PSA: Facebook Genealogy Groups – Proceed with Caution

As much as I hate to say this, it’s time we get smart and vet our memberships to Facebook Genealogy Groups. Just this morning I was scolded and publicly shamed in a very popular Facebook Genealogy group that contains over 16,000 members. My crime? Asking a poster (within a comment string) to consider sharing her state specific story with our state historical society publication – which happens to be a free educational resource for all – created and hosted by a government archival/artifact repository. Good grief!

The ironic point of this interaction, is that I always double check the group rules before posting or commenting – because every group can be VERY different. In this case, they only prohibited advertising services or products “for sell” [for sale]. As a non-profit, free educational resource, I was in no way soliciting anything that resulted in a profit – nor was I even advertising – it was a suggestion at the bottom of a very long comment string.

But here’s how they handled this situation. They removed my comment and then made a new post calling me out for this shameful behavior. Most group admins will take down a comment or post and quietly message the offender – unless this was a repeat offense, or a problem they keep having with many others. Nope. They instead chose to publicly rebuke my “offense” when in fact, I hadn’t violated anyone’s rules. The admin of the day stated that I should have known better, and continued to lecture that I was ignorant of standard “netiquette”.

Unfortunately, my apology and clarification that this was not in their rules (because, you know, I researched their own rules list) simply fanned the flames, and it was apparent that, just like Caesar, the offense was declared, judgement and punishment were handed out and no words of defence would be accepted. So let it be written, so let it be done! Sorry folks, that is an environment that is contrary to the world of kindness I know to be genealogy.

Many of you have witnessed this scenario before as well as become concerned over Facebook abuses in all forms reported in the news. In fact, several users have already left Facebook due to these reports.  Over the years, I have embraced Facebook due to the engaging groups of collective advice and dialog. Many of the groups are wonderful! However, I have also witnessed conversations turn ugly in the blink of an eye. Facebook is a place where many people feel it’s OK to be hateful to one another, bully and insult one another, and demonstrate the very worst of humanity.

But let’s take a closer look at genealogy groups in particular.

The good:

The best genealogy groups are usually topic or location specific. Local genealogy groups by state or county are research/dialog rock stars! They provide invaluable insights to those of us who are out of town – a true “pay-it-forward” kindness in the form of “boots on the ground” volunteers. It is apparent that they love their community and want to share the historical/genealogical love. I have been the recipient of many acts of genealogy kindness from these research angels, which demonstrates the goodness and kindness of the genealogy community, and why Facebook is still a place to get some rock-solid advice and assistance.

The not so good:

The least helpful groups out there are usually too broad in focus to provide much more than cute memes and a burgoo of stories that might be fun, or might be silly, but do not provide much educational advice or meaningful dialog. Their topics are so various that following along becomes mentally exhausting, with little educational meat to show for your efforts. In worst case scenarios, the atmosphere turns toxic, with rampant criticism, insults, shaming, bullying, which often begins with or is encouraged by the behavior of the admins.

Lessons & Takeaways – please evaluate your membership in FB genealogy groups based on these helpful Tips:

  • When you become a new member, take a really close look around before engaging with the other members. Read all group policies or rules FIRST before commenting OR posting ANYTHING! Also, be sure to read the comments below these rules – they can be very telling. In the group that bullied me this morning, there was a telltale comment from another victim that had simply posted a small story about a relative that had died, which included a link to the obit. As she was grieving, she didn’t notice the link included a Go Fund Me section for family assistance. She was apologetic, but it was clear from the conversation that the admins would not back down on their rebuke. As she was clearly sad after losing a loved one, this admin behavior was particularly mean spirited. Of course, I didn’t see this until I started poking around after my own rebuke.
  • READ THE ‘ABOUT’ PAGE! This is vital to getting a feel for the intent behind those who created or admin the group! Unfortunately, once I began digging into the About section, I discovered an advertisement about their new magazine they created as an offshoot of the group. Which leads me to believe they were not upset that I broke an invisible rule – but rather upset that my comment pointed Kentucky researchers to a free educational publication. They clearly viewed my post as content competition, and hid their bullying behind tech shaming and absolutism.
  • Go over the admin list, their genealogy backgrounds, and their past interactions among the group. I have been a FB group admin many times in the past, and I can tell you it’s a thankless job with many hours spent wrangling trolls and  herding cats. But if the admins have no genealogical educational/professional background and they are truly hobbyists that do not help educate others, walk away quickly or their rule police will haul you away at any perceived infraction! Also a red flag: When they declare the group to be a “drama free zone” they’re not talking about themselves – just you! The admins can be as dramatic as they like, and you have no power against it – so again, leave quickly!
  • Review previous conversations – is the group helpful, encouraging, educational, and welcoming – or are they simply opinionated without educational substance? Might I remind everyone that false trees and unsourced genealogy is the modern scourge of genealogy – if we don’t surround ourselves with educational groups, we don’t grow. And with the fictional trees that have flooded online databases, these types of groups can contribute to the problem with their proliferation of unsourced advice.
  • Bye, Felicia! How many have seen this dismissal used within FB Group conversations? You will often see this used to dismiss anyone who chooses to disagree with the collective, or more importantly, the admins. The person who dares disagree, and voices their contradictory opinion is dismissed by the group as irrelevant – either just before they leave the group willingly, or are ejected. Make no mistake, this too is a form of bullying. It has become all too common among the hive mind of FB Groups. Whatever you do, do not upset the admins or the most powerful group participants! They surround the lone voice in order to silence it – rejoicing in their victory once the voice has been removed. Just like the Borg mind – Resistance is futile. The moral of this point in the story: once the group dislikes your contradictory stance, just leave. They aren’t worth your time – find a welcoming place that fosters a healthy collaborative environment. Oh, and just a reminder that healthy dialog includes diverse opinions.
  • And as a supplemental point to the above, defending your actions or even trying to apologize will not be of any help. Admins who enjoy the power too much will not listen and would love nothing more than to vote you off the island, regardless of whether your words make common sense. I had one person remove a post in an abandoned historic structures group because it listed the address, which was against their rules – but the property was for sale! The realtor wanted the address publicized to drum up interest and save the property from ruin! Despite this reasonable exception, the admin loved their power more than saving a historic property, sending a clear signal that they would never listen to reason beyond their own, so I just quietly left the group.

In Conclusion:

I know this post will not be popular – as it reminds us that even roses have thorns – and ignoring their presence does not prevent us from getting stuck. It is high time we recognize the other heinous part of Facebook beyond the privacy breaches: the bullying and abuse of power to silence diverse thought. More importantly, when the genealogical community has a hard time being civil to one another in this environment, it’s time to reevaluate our participation! Life is too short and the research too long to treat others in this fashion. There are so many wonderful Facebook Genealogy Groups out there – but proceed with caution and BE SELECTIVE – be kind, and if they throw you to the wolves, dust yourself off and find a healthy, welcoming genealogy space.

Happy Researching, Y’all!

5 thoughts on “PSA: Facebook Genealogy Groups – Proceed with Caution

  1. Cheri, this is an excellent post and I hope it’s read, widely. It truly hit home with me, and (sadly) was a reminder of a very difficult ordeal I had, last year, in what was the most important to me of all my FB groups. The ordeal I endured was, just as you put it, one of bullying by an admin and (subsequently) his cronies in a situation that had racist undertones. And, as you also suggested, my response (after way too much back and forth and trying to fight for my rights) was to leave the group.
    Unfortunately, this has left a hole in my “FB for Genealogy” experience, since this was an active group that focused on genealogy in the (small) locality most of my ancestors hail from; but the issue was racially charged, it was the second like-incident, therefore, it was time for me to go.
    I do hope people will take the time to read your post and herd its suggestions. Most of all, I pray that we can all put the value of mature, civil discourse, which can lead to a better understanding of varying perspectives, above the need to puff up personal agendas through the medium of Facebook.

    1. Renate, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m so sorry you too were a victim of this horrible behavior! It’s such a shame since the environment of collaboration has such great potential if the members(admins) can act like adults and treat everyone with respect – Sadly, this scenario has happened way too often and continues to happen with greater frequency as the groups grow. What is doubly frustrating, is that the treatment is a bit traumatizing, and yet, it feels as if the bullies always win – browbeating the victims into leaving, effectively silencing them. I am thankful that others are coming forward and calling out this atrocious behavior – giving us back our voice!

  2. I faced a similar situation a couple of years ago. I posted a suggestion that turned out to be wrong. I was publicly chastised and when I reminded the admin that she posted no bullying or mean remarks or you would be removed from the group. Her response was to block me. I never was one of the popular people. You could instantly tell whom the admin favored and whom she did not. I was one of the more active posters responding to questions with answers complete with citations and often actual records. These posts were ignored by the admin though the people I helped were grateful. My action was to start my own group and many of those who were or had been on the other group joined. We don’t have the thousands of people and we are not as active but I guarantee everyone will be respected. Those who stray from the rules are reminded by me via private message. So far, those reminders are rare. On another FB page I admin, I did have to block two people but again I started with reminder of rules in private message and removing of the offensive posts. Only when they started calling me names and questioning my intelligence and character, I gave them additional warnings but they became even more abusive to me and on the FB page. I had no other option but to block them. It was not something I took lightly. I tried to work it out but I was not going to allow them to bully others or be abusive toward me.

    1. Xenia, Thank you so much for sharing your experience! So sorry you had to go through all of that – and I know what you mean – for many groups, you can quickly see the popular members, the cliques, etc. Again, I’ve not named group names here, but I had another instance where the group was identified as an open place to share certain kinds of tips, via blogs, or links – with the understanding that the admins did approve the posts before they appeared. Several people posted different things, but clearly the majority of the posts were made by the admins promoting their own blog posts. I submitted one of my blog posts since that topic clearly fit with the group purpose. The admins turned it down, but with no reason given – while they continued to post their own similar material. Sadly, this group is run by some super well-known genealogy celebs, so an appeal was really out of the question. But, you raise another good point – in many cases, the admins can get the brunt of the bullying and insults. Kudos for starting your own group ruled by respect and fair treatment! Hopefully this trend will grow as people tire of toxic spaces and seek out the positive forums that engage and encourage/welcome all equally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *