree, including the parts that weren't her own.

 Have you had any big surprises when you studying your family history?

One amusing surprise when I took a Y-chromosome DNA test a decade ago: I didn't have any matches with my own surname (Whitten) but a half dozen with my wife's surname (McClellan). We joked that I should have taken her name when we got married.

I assumed that there might be one of those euphemistically-named "non-paternal events" in my recent history. On the other hand, it was only a 12-marker test. And many Whittens and McClellans came from the same Scottish-English borderlands region, so the matches could go back before surnames. Still, I didn't have any Whitten YDNA matches for almost ten years.

That actually leads me to my most pleasant recent surprise. My Whitten brick wall was broken through last year and there was a Revolutionary War veteran on the other side!

I was contacted by a man named Keith Whitten who found the profile of my ancestor Samuel Whitten on WikiTree. He said that Samuel was the brother of his ancestor and that their father was Richard Whitten, a private who served for three years in the American Revolution.

I asked Keith to take a YDNA test, and sure enough, we're a perfect match at 37 of 37 markers. Very cool. I was super excited about this.

Where were you and what were you doing when you had the first “A-ha” moment for creating WikiTree?

It wasn't a single moment. I organized my own and my wife's family history onto web pages in 2005, in time for our wedding. In part, this was just to get all the cousins and aunts and uncles straight in my mind before sending out invitations. :-) But also because weddings are important family events, and they're an opportunity to share and grow the family history. I wanted to get everything organized. I wanted to know what was known, and what was not known.

Although I didn't have the time to do it then, I wanted to make the web pages wiki. I wanted to enable family members to browse the pages, see what was missing, and be able to add it right then and there.

Thinking about it being wiki led to thinking about it being global. A family doesn't have clear borders around it. Families overlap. Infinitely. If I invite my cousin to add to the tree, she would add relatives and ancestors who aren't directly related to me. Our families are like overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. Every family circle is unique, but overlaps with others. We all connect.

What talents did you already have that enabled you to believe you could create WikiTree?

I've been creating community websites since 1995. My first business was a networking site for libertarians and free-market conservatives. At the time that I had the idea for WikiTree, described above, I was working on a site called WikiAnswers, a collaborative Q&A site.

 How long did you mull the idea over before you took action?

I registered the domain name in 2005, but I didn't have time to work on it until I left WikiAnswers in late 2007.

What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome to make WikiTree a reality?

The biggest challenge was privacy. I didn't know how to handle that for a long time.

It's one thing to say that we're one big family. That my cousins should be able to add her cousins, and her cousins can add their cousins, etc. But all these cousins shouldn't be able to see everything about each other. The idea for Trusted Lists was a real breakthrough for WikiTree.

Another obstacle was the high level of expectations that genealogists have for family tree software. Genealogy software has been around since the 1980s, growing and improving. WikiTree had to develop a lot of features and functions before genealogists would take it seriously.

Where do you imagine genetic genealogy will be in the next ten years?

The combination of DNA testing and a single family tree means that most people won't have to research their family history. They can take a DNA test and almost immediately see a rich, deep genealogy that has been created by their cousins. Some already can.

I know many genealogists don't like this idea. Saying that a simple DNA test will give you your family history raises their hackles. But together we're making this possible, and it's a good thing.

Not everyone is a genealogist. Not everyone wants to do research. By sharing what we learn, by putting it together on a single family tree, genealogists are giving a wonderful gift to everyone else.

We do the genealogy. They spit in tubes.

What are your wildest imaginings for genetic genealogy in the future?

I think we will reconstruct the genomes of our ancestors.

We'll be able to see them. Know them in ways that they didn't even
know themselves.

What new tools do you hope to develop in the future?

We were actually working on collaborative chromosome maps for ancestor profiles, to move in this direction of reconstructing our ancestors' DNA.

We pulled the plug on this for privacy reasons. I'm disappointed, but it will happen without WikiTree. WikiTree needs to focus on our core mission of collaborative growing the tree. Our ancestors' genomes will be hosted elsewhere.

For our core mission, collaboration is key. It's relatively easy to get genealogists to share their research. Many will share their GEDCOM. But integrating their research and collaborating – really working together to fix mistakes and solve mysteries -- is not easy.

So, we are always working to make collaborating with other genealogists easier, and more fun. We're improving search and matching. We're looking for better ways to introduce cousins. We hope to do some of this with X-chromosome matches soon. There are always a hundred things on the to-do list, most of which have been suggested by community members.

I want to thank Chris for this incredible interview. 

Update: I decided just linking didn't show up enough in the interview and decided to add Chris' Samuel's full URL. Once you click on it click the descendant's icon so you can get a better idea of one of the innovative features of WikiTree.

I also want to thank him for a wonderful tool within WikiTree which can help everyone as they brag about and search for family. Each WikiTree profile has its own unique URL link which you can share with others on social media. If you click on Samuel Whitten's blue underlined link above you will see it takes you right to his WikiTree profile. WikiTreers call this sharing of profiles "Cousin Bait." Go ahead, search WikiTree for an ancestor (or add one) then post the URL to your favorite social media site and ask family to add their branches. (To copy a URL Left click and drag your mouse across the entire http address to highlight, then Right Click, select Copy. Go to Facebook or where ever and Left click your cursor where you want to add the URL and Right click and select Paste. Give it a second to load then click Post or Tweet.)

The URL link is like the one I share when I am looking for new members to join the Facebook Brady DNA Project. The project is open to anyone with the Brady surname anywhere in the world who has done autosomal DNA test and has uploaded to GEDmatch. Many at the project have added our branches to Hugh Brady whose WikiTree profile is Brady-242. (You really didn't expect me to pass up this opportunity did you?)

Thanks again, Chris!

Happy Finding!

I'm still having a blast.

1 comment: