Help:History of WikiTree

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This is an incomplete story of our tree and our community.

As of 2022, there are about 30 million profiles on our shared tree. A million people browse them every month. Tens of thousands of genealogists participate in growing them every week. But this is no overnight success story. Our roots are deep.

Contents

Pre-History and Founding in 2008

In 1996, Chris Whitten, the future founder of WikiTree, and Jimmy Wales, the future founder of Wikipedia, shared a small office in Chicago while working on their first Internet projects.

It's largely coincidental that Chris and Jimmy would both later found wikis. Although the wiki concept goes back to 1994, neither Chris nor Jimmy was familiar with them at the time. However, they were both working on user-generated content websites, something that was relatively rare in the 1990s. Both would later decide that a wiki is the best way for an online community to collaborate in a productive and enjoyable way.

In 2001, Chris started a question and answer website called FAQ Farm (later called WikiAnswers, then Answers.com). While working on FAQ Farm, in 2005, Chris created a private family website to organize his own family history. As Chris was incorporating information from his family members and involving more distant cousins who were also genealogists, he got to thinking about a single, collaborative family tree — a wiki tree where all genealogists could pool their information and work together. Chris registered the domain name WikiTree.com in 2005 but wasn't able to work on it until he left Answers.com at the end of 2007.

At the beginning of 2008, Chris started working on WikiTree with his programming partner Brian. On July 1, 2008, Chris invited his brother and father to test WikiTree. By the end of that month, a few dozen people were involved in early testing.

The first public registrations started in November of that year. November 2008 is the closest thing to an official opening of WikiTree that we can put on a calendar.

Early Years

2009

Two thousand nine was really WikiTree's first year. The site was still primitive. There wasn't a search engine until September of 2009. There wasn't even a simple alphabetical index of profiles until June.

The most important event of 2009 was the invention of "Trusted Lists" for individual profiles. Most other genealogy websites, then and now, take one of two approaches to privacy. Either they evade the problem by only including non-living people, or they put the privacy controls around trees or families. The former removes the appeal of family trees for many people. The latter makes a single family tree with real genealogy collaboration impossible. Our unique solution made WikiTree possible.

Our numbers were still small, but growing. In January there were only a few dozen members and profiles. In December we had 15,000 members and 50,000 profiles on our tree.

2010

Two thousand ten is the year we started to attract the attention of genealogists. Cyndi Howells added us to her classic Cyndi's List of genealogy links. Dick Eastman reviewed WikiTree in September 2010. The mention in Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter was very big for us. In late August, before his review, we had 200,000 profiles on the tree. By early October it was 500,000.

In October of 2010, Elyse Doerflinger became the first member of the WikiTree Team after Chris, i.e. the first part-time employee. To this day the team is still very small and mostly part-time. Almost everything on WikiTree is done by volunteers.

2011

In 2011 we laid the foundations for the WikiTree community. Most importantly:

  1. We made the "The WikiTree Pledge" to always keep our tree completely free. This was very important to earning the trust of members.
  2. We wrote the Honor Code. (It was first published in May 2011, but we didn't add digital "signatures" until the following year). Amazingly, the Honor Code has held up and has not ever been changed. Every member has signed the same Honor Code.

In February 2011 we added two of our now-essential privacy levels Unlisted and Open. Before that, all profiles were Private or Public — completely different from what we have now.

On 9 March 2011 we reached 1,000,000 profiles. In another four months it had doubled to 2,000,000. We crossed that milestone on 23 July.

In May of 2011 Tami Osmer became a team member. She spent four years on the team. From 2011 to 2015 she handled almost all the email sent to info@wikitree.com. Although the volunteer community does most things on WikiTree, a team member with "sysop" rights is the only one who can handle private issues.

We got some media attention in 2011. We were mentioned in the New York Times in May and in USA Today in June.

The third of October 2011 was the first day we had 10,000 visitors in one day.

Important technical features were added in 2011. It's hard to imagine WikiTree without some of these. In February we added FindMatches, which enables matching when adding profiles. In April we released the thank-you system, merge proposals, the bulk Profile Manager changes tool, and the Preview function for editing biographies. In July we added the Relationship Finder.

The Pivotal Year for Collaboration: 2012

Elyse Doerflinger and Chris Whitten at the RootsTech conference
in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February 2012.

WikiTree was really taking off. The site was growing fast. On January 12 we reached 3,000,000 profiles.

Five days later, on January 17, we slammed on the brakes. We closed new member registration. You could only become a member if you were added by a friend or family member. This wasn't a gimmick to create an aura of exclusivity. This was an emergency measure.

We realized that it was too easy to create profiles, especially through GEDCOM imports. Many members were creating thousands of profiles but not collaborating with others. WikiTree isn't just a place to upload your genealogy and show it to others. That's easy. Real genealogy collaboration is hard.

We needed to make some big changes. Our emergency measures slowed down profile creation. Next we needed to get serious about merging. That would require a community culture to support it, policies and technologies to enable it, and sensible style rules to avoid and resolve conflicts. There was a lot to be done.

The way we moved forward with the community and solved these issues is WikiTree's greatest achievement. The collaborative culture we began to develop in 2012 is WikiTree's greatest strength.

This was the origin of WikiTree Projects. The first project was "EuroAristo," the European Aristocrats Project. Medieval European aristocrats are the locus of a lot of genealogical myths. It's where we had the biggest mess of duplicates to clean up.

This was the year we started our Project Leaders program. (At the time we called them "Supervisors" but this name never quite fit.) Yale professor Roger Travis was the first Project Leader. Soon after were Becky Syphers, Lindsay Coleman, Martin Grifhorst, Abby Glann, Lianne Lavoie, Bob Fields, Heather Brown, Paul Bech and Vic Watt. Tom Bredehoft, Keith Baker, Daniel Bouman, Krissi Love, Allen Minix, and Brian Chelton were added a couple months later. Ed Burke, Gail Cox, Debby Black, and Michael Gabbard became Project Leaders later in the year.

Project Leaders called for a change in our privacy controls. They recognized that many profile managers were using them for control, not for privacy. In February 2012 we made the rule that all profiles of people born over 300 years ago needed to Open. Over 172,000 profiles had their privacy level changed that month. In July, after long debates, it was changed from 300 to 200.

On 29 February 2012 we opened G2G, our "Genealogist to Genealogist" forum. This was a critically important step in the development of our community. On many websites, the forum is the community, but we're not just a community for talking about things. We're building something. We made the mistake of thinking that since our tree is based on person profiles, comments and discussion should happen on the profiles themselves. That was insufficient. The wider community needed to come together in one place.

Before the end of the year we reopened registration with our Guest Member program and Greeters to welcome them. We also completely revamped our GEDCOM import process so that it was based on searching for existing matches. We called this GEDMatches (we later changed the name to GEDCOMpare because of the DNA site called GEDMatches that was started at about the same time).

Middle Years

2013

In March 2013 we created our badge system. We had Club 100 and Club 1000 badges as early as 2010 but they didn't look the same, and we had no badges that members could award each other, and no badges for projects and functions.

In May there were significant design changes to surname index pages, widgets, and tree views. In November we redesigned the main home page.

In terms of technological improvements, the two most important additions in 2013:

  • 7 March 2013: We added the Wiki Genealogy Feed to enable members to follow surnames and tags.
  • 25 June 2013: We added DNA test connections. Our DNA features were innovative and set WikiTree apart in the minds of many early genetic genealogists.

On 22 April 2013 we passed an important milestone: 5,000,000 profiles.

Projects exploded in 2013. The US Presidents Project, the DNA Project, and the Pennsylvania Settlers Project were some of the earliest. In March, the important Puritan Great Migration Project began. In June the New Netherland Settlers Project was started by Liz Shifflett. Lianne Lavoie started the Canadian History Project. In September, the Anzacs Project was started, and Jillaine Smith became the first member of the Huguenot Migration Project. Kitty Smith started the 1776 Project in October. In November, one of our most important projects was founded: the One Name Studies Project.

Three people joined the WikiTree team in 2013: Lianne Lavoie, Paul Bech, and Eowyn Langholf. Paul and Eowyn are still team members.

On 10 September 2013 we were mentioned on CNN and in RealSimple magazine.

Our servers were stretched. By November we were getting 3.3 million hits (not visits) per day. That's an average of 1,200 queries per second.

2014

Kitty, Lianne, AJ, Michelle, Eowyn (100% Free!), Chris, and Tami at RootsTech 2014.

The defining event for 2014 was the "Global Family Reunion" organized by bestselling author AJ Jacobs. This changed our community in significant ways. It brought us a lot of attention and led us to consider connections through marriage as part of our global family tree instead of just relationships through common ancestors.

It all began with a Sunday New York Times op-ed by AJ on 2 February 2014 where he mentioned WikiTree as a global family tree project. After seeing it, we made contact and began a long relationship. Two of our team members, Eowyn Langholf and Abby Glann would become reunion organizers for AJ.

AJ was a media rainmaker. He did a TED talk and appeared on Good Morning America. He published articles in People magazine and Mental Floss. He was on NPR, Canadian Public Radio, and a score of other radio programs. It went on and on.

In September 2014 we introduced Pre-1700 Self-Certification.

There were even more important community culture developments. Abby first first coined the phrase "Don't WikiTree While Angry" and this led to "Stop, Drop, and Roll." These became part of our detailed Problems with Members process.

Conflict resolution processes might seem incidental to a family tree project, but they're not. How we resolve disagreements is fundamentally important to how we create an accurate, collaborative family tree. More than once,, executives at other genealogy organizations have sought our help in creating their own conflict resolution procedures. But these rules and systems can't be implemented from the top down. They need to grow organically in a community. Our mature, carefully-evolved community culture may be WikiTree's single greatest strength.

It was another significant year in the development of projects. The Australia Project became our first "top-level project" with sub-projects organized beneath it. The Magna Carta Project was started by April Dauenhauer. Philip Smith started the Louisiana Families Project later in the year. The Quakers Project and Unknowns Project came a little later.

2015

Two thousand fifteen was one of our biggest years for technological changes. WikiTree's usability on mobile devices was transformed. We created our system for adopting unmanaged profiles. We added the dynamic tree view, compact tree, and family list feature. To make it easier to navigate the many tree views, family tree pages became Family Tree & Tools pages.

This was the year we added relationship certainty status indicators to mark when a relationship is certain, uncertain, confirmed with DNA, or non-biological. The latter enables adoptive families to keep the family connections they prefer without affecting our growing collection of DNA features. The inclusion of the uncertain status indicator was very controversial, though. Key members left the community because of it and some never came back. They argued that only relationships that are certain should be on WikiTree.

We made a lot of subtle changes that year to enhance collaboration, such as transitioning our tagline from "The Free Family Tree" to "Where Genealogists Collaborate."

At the end of the year we decided to introduce big restrictions on who can edit pre-1500 profiles. The debates on this restriction were long and painful. On the one hand, WikiTree is all about collaboration and wiki collaboration is fairly open. On the other hand, many of our most advanced members were spending all their time correcting the same mistakes over and over again. Very few people can do Medieval genealogy.

On 22 January 2015 we crossed 9,000,000 profiles. Four months later, in May, we crossed the big milestone: 10,000,000 profiles.

2016: WikiTree+

Twenty sixteen was the year that Ales Trtnik created WikiTree+. ... The significance of this goes beyond the valuable tools for power users that Ales has created. Soon we will tell this story.

Our first big marathon challenge event was in October 2016: The first Help:Source-a-Thon.



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