Future Tense

Deleting the Family Tree

When Ancestry.com shuttered its social network for relatives, it erased 10 years’ worth of my family’s correspondence and memories.

The author’s aunts and uncles in Florida in the mid-’60s.

Photo courtesy of Jon Christian

Around the year 2007, just after Thanksgiving, my grandmother noticed a tiny seed near the faucet of her kitchen sink that had somehow, implausibly, sprouted.

Intrigued, she and my grandfather planted the seed in a foam cup of potting soil. It grew the telltale fuzzy leaves of a baby tomato plant, so they christened it Tom the Tomato, transplanted it into a one-gallon milk jug with the top cut off, and left it to grow in the sunny dining room of the stately Victorian home where they had lived since 1957. Tom thrived, even producing cherry tomatoes, and eventually reached the ceiling, where they anchored him with string. My grandmother pollinated him with a tiny artist’s brush.

I followed the life of Tom the Tomato on MyFamily.com, a social network for extended families launched by Ancestry.com in 1998. The Christian family is large, and when my aunt Amy signed up for MyFamily in the early 2000s, well before Facebook, it swiftly became the place my relatives went to communicate—and, not incidentally, to create a record of family history that would previously have been stored in old letters or emails. There were posts about trips, jobs, and a pet turtle that escaped and was finally found down the street in a slow-motion bid for freedom. My younger cousin got in trouble with the police, ran away from home, and eventually cleaned up his act. People were born, got married and divorced, grew ill and died.

“I was very conscious that we were creating family documentation,” said my uncle Dean, who posted detailed travel diaries about the research trips he made to Europe while researching his dissertation. “That’s just how I think.”

In the summer of 2014, Ancestry announced that it was shutting down MyFamily. It was OK, the company said, because we’d be able to export all the “family memories” we’d posted over the years. Ancestry community manager Cara Longpre promised in a post that “photos will be exported as .jpeg files, videos will be exported in the file format used to upload them, and discussion details will be exported as .txt files.” The site would close down for good in September 2014.

My aunt Amy, who was always the account administrator, had no reason not to trust Ancestry’s promise to export our data. So after she downloaded the 748-megabyte zip file that putatively contained our collected correspondence, she just let it sit on her computer. She was busy, after all: She runs an independent agricultural journal, stays active in the community, and had a kid headed off to college.

So when she finally opened the archive, a few months after MyFamily had gone to the great digital hereafter, she was horrified to find nothing but photos. More than a decade of written correspondence was missing.

“I trusted them,” Amy told me later. “If I hadn’t, I would have opened it up right away. In retrospect, I feel so foolish.”

Tom the Tomato.

Photo courtesy of Jon Christian

It wasn’t just us. It turns out that Ancestry didn’t bother to export discussion data for any former users. Reactions online, many from older people who ran sites to keep up with their adult children, are heartbreaking. “Several of my family website members were frequent contributors to the website as elders in the family, and all have now passed on,” wrote one former user. “We will now lose their historical memories, comments on photos, news items, recipes etc. that they left with us on the family websites. We, and they, thought we would have these memories preserved on our websites for future generations to share.”

“The minute that it became obvious that it was gone, I was aghast,” said my uncle Dean, who teaches history at Montana’s Carroll College.* “It’s like taking two boxes of old letters in your grandmother’s upstairs bedroom and tossing them in the trash.”

Ancestry consistently advertised MyFamily, which as of 2004 had attracted an impressive 1.5 million users, as a way to archive family history, once describing it as a way to “save stories, and record dates, so that your family can remember and share with other generations.” Until the summer before it shut down, the MyFamily homepage said that its “[u]nlimited storage space and SiteSafeSM technology keep all of your family memories safe and secure. No matter what.”

That’s why Ancestry’s decision not to give back the data still doesn’t make sense to me. It was certainly possible to export it properly; one of MyFamily’s competitors, Spokt, smelled opportunity when the closure was announced and built its own tool to scrape MyFamily data—including the discussions that my and other families lost—for a $69 flat fee. The problem was that you had to sign up for Spokt’s service while MyFamily was still live; it didn’t work for those of us who realized that our family memories had been erased only after the site was shuttered.

A former MyFamily software engineer told me that he was forced to preserve his own family discussions by manually saving every page of discussions as a PDF, a task he finished the last day before the site went dark. If I’d known we were going to lose our own records, I would have done the same.

Moreover, why not make an effort to warn users? My best guess is that Ancestry intended to export the data properly, hit a technical snag, and made the cynical decision to not follow through, in the hopes that nobody would call the company out on it.

But we’ll probably never know. Ancestry won’t share even basic information about the shutdown—representatives declined to tell me how many users the site had when the closure was announced, whose decision it was not to export the data, or even whether our family history is in fact gone forever or just languishing on some unplugged server. (The company did eventually provide an unattributed statement expressing regret for “any confusion or disappointment” due to the fact that it “ultimately determined it wasn’t feasible to return the discussion data,” and claiming that it worked with some customers to export the data with a third-party contractor, though a representative declined to connect me with a customer whose discussions had been successfully recovered in such a way.)

In the scheme of history, the Internet is still brand-new, and we’re still figuring out the norms that apply to the cloud. It’s natural to assume that service providers like Ancestry will be good custodians of our data, but toward the end of a product’s life, that understanding can be thrown out the window. “It is relatively common for this to happen,” Electronic Frontier Foundation representative Adi Kamdar, who advocates for better user control over data, told me with an audible sigh. “Whether it’s OK is a different question.”

The tragedy is that without a written record, memory is transient—and lost forever to the dead. Tom the Tomato eventually withered up and died, and my grandfather passed away a year or two later. My grandmother, an avid Wikipedian with exceptional recall, told me that she’d tried to remember important MyFamily posts to tell me about for this article. She was alarmed by the degree to which the memories had already started to fade.

“I wish I could come up with more concrete examples,” she said, pausing. “I was hoping they would come to me in a dream, as we read in stories.”

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

*Correction, April 23, 2015: This article originally misstated that Carroll College is in Wyoming. (Return.)