Digital Footprints & Family History

The digital footprints being created for my family, or more to the point of this post, being created by me for my children, gives rise to some reflection about the future of family history in our societies.

Family history has been revolutionised by the internet. Ask anyone who did research prior to the 1990s about their roots and see what they say. Following the breadcrumbs no longer, necessarily, means visiting record offices in other countries or making expensive long distance calls to clerks or names in dusty phone books.

Of course, currently, this family history is very much records and databases that have been uploaded to the internet. There are range of scholarship issues, as with all research, but more and more people are able to be amateur sleuths, investigating their family trees. My own research, on behalf of my partner into her great grandfather, accessed his war records from WWI and uncovered some extremely interesting, not uncommon, details of his time in the army. I know that controversial and amusing trivia is half the joy of constructing a family tree. My father’s first ancestor to arrive, on the Second Fleet, had a number of aliases and eventually met his demise, drunk, falling down a well. The convict stain we are all happy to acknowledge was not always one to be shared.

In the future, the not so distant future, the primary sources will be digital footprints left by our ancestors online.

We have been talking about digital citizenship and leaving positive digital footprints for some time now and education systems are slowly updating curriculum and courses to address the needs of students. We will need a generation for anywhere near tipping point to be achieved whereby most citizens have a good skills in this respect.

For babies, born this century and a little before, their digital footprint commences with announcements of pregnancies at social networking sites, via email or chat. The ultrasound imagery of the foetus posted, names debated and finally, those first birth pics and the agreed name will find their way online.

It is obvious (but largely undiscussed to my knowledge) that adults, people other than the individual, at first, will be creating that footprint. Family snapshots, anecdotes and all kinds of medical information is online, or will be. Pupils will increasingly have their portfolios and school records online. Kids will then start to make their own imprint with creations for school, fun and for friends.

The establishment, including mainstream media, government, police, courts and schooling systems have concentrated on ‘the danger’ that young people, especially but not just teenagers, are in from online predators, cyber-bullying or themselves by posting compromising photos, messages and being unsafe online with risk-taking behaviours that will haunt them in adult years. There has been some focus on simple online security issues (such as safely rotating passwords, using anti-virus software, avoiding phishing sites and spam) but largely, this is very little, very late and not in any way formalised for large numbers of students in Australia.


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore

The point to this post is largely personal which, for me, so often informs the professional for an educator. Since 2006, when my first daughter was born, I have shared images and anecdotes, family events and our travels online. I can envisage many positive future scenarios where this ‘family history’ is useful, to us and others.

One can also imagine less salubrious scenarios.

I believe no one set of rules serves all. We have different values, beliefs and levels of paranoia. For me, every time my kids are in a car it seems like an enormous risk. The internet doesn’t even register a s a blip on that scale – for me.

What ‘rules’ do you personally have for sharing details of your family and personal life online?

I would really value your reflections, on what I believe, is an important question.

.

SLIDER PHOTO CREDIT: cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by ((brian)): http://flickr.com/photos/brian-m/168440003/

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The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

7 Comments

  1. As always Darcy, a thought provoking post. Like you, I have young children (a little older than yours) and indeed their online presence did begin very early in their life. With the ever-moving shift in where we go to post, chat, socialise and share, I hope we don’t loose track of what we’ve put ‘out there’. (Remember MSN, MySpace and a host of others). How do we keep track of all the different places we exist in? More specifically, how do you, Darcy, keep track of it all.

    As for ‘rules’, my kids are just getting to the age where they are capable of creating their own online presence and so the ‘rules’ will become increasingly important very soon. We’ve had the discussion about personal details and strangers, appropriate content and the perminance (like it or not) of your online self. But I know it’s a game we’ll be playing for the long haul, and issues will continue to evolve. There will be battles along the way, but like many aspects of life I would like to think the guidance we’re giving now while our kids are young will provide the knowlegde, skills and attitudes (now I’m sounding like a teacher!) to prepare them to make good descisions now and in the future.

  2. Carolyn Scott:

    Hi- you have raised some interesting issues. As the parent of three children in their early twenties, I have watched how theIr relationship with social networking sites has changed. Initially as 13, 14 year olds, they were hooked on Msn( COULDN’T GET THEM OFF IT), then Myspace and eventually Facebook. Now, however, they are over the whole fascination of posting personal information and have told me that they feel like stalkers when they are so easily able to delve into the private lives of so many acquaintances. They no longer post photos or private information, however, they use Facebook to chat to their friends to save using their mobiles. They believe that many young people get some false sense of stardom from posting photos and events or by having 1000+ friends.
    Also I have an Ext 2 English student who has based his Major Work on the why there has been a decrease in the popularity of certain social networking sites.
    As a History teacher, I have also been mindful of what we are leaving behind in terms of our recorded memoirs and photographs when there are no hardcopies of photos, letters etc.

  3. Dear Darcy,

    I recorded our life in the UK for the enjoyment of absent family and friends. After moving back to Australia I forgot about my digital imprint and was recently surprised to discover my blog still existed despite not having logged in for about three years.

    http://tee-pee-two.blogspot.com/

    It’s uniquely chronological and brought back more in-depth memories than a photo album would have.

    I am sure the girls will be thrilled to browse it when they get older.

    Nice post.
    Rebecca.

  4. Darcy Moore:

    Col, Carolyn and Rebecca,

    Thanks for your insights.

    @Col I have a number of strategies and, as a Virgo, like organising stuff ;O) I always use WordPress blogs so everything is very findable. Delicious/Diigo helps too.

    @Carolyn I think there is a backlash from 20-somethings re” social media due to their lived experience. However, people always tended to send postcards, keep albums and share their lives for a range of reasons, not necessarily to do with what you mention (although I agree with you).

    @Rebecca, I also believe that the record of our shared past family experience is a joy for the future as well as the present.

  5. Great post, Darcy.

    This issue is something that I have been thinking about too in recent days as my daughter turns 11 and is increasingly interested in all things social. I have just agreed to her joining a social network site for under 13s called Giant Hello. I checked it out thoroughly first and was pleased that you couldn’t just friend anyone you actually had to know them and send them an invite code. It seems pretty safe but I used the opportunity to start the whole discussion about cybersafety etc and especially not giving out your details and why. She seems to understand but I will be watching closely to see how things progress.

    I have often used her experiences in the class room as narratives to use with my students – to engage them, link to real life examples etc. And now that she is nearing high school age I realise that I can no longer do that as she will soon be one of the students and she has a right to privacy and anonymity. I have to rethink my stories – I will still tell them but my characters will change.

    As a result of this, I have also started to be more conscious of what I post about her online as well when sharing with family and friends on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter etc. Her right to privacy (especially as she reaches those fragile, angst ridden teenage years) is more paramount than ever and I will not want to compromise who she is becoming. This is on top of protecting her safety (physical and mental) online and I hope that through regular discussions, reactions to what we see and hear on the topic, and common sense we will both be creating a digital footprint she can be proud of.

  6. Darcy, my girls are soon turning 24 and 22 respectively. We have never had formal rules, although we have discussed the issue.

    Looking specifically just at the family history issue and the associated issue of using the web to store things, I think that we overestimate the longevity of digital footprints in a general sense, although via murphy’s law the things that survive may be just those things we don’t want to survive!

    I have been involved with the web since the beginning. As part of that I have been doing searches on family members since then. The thing that stands out to me is web impermanence.

    To check this, I just did a web search on eldest. The number of references including stuff by others has increased. However, after checking over thirty pages her school references have gone. I searched again adding the school name, but got a zero response. So all the school stuff is no longer extant.

    In another example, the consulting business I ran in Armidale used to score lots of references. Now fifteen years later the only references are to our publications held in libraries.

    I could give other example, but the point is that with time the web has grown (this makes it harder to find things) while previous material vanishes. Personally, I make no assumptions about the longevity of specific web sites, nor about the nature of web archiving.

    Will Facebook still be there in thirty year’s time? Maybe. Will blogger and my blogs still be there in thirty year’s time? Again, maybe.

    Physical records can survive war and disaster, if with loss. It is not clear to me that electronic records can.

    When microfilm was all the rage, many records were transferred to that format to save storage costs. Then it proved too costly to actually maintain them. We have already seen this type of problem in the computer sphere.

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