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The Privatisation of Memory

Finding a lost family member in the ancestral archives of the internet.

Genealogy art

There’s an old photograph from the late ‘60s that sits atop my parents lounge room windowsill. It’s a snapshot of my mother, her two sisters and their cousin as children. In the snapshot they are sitting on a park bench, their hair is amess in the wind. They’re staggered in frozen movements, one laughs and the other smiles directly into the camera. Separated by only a few years, they’re already completely distinct despite having spent their whole lives together. This photograph in particular is almost iconic in my mum’s family. There seems to be a copy in all of the four subject’s houses. You could call it one of our family’s most popular primary historical sources. 

My mother’s family are eager conversationalists; the stories told and retold around Christmas fried potatoes and brandied pudding are connected in a multiplicity of repetitive and benign ways. As a group we are absurd in our normality — arguments are passionate and ridiculous, political views are disparate. A myriad of careers, passions and temperaments amass together in an intricate map  — like all families. As a network, we all find comfort in hearing stories about our relatives; my mother and her siblings and cousins never seem more connected than when they’re discussing their shared histories. These conversations can last for hours despite the very obvious truth that the next generation have heard almost all of them before. 

A few months ago my mother received a phone call. Our cousin had been contacted by a woman from Melbourne who shared the same mother as the rest of the five siblings in our family. At birth, she’d been separated by force from her mother, my grandmother, and adopted out at the request of my great grandfather under the ‘50s societal expectation that wom*n were not to have and keep children out of wedlock. My grandmother was taken to a home for unwed pregnant wom*n. She would keep this confidential from her whole family even after the day she died. The news of a new relative spread very quickly amongst my tight knit network of relatives with confusion and a blurred combination of excitement and bewilderment. This woman, my aunt, had found us through the online genealogy website, Ancestry.com.

Most members of our family, before then, had not crossed into the online world of hereditary curiosity. We seemed content, perhaps naively so, in our own circle of first hand stories. These, to us, were considered the whole truth. One of my mother’s cousins however, in her curiosity to submit an Ancestry DNA sample would leave a trail that allowed our long lost relative to identify and eventually approach us. 

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Genealogical websites have become a kind of pastime for thousands of Australians. They are a blurred hybrid of social media and historical archive wrapped up in an image of transformation, verisimilitude and a leafy green logo. There are various reasons that people are moving in to these networks to map their own online family trees. Most join out of easy curiosity; no expectations and no considerations. For some, my aunt included, these websites are a small part of a long period of research and discovery. 

The genealogical websites available have harnessed a mass market of emotional, hereditary inquisitiveness, or what journalist John Seabrook calls the “comfort of connectivity,” to create a business that is internationally thriving. Like any business venture, the organisation works in correlation with a range of external stakeholders. Users are promised travel discounts to visit ancestral hometowns or meet distant relatives with Airbnb, they gain access to external archives through their subscription to these websites and are used to promote the work of academics. Recently, Spotify and Ancestry collaborated on a project that offers users a playlist based on their own Ancestry.com research. It offers a “soundtrack of their heritage.” Currently, Spotify does not have individual access to users DNA and “customers can manually input regions, into the playlist generator,” Ancestry.com outlined in a statement to Quartz. Regardless, it’s hard to ignore the trivialisation of family bloodline and heritage in these sites. 

In particular, the most marketable element of this global program is its now major direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing project. For $129, users can send in a sample cup of their urine to an Ancestry lab that will in theory, use genetic variations to identify percentages of cultural heritage. The website suggests these discoveries mean something particularly meaningful to each individual. They suggest that everyone will learn something individualistic and that these percentages are always accurate. 

One of the real flaws inherent in these programs is the way the organisation simplifies the intricacies inherent in cultural and racial difference. By sending in your sample, Ancestry.com offers the opportunity to discover your “ethnic mix.” Even though someone, as told by Ancestry, may have a 2% heritage connection to a culture other than Caucasian, this does not mean they have experienced the cultural disadvantages or limitations experienced by that cultural group. Ancestry has, as of yet, not made any steps to rectify this element of the program and educate those users investing in the genetic testing available. In fact, at present it continues to encourage them. 

In April of this year, Ancestry.com removed a video advertisement after it reached viral infamy as a culturally insensitive and whitewashed depiction of African-American slavery. The video, set in the antebellum South in 1857, told a revisionist “love story” of a African American slave “running away” with her white oppressor. The Ancestry title read: “uncover the lost chapters of your family history.” Being a genealogical website, this organisation failed to account for the fact that wom*n of colour in these contexts were subject to rape and violence from white men, not love, and that escaping to the North would have made no difference to the way this woman was treated in the late 1800s. It also suggested that the only way African American wom*n could escape slavery was with the help of a white male saviour and ultimately ignores any understanding of intergenerational trauma. This ad is also particularly misleading because at least for the Australian Ancestry.com website, the archives and materials available to users remain mostly white-centric, distinctly connected to the histories of white convicts and their families. For people of colour, there remains far less archival information available to them for discovery. 

Just as the organisation simplifies its depiction of identity and culture, it also somewhat subversively advertises itself in a way that projects aspects of discovery, transformation and learning that ignores the emotional and trying issues that often come with finding lost family members and understanding familial trauma. For many users, an enjoyable learning experience is all Ancestry.com will turn out to be. A game as such, an opportunity to figure out which family member owned an extravagant townhouse in the English highlands or why and how their great, great, great grandfather divorced his wife. But predominantly, the structure of these networks fails to warn or limit the behaviour of its users. Privacy in this context is a real issue. Of course everyone has a right to know their background, but the open forum nature of these networks propels families into a world in which nothing remains secret.

A friend of mine began looking into her and her partner’s ancestry a few months ago through an online genealogical website. When she enthusiastically explained this to her partner’s grandmother, she was met with an anxious reaction and a request to discontinue her research. There are stories and networks in families that are still yet to be explained. Ancestry.com, as a global enterprise, can reveal these stories before families are ready to hear or speak of it. This becomes particularly damaging when DNA genetic testing can reveal the distressing health issues of families before that network have had a chance to discuss it.

There are limitations to this website that transfer across class, race and age. If these materials are online, they should be available to everyone, not trapped behind a particularly expensive paywall that limits discoveries to a select wealthy and computer literate few.  The network itself, a digital interface of thousands of archives and DNA materials is still an online platform, and as such, still at risk of hacking. There is a strange tension in these networks that conceals information from those who deserve to see it and leaves that information at risk of being accessed by those who should not have it.

Clearly there is a certain way that this platform should be used. Despite the way Ancestry.com mass produces results, and the fact that the accuracy of these sites remain unproven, they still helped my aunt in her attempt to connect with us because she used the limited tools available to her to confirm information she already knew. She may have discovered us through the genealogical networks of my cousin’s DNA submission, but when it comes to the important archival materials: family photos, histories and stories, it will be up to us, her family, to describe their significance.