Apology to Terry Thornton

I attempted to post this entire apology on Terry’s blog “Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi” but it exceeded the 4,096 character limit for comments.


So I posted part of the comment there, and the entire apology here.

Terry, I want to add my sincere apology to Nathan’s. We have made more than one mistake in the 8 days since GenealogyWise debuted. Censoring your comment was completely inappropriate, and the moment I heard about it (I was in a meeting with FamilySearch in Salt Lake City at the time) I said, we need to apologize and to establish a policy of not censoring any criticisms of GW.

The earlier mistake was creating a contest that was a marketing gimmick that had the potential to spoil the legitimate community experience of GW users. I apologize for that too.

May I share with you a little background about myself and some of our team?

I founded Ancestry.com in 1996 and in the early years was very proud of what our company was doing, how we kept our prices reasonable, and how we supported and encouraged a thriving genealogical community. By 2001 prices started to get out of control (imho), the support for a free MyFamily.com disappeared, and Rootsweb started getting far less resources and attention. I had led the effort for MyFamily.com to acquire Rootsweb because I loved how that site operated and allowed so many people to set up mailing lists, host content, and enable genealogical collaboration–all for free. I was very disappointed when MyFamily (where I was by then 1 of 9 board members and a tiny minority shareholder) go from like 17 full-time people supporting Rootsweb to only 2 or 3.

So, I have a long history in the genealogical community. So does some of our team at FamilyLink. But some of our 60 employees and contractors are very new to the genealogical space. They are gifted entrepreneurs, designers, and product managers. Some have even built online communities before. But no community, in my experience, is anything like the genealogical community. And everyone on our team needs to learn what is unique about this community, and how to enable it, and never cross it. We aren’t off to a great start at GW, but we learn quickly. And as everyone can see, we connect in real time via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this, so that we can respond immediately to concerns or complaints. We’ll add more personnel very soon so we can cover all the boards and forums, not just some of them.

I left Ancestry/MyFamily.com/TGN/Ancestry.com back in February 2002, but I missed this industry so much. Finally, in 2006, several of the original Ancestry.com team came back together and launched WorldVitalRecords.com first, then a social genealogy site which later became FamilyHistoryLink.com. But our first real, completely supported and very robust genealogical social network is GenealogyWise.

We are extremely excited about creating a very open, free, robust community with all the genealogical features the community wants. GW has the potential to become the next Rootsweb. But instead of cutting support staff, we’ll be adding to it as fast as we need to.

We are looking at building applications on top of the API that societies and individual genealogists will find very engaging. As we add GenSeek and GenStream functionality to GW and potentially free hosting for all kinds of society databases, we think GW will serve the needs of millions of genealogists worldwide.

For this reason, our missteps in our first 8 days are very painful for all of us that sincerely want to create the best social network for genealogy. Again, I personally apologize for our deleting your comments and for launching that $800 contest.

To put our money where our mouse is (and to show our good intentions and our sincerity), we will send a check for $801 to the Itawamba Historical Society, at the above listed address. It should arrive by next week. We will also send $801 to the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, which is an organization that does a lot of good for a lot of people. I know they have had trouble with hosting expenses and servers. If you don’t consider them a non-profit (I don’t know how they are organized or incorporated) then we’ll send $801 to another genealogical group.

Having been in this industry since 1996, I know hundreds of wonderful genealogists all over the world, and there are dozens of society leaders than I know personally and would love to find ways to support.

In fact, supporting societies has always been one of my goals, dating back to the “Society Hall” feature of Ancestry.com in the early days.

If you want to see something that is both interesting and also dates me, in terms of my involvement in the online genealogy industry, check out this Internet Archive link that shows the original Ancestry.com site back in 1996.


I personally designed the logo (I apologize for this too!) and have never designed one since.

My point in showing you the 1996 Ancestry which several people on the current FamilyLink team developed, is that we care deeply about starting small and creating something really useful and helpful for the millions of genealogists who devote so much of their lives to researching their ancestors, and preserving the records and stories which add so much meaning to life.

I don’t know what else I can personally say in this comment that will indicate how sorry I am, and how sorry we as a company are, that we made these mistakes. I will say that last night on my iPhone (after about a 12 hour work day) I read all of the 73 comments in the thread at GW about censorship policies. (Now there are 96)

Yesterday we announced a new full-time community manager for GW, Gena Ortega, who publishes the WorldVitalRecords blog and newsletter and has a lot of experience in the industry. In addition, we’ve added a full-time developer, Casidy Andersen, and we’ll be adding more personnel to help build the features of GW that I mentioned earlier and to interact with the community.

If the community flees from GW now because of our mistakes (and lack of a clear policy about inappropriate content), I think everyone loses. We can’t build a community site without the community–no matter how feature rich it is.

But we want to invest in building something you and others in the community will love. We’re in  a unique position to do this.

I spoke at a BYU genealogy conference a year ago and said that the commercial genealogy industry worldwide is actually tiny–far smaller than most of us think. I figure there are probably less than 10 companies worldwide that actually have 10 or more full-time people building genealogical products. There are hundreds of wonderful small companies, too, but very few that have a full team dedicated to building great products for the community.

Because we have 50 million users of our Facebook application, We’re Related, which is primarily an application for families to find living relatives, and because that application is advertising supported, we have had enough revenue to been able to hire dozens of people in the last 6 months to help build our family, genealogy, and history applications.

We want to build the best products that we can, to help everyone in their individual quests to find ancestors and connect with living relatives. We feel satisfaction from every success story we hear.

If you’ll accept my apology, and appreciate our sincerity, and if we (everyone at GW) will learn to respect you and all other genealogists for their opinions and the right to express them — then perhaps all of us can pull together and build something remarkable and free that will bring together the genealogists of the world (and their families) in a special way.

I truly hope so. And I hope you’ll accept this apology and receive the check as a token of our respect for you and all volunteers at all non-profit genealogical and historical societies everywhere.

18 thoughts on “Apology to Terry Thornton

  1. Paul,

    Your gracious apology is both received and accepted. Your efforts to build a community of like-minded people who have interest in genealogy, family history, and local history and lore are well known and appreciated.

    I am certain the non-profit historical society, Itawamba Historical Society of Mississippi will and can put your donation to good use as will the other group you identified. On behave of the Itawamba Historical Society, please allow me to thank you for this donation.

    Thank for your attention to the problem of censorship at GenealogyWise and for establishing policies that both permit and foster continuing debate. Because of your attention, perhaps other members of GenealogyWise can henceforth participate in discussions without the fear of having their words removed without cause.

    I wish you and GenealogyWise the very best of success.

    Terry Thornton
    Fulton, Mississippi

  2. Paul,

    Thank you for apologizing to Terry and the community, and for being so open about this issue. And for fixing it quickly.

    I certainly understand how “things happen in a moment that take a lifetime to explain” GenealogyWise broke quickly, and probably prematurely (and I know that I posted about it before the official announcement, but that’s what blogging and “reporting” is all about). Growing pains are typical for most endeavors.

    I wish you all the best in your genealogical entrepreneur endeavors – many of us wait for the next announcement, or the next tweet, for info about the FamilyLink properties.

  3. Paul

    I could tell that your apology was from the heart as well as the mind – I greatly appreciate it not only for myself but on behalf of many genealogy bloggers who were quite stressed over the censorship issue.

    I believe you are spot on in many of your points as to the genealogy industry – and I love the backstory that you’ve provided on how you got started, your involvement with Ancestry, etc. And I know your donations to Itawamba Historical Society and Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness will be put to good use – a very gracious act and one that is to be admired.

    Community is vital to people – it really is what we yearn for and the Internet and social media have helped open up new frontiers for genealogists. I think GenealogyWise can be a vital component and I am looking forward to what the future brings.

    Thomas MacEntee

  4. Paul,

    Well done for publicly admitting mistakes were made. The genealogy community (and the bloggers in particular) are a close, supportive community and they will be vital to the success of genealogywise.

  5. I would like to give a standing ovation to Genealogy Wise. To have the creators able to stand up and apologize for mistakes makes Genealogy Wise feel like a real home. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. To have a company be able to say “Oops! Sorry about that one,” and be sincere brings great warmth to my heart. I am very excited to see Genealogy Wise continue to grow into “the genealogy social networking site.”

    Jennifer Eklund

  6. Paul, thank you for your frank and open apology to Terry and the genealogical community.

    I firmly believe that every corporate entity needs a staff member – with a broad view of the industry involved and its group dynamics – whose job it is to ask the first vital question about any plan.

    That question is “Yes, we can do such-and-such, but SHOULD we?” After reviewing proposed actions and possible consequences for each, then the question should be asked.

    This would have made the censorship and contest issues non-starters, and would have avoided the current GW damage control effort.

    Again thank you for your apology. I look forward to GW’s future.

  7. Good Afternoon Mr. Allen,

    I’ll be damned, there are a few big guys at the top who actually pay attention. Thank you for restoring my faith.

    Thank you also for your apology to Terry Thornton.

    You sir, are a gentleman.


    Sheri Fenley
    The Educated Genealogist

  8. Paul,

    Thank you for taking the time to formally apologize to Terry and the genealogical community regarding this issue. It takes a big person to stand up and admit fault, and I appreciate that you did this on behalf of yourself and your company.

    I do think that GW can be an extremely helpful tool for all of us involved in genealogy. That said, it is important to keep your ducks in a row over the next few weeks, as I believe another faux paux could be devastating.

    Best Regards,


  9. Paul,

    Thank you for your apology to Terry Thornton. I now look forward to enjoying participatting on GenealogyWise.

    Terry, Please come back!!!! We miss you!!!

  10. I, too, am impressed by this apology, Paul, and also impressed with Terry’s acceptance.

    By opening dialogue in a time of conflict, it has shown me that resolution IS possible…

    Thank you!!

    Yes…Terry…please come back!!

  11. Paul,

    I really appreciate this apology – it not only shows that you are a man of grace, but that you also run a company that is willing to admit when they’ve done wrong. You’ve improved the image of your company to everyone.

    Your apology could not have been more sincere, and I greatly appreciate that. By taking this issue seriously, I think that you saved your company. Your donations to these groups were also very kind.


  12. Mr. Allen:

    Kudos to you for having the sensitivity and courage to say, “My bad.” This was, to me, a serious issue, enough for me to decline to join GW. It has been said of me that my opinions often have a pH of 1, and I would not stand for being censored, myself, and was not happy at what initially happened to Terry.

    However, you have shown that the First Amendment lives in the genealogical community, and I will now consider joining GW and participating. When I read other blogs’ accounts of what had sparked Terry’s comments and subsequent removal — the contest — I considered the contest to be a bad idea, not consonant with the tone we want in a genealogical website. I didn’t want any part of that, either.

    Again, you have showed that you and your company have the capacity to step back and examine an action and realize that perhaps it was not completely well thought-out. Kudos for that, as well.

    See you on GW.

  13. Isn’t it wonderful when someone at the top can listen and learn?

    Such interactivity with users is to be encouraged, and will make GW a better site for all concerned.

    This was a sticky wicket to get through. Every new venture has its challenges.

    Keep up the good work,

  14. Paul,

    An excellent and sincere piece. I can detect already a change about GW. You’ve created what I think is a unique space with great potential. You deserve a chance to see it thrive.

  15. Paul,

    Your donation to the Itawamba Historical Society, Mantachie, Mississippi, was received yesterday. At the society’s regular monthly meeting last evening, your donation was announced to the group and your gift was warmly received.

    I wish that you and members of your organization could have been present at the meeting — Pledge of Allegiance, devotional, dinner, business, and then a program about the history of bluegrass music followed by a five-member band playing some of the best of bluegrass. Interest in heritage and history is alive and well in Itawamba County as evidenced by the huge crowd which filled the auditorium to capacity. I hope those of you in the genealogy corporate world can find opportunities to experience the efforts to preserve local history at the grassroots level by attending such activities and by directly observing the facilities and research tools being made available through volunteer efforts of active and growing historical societies.

    The Itawamba County Historical Society welcomes you to its facilities at the corner of Church Street and Museum Drive in Mantachie. The George Poteet Center houses the society’s library, offices, and auditorium. On-site is also the Society’s restored Bond’s House and Museum which provides many opportunities to learn about history by walking through an authentic farm house filled with period artifacts. And the Society maintains a strong online presence at http://www.itawambahistory.org — it also publishes a quarterly print publication, ITAWAMBA SETTLERS.

    Yes, your donation will be put to good use and is most appreciated. Thank you for your gift.


    William T. “Terry” Thornton
    Fulton, Mississippi

  16. Sounds like you’re on the right track and I wanted to share a similar experience I had in a similar setting.
    I was heavily involved for a while in an independant online community (Kivafriends at http://www.kivafriends.org/) whose primary purpose was to support the work of Kiva.org (a non-profit microlending organization).
    At one point there was a great deal of criticism on Kivafriends forums – some of it well reasoned (in the style of T.Thornton’s) and some of it rather unconstructive and threatening to Kiva.org Microlending’s image.
    One thing Kiva.org did was to appoint an official community liason who could bring Kivafriends concerns to KIVA staff on a regular basis. It looks like you’re going to have the resources to handle these issues with increased staff of your own, but if you do run into problems again, it might be a good idea to have one or more well-respected members of the users’ community act as liasons (like T.Thornton for instance, smile).
    A last point – there’s no question that GenealogyWise has a lot of potential but the non-profit/commercial mix of the site is something that will take some getting used to, so I know that some of us (certainly me) have some reservations. I was heartened by the integrity shown in your explanation.
    Evelyn Yvonne Theriault

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