After getting a piece of information that unlocked a whole branch of my family tree last week, I've spent countless hours (and I do mean countless - I lost track of time on Friday and suddenly realized it was 2:30am and I should go to bed) down the rabbit hole of tracing that branch. The information is still unfolding, so this is going to be less about that and more about the sheer amount of information readily available online about complete strangers and the thoughts I've had while trawling digitized records.
Within an hour of getting the information, I was already able to track down the first node on the branch and their immediate relatives, including facebooks, instagrams, addresses, and way more information than could possibly ever be useful. I had photos, LinkedIn profiles, mutual connections, you name it. All from the public, free internet and within the first page of Google results. This wasn't even a deep crawl. It's pretty creepy when you see it all in aggregate and realize that at least that much information is available online about you.
After getting some cursory information and wanting to go a little further back in history, I decided to get myself a one-month subscription of Ancestry.com and see how much further I could go back. So far, I'm around the 1870s in Italy, but that wasn't before I took an accidental detour to the Irish Potato Famine when I didn't notice a birthdate mismatch. Also: Censuses are fascinating and I'm amazed at how some names just stick within families.
But back to the sheer amount of information: Handwritten draft cards going back to World War I, pre-phone-book-phone-books that let you figure out nearly every place a person lived during their lifetime. Taking the censuses through 1940 (1950 comes out in April!) and all of the public indices together, you can track the movements of families to a shocking level of detail. It does feel like more information than really should be available.
This came with the realization that, back then, people didn't really move beyond a mile radius of wherever they started when they got to the US. All of these people were in the same general area of a moderately large city for generations. They moved down the block, not to the other side of town or another state. Trades stuck with families for a while.
It's interesting to compare that to what seems "normal" today - at least when it comes to most of the people in my life. I've lost count of the number of times I've moved, but I left my hometown at 18 and never moved back, already breaking the pattern. I know very few people that had more than 3 or 4 kids in their family, and even fewer (non-first-generation-immigrant) households that were multigenerational.
It makes me wonder what people looking at our censuses in 72+ years will identify as trends. Will they be able to see the great migration "home" or to non-coastal-cities as a result of the pandemic? What will they see in the 2030 census? Will a population decrease be visible? What long-term impacts of the pandemic will be visible in the data? Will they be mapping it all alongside our preserved 23andme results and finding connections that were never captured in censuses? Will the high tech jobs of today feel like quaint and bygone trades like we see blacksmiths and tailors?
There's so much to unpack as you go back through even just one branch of a family tree, and then map that to the context of the time and place of that person or piece of data. As far as hobbies go, this one ticks a lot of puzzle-solving, brain-using, information-loving boxes for me. Might be a keeper, though there are some obvious dead ends already, so we'll see how things play out.