By: Sean Rowader
“I’m related to the tooth fairy!” said Santa Claus, during a recent ad campaign by the genealogical history conglomerate known as “Ancestry.com.” The ancestral giant has been in operation since 1998 when it was known as “MyFamily.com,” and has experienced immense user growth ever since. For about $200 a year, you can get access to 10 billion records, 38 million family trees, and 2 million fellow subscribers. Why is this for-profit company entertaining so many customers? It’s not like people were flooding the public libraries in 1965 to view census records validating their ability to boast their Native American ancestry at dinner parties, insinuating that they have more right to American soil then you. People weren’t showing off their 300 page long family trees in pubs as they slammed down an empty glass of Guinness, saying, “This is what we drink in the homeland,” even though they had never set foot in Ireland. Why, all of a sudden, are 2 million people concerned with their heritage? Also, why are the rest of us tempted to join the club after seeing quirky advertisements during primetime? Perhaps it’s a Zeitgeist, a trend; the availability of ancestral information by the terabyte coupled with being clicks away has made this industry exclusive to the Tweeters and Facebookers of modern day Cyburbia.
Regardless of what led to this surge of family historians, we ask, is this just a hobby; a fulfilling way to spend free time?
Back in July, Ancestry.com threw some pancake batter in the political fan, and it made a mess. Ancestry stated that it found genealogical documentation connecting Barack Obama to other well known public figures such as Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and even Brad Pitt. No matter how far Ancestry had to dig to make these connections, it raises interesting points about identity. When tracing our lineage, where do we draw the line? Obviously if we go back far enough we will reach the dawn of man, which would connect all of us. I digress; identity seems to be a product of how you spend your time and where you came from. Ancestry.com has found a way to capitalize on the latter through marketing to the curious and well off (we don’t all have $200/year to burn).
It’s not all on paper. Genealogy websites offer a number of genetic tests that can uncover more about your genetic history. This is still a primitive science, and these tests don’t give exact figures. Analysts use patterns in your perceived DNA and match them will the same patterns in their database. So results may say 20% Central Europe 30% Southern Europe etc. So basically you are paying for hundred dollar estimates. I suppose the value of the test is in the eye of the beholder. The variation in genetic ancestral tests is surprising. The website, “IrelandDNA.com” markets a test which detects the trait for red hair. GINGER ALERT!
In essence, heritage has shown that it is important to the living generation and profitable to genealogy website shareholders. Whether or not you’ll enlist is up to you, but odds are that you will be catalogued in your great-great grandson’s Ancestry.com software some day.