Nostalgic Interactivity and Family Records

Given the readings this week and the first responses to them, including my own, it’s clear that nostalgic interactivity (Kurlinkus) was the hit of the week. It’s interesting how much we prefer creating nostalgic spaces and building stories and spaces about them in the virtual realm to working out the details of hybrid makerspaces. In reality, that’s probably not entirely true. It’s just that the overhead (in terms of resources and effort) is so much less. There’s already a robust infrastructure in place for nostalgic interactivity. Once you open your eyes to it, it is literally everywhere.

I’ve been tinkering with my family tree for a couple of months now in various web spaces (Ancestry, MyHeritage, Geni) triggered by a DNA test that I got for Christmas. My aunt and cousin have been working on it for years, and digital tools have speeded up the process of tracking and connecting astronomically–as well as speeding up the ability to make sweeping, vast errors in a matter of seconds by clicking on a bad record. Family record keeping is interactive nostalgia, creating a sense of belonging to people long dead, and in the case of my father’s family who were actually American pioneers of a type, related to if not actual players in certain chapters of history we studied about in school (and saw glamorized on shows like Gunsmoke and the John Adams Chronicles), the potential for dramatic narrative building is pretty much a rush.  Also, I found out that I might be a cousin to George Clooney. EPIC WIN.

In “Memorial Interactivity: Scaffolding Nostalgic User Experiences,” William C. Kurlinkus considers how nostalgia, ephemera, and ritual function.  User engagement peaks with their knowing (or unknowing) inclusion. In modern genealogy infused by the new craze of DNA testing as promoted through Ancestry, 23 and Me (hyped up even more through the participation of icons like Henry Gates Jr.), and FamilyTree DNA, user inclusion becomes incredibly personal and intimate–scraped off of the inside of a cheek or spit up into a tube, the same procedure one goes through to determine paternity on Maury Povitch or prove one’s innocence at the police station. But it’s willing participation, not coerced, and therefore, it can be fun. (Fun for me, at least, because it’s entertainment-based:  I am quite sure of my parentage; not so much fun for those who are trying to ascertain their parentage, and many people are using it for serious purposes, such as finding unknown parentage or determining whether they are carriers of a deadly genetic disease. But at some point, every genealogy has its tragic overtones.  I have at least one ancestor who owned slaves and left a “Negro girl” to one of his sons in a will that you can read online. One was a poor photographer (God knows, in the 19th-century cameras must have been doggone pricey as well as difficult to tote around) who went to jail for holding up a stagecoach with his brother the town dance instructor–tragic though this is, it would make a fine Broadway musical, and Abraham Lincoln (2nd cousin sixth times removed) got shot going to the theater. You know that story.) With a bit of research, all these stories have a home on the internet.

There’s a fairly elaborate system, a hybrid of physical and digital, for sending your spit to the lab. You activate it before you spit into the little tube, and get a congratulatory message on the website, which will inform you graphically with a check or little progress bar after the spit arrives to the lab and is checked in. After being checked for “sufficient DNA,” it goes through several stages of checking and processing which are illustrated (on the Ancestry site) by a progress bar. Ancestry has the digital side of things worked out very well for commercial popularization, with encouraging messages to start your family tree while waiting for results of the DNA test, and sample ancestry reports to read. FamilyTree’s website is less slick, but boasts more sophisticated (and expensive) tests to identify one’s maternal and paternal haplogroups. The economy-level test that most people go for is autosomnal DNA, which identifies chromosomal information from both parents and can be done by either male or female participants.  The labs will upload your raw data to the website and link it to the data of other participants who allow their data to be shared with potential relations. FamilyDNA and MyHeritage have chromosome browsers, which “paint” your chromosomes online for you and show how they overlap with the chromosomes of participating matches.

All of the popular labs and their corresponding websites offer “ancestry reports,” which is perhaps the most popular feature–even more so than the prospect (somewhat scary) of finding new actual relatives to talk to online. But the ancestry reports are perhaps the sketchiest part, or the most fictionalized part, of the DNA story. Ancestry reports offer attractive graphs that attempt to break down one’s DNA into recognizable ethnicities. The translation of a human mix of ancient and modern DNA into recognizable ethnic categories is only made possible by a substantial pool of DNA from self-identified family lines to draw from and a good imagination. For example, my family is identified as German on one side and “Brit mix” on the other, but my DNA is much more heterogenous according to the FamilyTree and MyHeritage reports. If I download my raw data (an option that is given) and upload it to the professional open source website GEDMATCH, I have a whole host of alternative tools to analyze the data, including many experimental “admixture” tools that break down ancestry using older, more professional categories like European hunter/gatherer and Caucasian (which means something different than “white), South Baltic, etc. The forums for all of these sites is filled with people at different levels of study, from those who angrily demand to know why they have “unexplainable” trace “Nigerian” in their readout to those who seem to already have Ph.D.s in genetics or anthropology. But one of the most interesting aspects of the stories that arise from the “ancestry reports” are the ways in which I am able to glean a narrative of history far beyond myself that I have materialized. For example, sizable Scandinavian DNA points to Viking invasions of the British Isles, and Mediterranean “Italian” DNA to Roman colonization of the same. Every body is a battleground of history.

The piecing together of a family tree that goes back centuries is actually less personal than DNA testing, but it’s still personal enough. You start with your own family, which is very personal, but by the time you’ve been able to trace back five or six generations, chances are very good that the “room” is getting very crowded. In a month’s time, my family tree had expanded to 1800, with daily “smart matches” coming into my notification from mostly the U.S., but also from England, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. The hive mind is alive and well in family records, and people are very quick to click on smart matches, add new branches to their trees, and accept incoming information. Sometimes I’ve noticed that I made a mistake and people have already added my error to their own records, all within a matter of days. Family records online are essentially now a series of wikis, and one needs to use the same discretion that one uses consulting Wikipedia.

In a sense, this is a long warm-up for a more concrete tie-in to the week’s readings about nostalgic interactivity AND makerspaces. Here you go.  The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints opened a Family History Library Interactive Experience center last February: “a 10,139-square-foot area full of interactive discovery experiences.”

“Compare-a-Face,” “All About Me,” and “Replace-a-Face” put the user in the center of every aspect of history that may involve her or her family.  The environment is advertised as a physical center but the experience is hybrid. Although several of the features on the website are not yet active, they promise to be accessible from the web browser at home as well as on the physical site. As with most of these online sites, an account is needed (and it will be behind some kind of paywall–if you want to know about what your DNA and family records tell you, you need to pay other “experts” to provide access to that information).

The Center is equipped with technology for those who wish to make the trip:

The discovery experiences at the Family History Library include more than 100 custom iPads, 44 touch-screen monitors, and 42 computers with research and discovery-experience capability. Six recording studios create free, high-definition audio and video recordings that will preserve treasured family memories for future generations.

Youth will enjoy the life-sized, touch-screen computer monitors for some of the interactive stations. In addition, an enclosed space for parents with smaller children allows these parents to explore their family history while also being able to watch their children play. A fun green screen allows guests to choose from a variety of themed backgrounds to create a lasting photo memory of their visit to the discovery experiences.

I’m actually fairly glad that it took this long for me to discovered the “important” connections in my family tree, both nefarious and luminous (because for one thing, I know how self-important that sounds). If you have enough self-awareness to call the Ice Bucket Challenge “slacktivism,” does that make you a better person?

4 Replies to “Nostalgic Interactivity and Family Records”

  1. Professor Davidson,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about these DNA programs a lot ever since I found a few articles last summer detailing the experience of white supremacists and members of the alt-right who use them. One example: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/white-supremacists-respond-genetics-say-theyre-not-white

    I also really liked how the digital quest to create a family tree made you able to describe your body “as a battleground of history” and to narrativize your ancestry. I am reminded again of Hayles’s discussion of the importance of the body even in virtual or digital spaces. It’s fascinating to consider how the “flickering signifiers” of the internet could help you to materialize your family history.

    1. I thought I’d replied to this but didn’t. Flickering signifiers is a great concept to bring in here. Some of the sites allow you to browse the raw data of your DNA. 23andMe has textual output, so the entire genome becomes alphabetized. You can see textual output of variations. A mutation can be represented by repeating letters, and becomes a mirror of a glitch you might see in a line of computer code, or even the glitchy text you see in a conversion of a Word file by a program that’s not entirely compatible.

  2. Caterina, I did not know that about the Native American being hard to prove. I know Ancestry has limitations. 23andMe might be able to pinpoint it better but I’m not sure. I look totally white, of course, but we had a family legend of some Native American blood, and I was looking forward to finding a bit of it (and got nada, although I did get a trace of African on some readings through GEDMATCH and MyHeritage). There is a mysterious unidentified female, or two, in the 19th-century which could be a POC or could just be bad record-keeping. I’m pretty sure I have found my post-retirement hobby 😀 My retired friend is working on a tree with over 9000 (no Anonymous jokes intended) people in it. Good luck finding out your family stories!

  3. Hi Professor Davidson,

    I love the example of ancestry.com! Because of my extremely mixed background I tried to pin down some relatives, but it is so difficult because of different last names (also, half the men on my dad’s side have the same first and last name which also happens to be a pretty common name…so that adds to the confusion). I’ve also done the DNA test which actually isn’t so helpful in my case. In order to prove Native American blood these test results do not count (https://www.theroot.com/how-do-i-legally-prove-native-american-ancestry-1790877932). I did it for fun anyway. Also, random family fact – according to family tales, my paternal grandfather has “Black” listed on his birth certificate because his parents did not want him listed as “Native American.” But I can’t say for sure if this was the case, or if the hospital made an honest mistake (https://www.ancestry.com/boards/topics.ethnic.natam.intertribal.ga/1130/mb.ashx).

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