Saturday, 22 August 2015

With a Little Help from Friends and Strangers

Genealogist and family historians are a helpful bunch, but sometimes just asking for help does not have the desired result.  Advice about asking effective questions abounds, with specificity and respect as recurring themes.

In Asking For Help The Right Way Barb Henry recommends avoiding opinion based "Which is best?"questions and notes the short life span of Facebook posts.  Marion Pierre Louis advocates providing an overview of the problem and thanking everyone for their help in Ancestors please! How to ask for help online.  In Writing Directed Queries Helen V Smith masterfully demonstrates how to be succinct while providing enough  relevant information in the order that the recipient needs it.

Respecting the time of those who answer starts with not expecting someone else to do the work for you.  Trying to solve the problem by yourself first, and checking whether the answer has already been given may result in not having to ask the question.  Addressing the question to people who are most likely to know the answer increases the chance of success.

I recently found an excellent tip for downloading search results from FamilySearch to an excel file. First I targeted the Facebook group Excel-ling Genealogists, the I searched the group posts for 'FamilySearch'.  Once logged in to the website, a button appears that allows you to download each page of search results.

Extracts from Excel-ling Facebook group.  Arrows on the right point out the group description and search box. Use the group description to identify specialised groups, and the search box to find posts.  Discussion on the left.

Extract of the question posed on Evernote Genealogists

In another successful interaction on Facebook, I posted a question in the Evernote Genealogists group.  The first response wasn't very encouraging, but after a few more people contributed, I found what I was looking for, and posted a screenshot extract to show the button.

Although people can and do learn by asking questions on social media, the formats of Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter and others were not specifically designed for the purpose.  The two examples above were straight forward questions.  Many genealogy questions are more complex, requiring more than Twitter's character limit or Facebook's limited attention window.  Some social media groups and communities are moderated and have rules, but there is no easy means of indicating the quality of answers.  The number of  'like' or '+1' might indicate popularity, but without a 'dislike' or '-1', it is not a balanced measure.

There is an under-used platform for questions and answers that addresses the short-comings of social media.

StackExchange Genealogy & Family History Q&A

Stack Exchange is a network or question and answer websites, which developed from the no-nonsense world of computer programming in response to the need for expert answers.   The StackExchange Genealogy & Family History Q&A was started in 2012.  It is run by the genealogy community with the aim of building a comprehensive library of answers to questions about genealogy and family history. 

Unlike social sites, the focus is on questions and answers rather than discussion or social contact.  Anyone can participate by asking or answering questions.  Moderators actively guide participants and suggest improvements to questions, which keeps them on topic and increases clarity.

Participants earn reputation points based on how others up or down vote their contributions.  Good quality contributions gain more points and are rise to the top of the list.  For more details on the how the system works, take the tour.

StackExchange question page. Arrow on the left points out the user rating.  Arrows at the top right point out the search box and tags, 2 ways of finding content.


Responsible Answers

Remember to be critical of answers you receive.  Evaluate it just like all the other information you use in your research.  If you disagree or find an answer wanting, don't berate the person who tried to help you.  Sometimes, there isn't an answer, or you have not reached the person who does know.

The flip side to asking for help is answering questions.  Helping others is not about your ego, so keep your opinions and speculations to yourself and be honest in admitting (to yourself) that you don't know.  Good answers address the question, and are reasoned and well researched, so typically contain some references.

Helping and being helped are part of collaboration.  Both sides gain from doing their homework, taking time to compose clear, relevant and succinct questions and answers, and appreciating the other's efforts. Such respectful collaboration is a powerful thing.

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