The Mask Comes Off - The Night of the Long Knives Find A Grave Edition

By Chris Mills

I have been a big fan of Find A Grave over the years, to the point where I have created almost half a million memorials on the site. However, I have had differences of opinion with them before. For instance, they did something two and a half years ago that made me incredibly angry, but I was persuaded to calm down and keep working on the site.

One of the reasons I calmed down was that I was able to set up accounts to offload most of my memorials to and got people to help me maintain those accounts. Any one on the site who has maintained more than, say, 50,000 memorials knows what a chore it can be. I was very lucky to find people that could help me, and in some cases I offloaded these memorials and walked away from them, and never worried about them again because I knew they were in good hands with the people (or groups) I had transferred them to.

One of the group accounts I created was called Tropico Gravers, to handle memorials set up in the Forest Lawn Glendale memorial park. As of last week it maintained approximately 205,000 memorials. It not only managed memorials I had created, but memorials created by other contributors on the site who were not interested in maintaining the memorials, but wanted to document what they had found.

I had set up Tropico Gravers over three years ago, although it did not begin serving the role it eventually morphed into until about two and a half years ago. In all the time that Kathy Salazar and I (and for a while Romper90069) ran the account, only once were we ever notified that there might be a potential problem with it, and that was two months ago. Find A Grave said they could not bulk transfer about 7,000 memorials from another member who didn't want to maintain them to Tropico. So this was the first time we even had a whiff of an idea that there was any kind of problem.

Last Monday I was online and at some point I tried to go to the Tropico Gravers home page, and I received the following message:

Record Not Available

I immediately emailed AJ Marik, who is one of the senior administrators on the site. I have had some scraps with him before (always tempered by the fact that I knew he could shut down my account, and on his side probably somewhat tempered by the fact that he knew I was a Top 10 memorial creator on the site), but have also had some very productive interactions with him.

By the way, this was done with absolutely no notice. They had our email address for Tropico, as well as my email address, which I'm sure it would have been easy enough for someone to look up. The email address for Tropico still works, it is on the server for my domain, and there has never been a problem with it.

This is what I got back from AJ, later that day:

"Ancestry considers members running multiple accounts a violation of terms of service (so did Jim Tipton). We, as curators of Find a Grave, are instructed to close, remove, merge, or delete multiple and/or group accounts depending on the situation. Right now, your accounts are pending a final decision. Your role in that decision is to decide whether you want us to transfer the memorials to your original account, or close the accounts and have Find a Grave manage the memorials. Just let us know."

I replied to AJ, and I sent him a link to the following page, which is the edit policies we had set up for Tropico Gravers in case Kathy and I found other people to help us maintain the account.

Tropico Gravers Edit Policies

Along with that link, I asked AJ these questions:

"Two questions: Are the staff at Find A Grave willing to do this work? And do you really think one person should have to do this much work, without any help?"

I also asked AJ if they were aware that they still have a bug in the edit system which allows a contributor to attempt to link someone as their own spouse or their own parent. I brought that up because on Tropico we were getting some of these edits every week.

I sent another email to AJ with the following two paragraphs. To date there has not been any response from him on any of the questions I have brought up.

"This has the potential of being really problematic if you guys are going after accounts that have been operating this way for years. I understand you can do what you want with the site but the whole thing is run on volunteers. If you make it too difficult for them or make them feel like they are not appreciated, they will go elsewhere or they will just stop working on the site. The site management needs to decide if it is willing to risk alienating some of the most productive members on the site because of this "terms of service" issue."

"If you have the email address of someone at where we as a community could weigh in on these issues, I would appreciate it. When I called there a couple of months ago I ended up getting put into the voicemail of someone who was apparently in charge of a team of programmers, and that was not who I was looking for."

So this is where things stand now. I have still not given AJ an answer on the Tropico memorials, and I think I am just refusing to do so at this point out of stubbornness.

I sent out emails to about 25 people on the site after this happened, and then found out a couple of days later that Find A Grave had shut down another group account I had set up for my memorials in Forest Lawn Long Beach and Forest Lawn Cypress. There were around half a dozen people who were working on that account together and some of them are now understandably quite angry.

I have tried to fathom why Find A Grave would take this step. All I get from AJ is that it is now Ancestry policy (but making it clear that it was ALWAYS Find A Grave policy as well, although they NEVER enforced it before). But AJ will not tell me who is making these decisions at Ancestry or how to get hold of anyone there who might have some influence over these decision.

Here is the thing. Kathy and I did our best to make sure the edits we accepted were legitimate and accurate, in spite of the damned edit system (which defaults to "accept" everything that comes in, with no way to change that default). I am now convinced the edit system they rolled out two years ago is just a giant rubber-stamp machine, and it may in fact have been implemented as a device to facilitate Find A Grave taking control of the majority of the memorials on the site.

Kathy and I were doing this work for free. The only "work" the Find A Grave staff will do on these memorials is to hit the "Process selected edits" on every edit screen they control. My God, these are the same people who can take a month to process a simple memorial merge request because they are so busy (or so they claim). The same people who can't bother responding to emails because they are so busy. But they have just seized 258,000 memorials because they cannot tolerate "group" accounts on the site.

Find A Grave has fostered an illusion that they are a site like Wikipedia, a site that is run by and for the community it represents. Find A Grave was owned by Jim Tipton before he sold it to, and of course for almost the last two years it has been owned by Ancestry, which in its turn is owned by the global investment firm Permira and unknown co-investors.

Look, I have no problem with someone making a buck or two (or even three or four, LOL). But Find A Grave's success is built on the labor of the volunteers who have created the vast majority of the memorials on the site. And here's the rub. They have used us to build the site up, but they don't respect our opinions, and they don't value our time other than as something they can exploit. If they can treat me this way (and I am still in the Top 10 on the site in terms of memorials created, or at least I was until last week), they can steamroller over any contributor or set of contributors they want to. It is THEIR site, not OURS. And they have made it clear they can do anything they want to with the site or the memorials.

As far as this malarkey about the "group" accounts goes, the only thing I can think of that makes any sense to me is that Find A Grave knows they will eventually by default control most of the memorials on the site, as contributors die off or burn out or whatever. Even though they say you can designate a trustee for your memorials when you pass on, my suspicion is that most people will not exercise that option, or their trustee will not outlast them, or will decline the offer. It is possible that because the "group" accounts could theoretically go on indefinitely, Find A Grave views them as a threat to their potential control of all the created memorials, and they are acting now to end that threat.

It is also possible they just thought we were too big for our britches. If that is the case I plead guilty as charged. I have done a lot of work on the site and I have not hesitated to tell them when they made mistakes (such as the time they were running merge queries on Forest Lawn that wiped out 50 good memorials at a time and corrupted 50 other memorials) or when they were being assholes.

I will not completely end my involvement with Find A Grave now, that wouldn't be fair to the other contributors who have done nothing wrong. But I am going to start pulling my photos as I have time. If they do anything to hinder me from removing my photos it will be very interesting then to find out if Find A Grave actually does follow the policies that say that you own your own photographs. Anything they do that casts that policy into doubt could have a major impact on people posting photos on the site.

I will no longer create memorials or post photos. A number of the people I have spoken to about this will continue to do volunteer photo requests and maintain any memorials they still control, but nothing else. Other contributors have asked me if there is any way to bulk delete their memorials. I don't know of any way to do that. I also have a feeling that if too many of your memorials start getting deleted that you may find your account abruptly suspended, for some unknown violation of the "terms of service". I hope I'm wrong, but cannot rule anything out.

I am working on a site of my own, I doubt if it will ever be anything which might be of a size to threaten Find A Grave, but it will be a site where my work and the work of the people who contribute to it will be respected and protected.

Without getting into the literary merits (or lack thereof) of Ayn Rand, to me this is a John Galt moment. No doubt people like Jim Tipton see themselves as the creative geniuses of this world. I will give him credit, he did come up with a brilliant idea and executed it well for many years. But he did it on the labor of other people, once he got the initial setup going. It is one thing for those people not to be paid. It is quite another for them not to be respected, and to be treated like dirt by those who have profited from their labor.

I am also washing my hands of the memorials I no longer control. The automated edit system and the way Find A Grave is using it absolutely guarantees that more and more memorials are going to get corrupted by people wandering around the site who have no idea how to do research or to figure out if the information they're trying to submit is accurate or is even for the right person. We were trying to improve Find A Grave. The edit system will improve some memorials, but it will ruin a lot of other ones. Over time I think Find A Grave will become more and more like, which is littered with bad information entered by clueless contributors.

Please forward this link to anyone else on the site who you think should know about what is going on. I apologize for my wordiness, but not for the sentiments expressed therein.

A follow on article based on feedback to the first article and subsequent observations on my part

Page created 22 August 2015

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