Has Facebook become the new family tree?

facebook genealogy

The electronic world has become increasingly central to family tree making as people use software packages to build genealogical charts, and increasing numbers search on-line for their roots. A news story from 5 April 2014 identifies the ten best apps “to help you find your relatives”. But do our roots lie in family trees – is it our ancestors who make us up? Or does the internet provide us with an alternative model of composition – that of the “rhizome”, epitomised by social networking sites such as Facebook?

Making trees

Creating family trees can be exciting and satisfying as time, effort and ingenuity generate new discoveries. Trees identify ancestors, lineage, and complex family relationships. As one story put it: “Jonathan was the band leader at our son’s bar mitzvah… As it turns out, Jonathan also is part of my family tree (through marriage). His great aunt was the niece of my second cousin four times removed.”

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But, in the process family trees also police who counts as family. There is no ‘grey’ area: you are on the tree or you’re not.

Families though aren’t that straight-forward, and who gets counted can be the subject of conflict or dispute. Historically, illegitimate children were left off; today it may be same-sex or unmarried partners, particularly when no children have been born (organised around reproduction, where couples don’t have children, the partner is of little interest to the tree). A new uncertain terrain is the biological off-spring of sperm and egg donors.

Who gets to count?

Family trees trumpet biological connection, but those not claimed as one’s children – those, for instance, given up for adoption – are often lost to genealogy. Thus, trees produce authorised versions – the ‘social’ rather than biological family even as they claim to show us where our genes have come from. We can see the emphasis on socially accepted family connections in the resistance that sometimes greets people who use DNA tests to “fill in” their trees, and who then claim kinship in ways that trouble the settled histories and conventional narratives of others.

Family trees are normative in many respects. They ask for (and so assume the ongoing importance of) marriage dates; some contemporary software includes occupations as well. Trees produce fertile trunks and branches – those who extend the “line” by going forth and multiplying; they also produce dead ends – limbs or branches which go nowhere: not only the childless child but the descendant with social and interpersonal networks that do not count for the family tree maker (or the logic of the tree) as includable off-spring. Not only are “families of choice” left out, so too are a member’s art-work, stuffed toys, pets, novels, compositions or gardens (although they may sometimes be playfully entered, for instance by the indulgent parent who doesn’t want their children to feel disenfranchised by being – and it’s usually assumed briefly – a final nodal point).

Tree-like thinking

Family trees exemplify what the French philosopher Giles Deleuze described as “arborescent” (or tree-like) thinking. This kind of thinking emphasises order, hierarchy and categories. In family trees, you are positioned and your position is largely fixed. You aren’t going to move place unless new information (eg, on your parentage) demonstrates the previous settled knowledge was false. While family trees are seen as representational – a visual way of showing a line of descent, they are also performative. In other words, family trees “do” things – in particular, they confirm and solidify what a particular family looks like. But in doing so, they produce an image which reflects some family members’ sense of family far more than that of others.

But if family trees are limited or problematic in their representation of family or of the networks which compose us, what other possibilities are there? Facebook offers a very different model of composition. Instead of being hierarchical and orderly, it resembles far more closely what Deleuze described as “rhizomatic” thinking.

ginger

Rhizomes are like weeds or tubers that grow unevenly, following new lines of vitality, mutating in diverse ways, with no predictable or controlled shape, no centre and no single direction. Potatoes or ginger show how protuberances in a rhizome can come up in different places, sometimes leading to further bulbous growth, sometimes not. Facebook is like this.

A less orderly form of growth

Facebook “friends” can be densely concentrated in some areas of life – one’s class at school, for instance; less populated in others. Facebook networks can grow swiftly – following a particular line; they have multiple points of origin, and multiple points of connection. Describing its rhizomatic quality, Alex Monea writes: “A Facebook user is constantly and directly plugged into the daily banalities and idle thoughts of every one in her friend-base.”

Facebook networks have no obvious order or limits in who can be included; friends and acquaintances – but also pets, companies, products, social movements – a cast, if you like, of virtual characters.

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Facebook is not entirely without order as Taina Bucher interestingly explores. As people’s friendship networks grow, Facebook uses programming algorithms to structure networks hierarchically; people can choose to hear news from some more than others, and different friends can be subject to different privacy settings. But, unlike family trees, Facebook hierarchies work as a series of structured possibilities that members can influence and creatively deploy. Facebook lacks the standardisation of the family tree: unified according to the internal, hierarchical logic of its tree-like structure.

What about our roots? 

Isn’t there a fundamental difference between the family tree and social networking? Family trees are about the genealogy that produced us; social networking involves current and ongoing ties.

Family trees though are not the only way of representing the networks which compose us. Sites, such as Facebook, are just as much concerned with who we are. They may focus less on where we have come from, but they recognise the important point that our identities and being are the result of many networks and forces, from political causes, to music tastes, arts, work, and interests.

Social networking sites also show that what composes us keeps changing. We don’t have a single set of roots (already determined); rather we put down roots in a myriad of places as we go on living.

It’s tempting to suggest social network sites offer more radical paradigms of connection than hierarchical, overly orderly family trees. But just as social networking sites provide an alternative genealogy and form of archive re-inscribing who we are and where we came from, family trees may, paradoxically, provide an alternative, perhaps more radical, basis for social networking.

Networking through trees?

At first glance, this seems unlikely. Even more than social networking sites, family trees seem to be based on social proximity and sameness. Yet, as several Facebook researchers have argued, social networking sites are oriented to common interests and social contiguity. By contrast, the pleasure, excitement and challenge of the family tree arise from uncovering unexpected connections –an ancestor from an unexpected country or with surprising interests, experiences and class. Making and re-making family trees requires collaboration, drawing information from people who may be socially and geographically distant; it involves emails and letters and visits, searching out unknown distant kin. Family trees put people into contact, with very little in common, who otherwise would never meet.

So rather than arguing for the rhizome over the tree, we might see rhizomes as providing interesting representations of who we are and where we have come from, maintaining the complexity and haphazardness of our roots and routes. But when it comes to establishing new weak ties, the systemic structure of the tree – whose logic doesn’t follow our interests or affinities – may put us in touch with people (present and past) that otherwise we’d never approach.

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