Modern Software Experience

2009-02-12

Geni.com

introduction

Geni.com was introduced on 2007 Jan 16. In a blog post on the corporate blog, CEO David Sacks wrote:

Hi and welcome to Geni, a new website with an ambitious goal: to create a family tree of the whole world!

You can start creating your family tree on our homepage through (what we hope is) a fun simple interface. It’s extremely fast to build your tree by clicking the yellow arrows in the direction you want to add new family members. As you’ll notice, there is no software download required, no lengthy signup process, and no fees.

There is another key advantage of Geni: When you add a relative, you can also enter his or her email address. In that case your relative will receive an email inviting him or her to join your tree. By clicking a link, your relative will be taken to the same family tree you’ve been working on, but re-centred from that relative’s point of view.

Your relative can then add other relatives, and so on. Your tree will continue to grow as relatives invite other relatives.

Whereas conventional family trees show only your direct ancestors, your Geni tree includes siblings, spouses, cousins, aunts and uncles, and their families. The hope is to identify not just your common ancestors but all your living relatives and in-laws. This makes Geni different from the many great genealogy sites which already exist.

Once you’ve built your tree, you can create an individual profile which allows other relatives to learn more about you and stay in touch. Over time Geni plans to layer on additional family networking features like photo sharing so you can stay in touch with your family network.

no fees

Never mind Sacks’ extremely fast claim, while even today, after several speed-ups, Geni.com is still slow as molasses. The key sentence is As you’ll notice, there is no software download required, no lengthy signup process, and no fees..

No fees. David Sacks, the company's CEO, introduced Geni.com saying there are no fees and did so in a way that sure sounds as if no fees is a defining characteristic of Geni.com.

Note another key advantage of Geni: Your tree will continue to grow as relatives invite other relatives..

discover relatives

Note another key advantage of Geni: Your tree will continue to grow as relatives invite other relatives..

Thus, the ability to connect to distant relatives is promoted as a defining feature, a key characteristic that makes Geni.com different and better.
Sacks stresses this by repeating it: The hope is to identify not just your common ancestors but all your living relatives and in-laws. This makes Geni different from the many great genealogy sites which already exist..

He adds that there will be additional family networking features like photo sharing so you can stay in touch with your family network..

The official press release Sacks sent out is equally jubilant and crystal clear about Geni.com being free: Geni is free to use. The company will generate revenue through advertising and eventually layer on premium services for power users..

A press release is an official company statement and Geni.com's first press release states that Geni is free to use..

growth

Despite its serious performance issues, the absence of basic features (GEDCOM), and a me-too business model, Geni.com managed to get a lot of positive press coverage. Geni.com added features, fixed defects, and continued to grow. Geni became less slow, added GEDCOM import and export, added birthday reminders, etcetera.

Geni.com improved, yet still did not manage to either attract the advertisers or other business partners or provide the premium services it needs to support the service.

A live interview may not produce perfect sentences, but it did yield a crystal clear message: the basic service will always be free. Sacks said it, and the camera caught it.

on camera

The 2007 May 30 blog entry is an interview by Robert Scoble.

Robert Scoble asks And how do you guys get paid? Do I have to sign up for this service and pay for it?.

Sacks answers: No, it’s free. I mean, I think the ultimate model is the same as the model that, you know, MySpace and FaceBook [?] before [already] use, which is, as I’m saying, advertising, combined with, ehm, sort of upselling products at various points. But the basic…

Scoble interrupts and asks to confirm his understanding: I don’t pay thousands, including some where... service?

Sacks answers: Well, you know, the basic service, the interest, will always be free. Ehm, in the same way that it really doesn’t make sense to charge for, eh, people use social networks, when you make your money is, eh, sort of freemium type, ehm, services..

A live interview may not produce perfect sentences, but it did yield a crystal clear message: the basic service will always be free. Sacks said it, and the camera caught it.

Sacks also said he is leaning towards a freemium type service; that is a service where basic functionality is free, with premium services for those who want them. In a typical freemium scheme, a small group of premium users easily supports the cost of running it for all users, as the cost of running the service is marginal.

After encouraging users to build their tree, Geni.com was now taking away their ability to even view the data they themselves contributed.

restrictions

The first major restriction was announced on 2008 Feb 14. Geni.com had decided to restrict your ability to view the tree you are in to you, your spouse, both your blood relatives and their partners.

Geni presented it as a privacy measure, and made it almost sounds reasonable, but dead ancestors do not clamour for privacy. After encouraging users to build their tree, Geni.com was now taking away their ability to even view the data they themselves contributed.

free

Geni.com continued to profile itself as a free service, and eagerly linked to the PC Magazine article that listed Geni.com in the Games / Fun section of their brief The Best Free Software 2008 guide.

premium

Geni introduced its premium accounts late last year. Geni first twittered about it on 2008 Dec 3 already.

2008-12-03 05:23 geni Geni Pro Accounts are now available!

The Geni blog introduced premium features on 2008 Dec 19. The major benefit of the new Geni Pro: the ability to Export your family tree and all connected trees into a single GEDCOM file (up to 100,000 total individual and family records).

The two other features of Geni Pro introduced with that post are that Geni.com will show the exact relationship to others in your tree (a minor feature that should really be in the free version) and the Geni Pro Badge; a badge you put on your profile to, well, show the world that you are paying a monthly fee for access to your own family tree.

limitations

On 2009 Jan 20, Geni.com posted New Updates and Enhancements, in which they announced the addition of user stats on the public profiles. Counts in the user stats on your profile are limited to 5.000, unless you become a paying Geni Pro user to raise that maximum count to 100.000.

5.000 blood relatives

That Geni.com deliberately limits user stats and promotes less limited user stats as a Geni Pro feature is remarkable already. Just how much does anyone care whether they have 23.456 or 23.457 relatives in their tree?

The limitation, even the 100.000 limitation, is particularly remarkable for a company that uses Everyone’s related as its slogan. After all, the limitation of just 5.000 relatives is way below the number of blood relatives most of their users are able to document in principle. Even the Geni Pro limit of 100.000 is too low. Think a thousand ancestors, with an average of oh, say five thousand live descendants each for a ballpark figure of, after correcting for quite some overlap, a few million blood relatives.

The limit of 5.000 individuals corresponds to a historic limitation in Geni.com’s GEDCOM import capabilities, but seems otherwise completely arbitrary.

freemium failure

Then again, perhaps the reality of Geni.com simply failed to meet Sacks’s dream of commercial freemium success. The advertisers are not lining up (Geni.com is showing Google AdWords), and users are not eager to upgrade to premium accounts for features that either used to be free, or simply are pretty darned unimportant. Perhaps the deliberately low limit is an artificial attempt to try and force users into paying for basic services anyway.

Geni.com’s Everyone’s related slogan has become nothing but a painful reminder of illusions shattered, promises broken and connections destroyed.

privacy

On 2009 Feb 5, the Geni.com blog once again used privacy as their excuse for further limitations: We’ve reduced the default Family Group from your 5th cousins and closer to your 3rd cousins and closer..

Geni.com’s seems to use increased privacy as an euphemism for further limiting access to your own tree. Geni.com is once again telling their users that they cannot even view records that they themselves uploaded.

By restricting visible relationship to 3rd cousins and closer, Geni.com management is effectively telling their users that the much-vaunted benefit used to promote Geni,com, Your tree will continue to grow as relatives invite other relatives, is no more.

By severely limiting the relatives you can see, Geni.com’s Everyone’s related slogan has become nothing but a painful reminder of illusions shattered, promises broken and connections destroyed.

grumbling

Unsurprisingly, Geni.com users are grumbling. They are complaining on the Geni.com forum and posting angry reviews on GenSoftReviews. Geni.com’s overall rating is not in danger of plummeting below Clooz yet, but it is definitely taking a very public beating.

That Geni.com disconnects users from their cousins shows how disconnected Geni.com is from its users.

forum

cousin disconnect

That Geni.com disconnects users from their cousins shows how disconnected Geni.com is from its users.

The official announcements cheerfully suggests that the new limitation isn’t a limitation at all. It asks you to Keep in mind that you can continue to use the "Invite to Family Group" buttons to add your more distant relatives to your Family Group..

User PINKLE notes the obvious problem that the announcement ignores: So we have to trawl through our tree and sort out any 4th and 5th cousins and invite each one individually to the family group. Oh well I guess I have nothing better to do! - and adds an important relevant question: How long have we got to do this?.

resources

User ffunch notes: you’re not cutting down the functionality in order to respond to our demands for better privacy or less noisy family news. That appears to be the official excuse, but I don’t believe it is the reason. My guess is that it requires fewer resources to keep track of 3 generations than it does to keep track of 5, so you figure you’ll save a little bit, and we probably wouldn’t notice..

User Od remarks: @ffunch, I think you found the real reason, well spotted! It does seems this is not done for privacy reasons really, That’s just Geni’s way of selling BS. It seems the real reason is to disable the calculation of relationship paths for those not paying for a membership. This is properly supposed to drive more membership subscriptions..

Od: It seems that it's only by limiting free features that Geni can sell subscriptions..

forum thoughts

The users do not hold back stating their thoughts. Here are some quotes from a Geni.com forum thread about this latest limitation.

Od: It seems that it's only by limiting free features that Geni can sell subscriptions..

ffunch: you’ve sold us the idea that "everyone’s related", and you’ve gotten us hooked on seeing how we’re related to people, and caring about people we otherwise wouldn’t have known about - don’t come and take it away again and tell us that it is better.

DJAlik: I wish Geni would concentrate on features that people are asking for instead of wasting their time developing more restrictions.

gianop: Geni continues in its downward spiral to become less and less useful....

Dan338: This sounds like a great way of offending all Geni users and possibly loosing some. It seems to do very little to the privacy..

molund: Yesterday my family group showed 959. Today its down to 631. This really sucks! It took me a really long time to enter that many profiles..

Martin_K: What is totally wrong is that someone puts a de facto limit on communication and visibility. These are *OUR* trees and we should have the power to administer them as *WE* please..

shiri: I must stand by ffunch and all the others on this thread. This is a very detrimental downgrade..

JonA: I've requested that Geni cancel my Pro status as a result of this change.
I recommend that everyone with Pro status who dislikes this change do the same.
If you have signed up for an annual subscription - insist that they cancel it anyway and refund the difference. By putting in this change, they have so radically limited the functionality of the system you paid for using for that you have a right to ask for your money back.
.

shmuelakam: If I never invite anybody, beyond 3rd cousins, my tree will NEVER grow beyond the people I already know about, before I used Geni! So much for collaborative genealogy AND family networking then, eh? Ergo, I have NO NEED for Geni's services, which I'd otherwise gladly pay for..

eignatius: Reducing the size of the family group by excluding all relatives beyond third cousins is ABSOLUTELY THE MOST STUPID CHANGE YOU HAVE DONE. I have so much enjoyed finding some sixth cousins.

GenSoftReviews

Angry users are now posting negative reviews on GenSoftReviews.

Od: They should change their logo to Geni - everyone’s retarded since that is how they treat their userbase.

Judy: …they begin downgrading and reducting of features and core services almost immediatel upon rolling out the Pro service.

Fleming F: Geni is increasingly alienating exactly that community of power users, the people who bring in hundreds of their family members, who type in thousands of profiles for ancestors, and generally act as networking hubs and resident experts for their families. Several times Geni has suddenly turned off core features, or suddenly started requiring paid subscriptions for what previously was basic functionality, despite promises never to do either. Some people find themselves not able to access the profiles they’ve entered of their ancestors, and many can no longer see the 4th cousins they happily invited the week before..

Despite these reviews, Geni.com’s overall rating is not plummeting. There is a small but remarkable influx of incredibly positive reviews with currently rather unlikely remarks such as Excellent support team. and There’s always some new feature to look forward to.

Everyone is related, but Geni.com will no longer show your distant cousins to you.

conclusion

Sacks claimed that Geni.com's basic services will always be free. Actual fact is that Geni.com's no fees services have been reduced more than once. Its current functionality seems useless for anything but toy-sized trees and its latest limitation practically destroys its ability to connect to distant relatives. Everyone is related, but Geni.com will no longer show your distant cousins to you.

Geni.com just destroyed Geni.com.

updates

2009-02-14 blogs

I have added a link to a geni.com user blogging about the limitation.

2009-02-16 Yammer

The geni.com folk created Yammer, a twitter-like web app. It was initially created for use inside Geni.com, so it quite naturally ran on their geni.com servers.
Geni.com has IP address 208.78.87.80, Yammer.com has IP address 208.78.87.230. Same Class C address.
The Yammer.com domains servers are ns1.geni.com and ns2.geni.com. Yammer.com and geni.com share employees, even management. And on 2008 Dec 17, around 13h30m local time, the Geni.com and Yammer.com were both taken down at the same time.
All this suggests that Yammer.com is still running on Geni.com servers.

2009-02-18 Amazon geni.com

Googling for past statements by geni.com uncovered something rather embarrassing; it seems that at least two of the four Amazon.com reviews for geni.com were written by geni.com employees. Noah Gregory Tutak is geni.com Vice President of Communications. Joanne Rockower was Director of Community Outreach.
2009-02-27 update to this update: Noah Tutak informed me that he joined Geni.com in March of 2007, which is after posting that Amazon.com review.

2009-02-18 partial rollback of change

Geni.com had changed the "Family Group" definition from 5th cousin to 3th cousin, now changed it back from 3th to 4th cousin.

2009-02-18 FaceBook

Geni.com has just added integration with FaceBook Connect as a new feature.

2009-02-27 factual errors?

On 2009 Feb 13 Geni.com’s Noah Tutak mailed me about correcting what he claims are factual errors in the article. I questioned his claims, and he subsequently admitted c.q. claimed that information in the official geni.com blog is wrong (yet has remained uncorrected for more than a year). I’ve made it clear that I’ve based the overall story line on their own official publications, and that I look forward to public correction of the misinformation.

2009-02-27 verwandt.de

The latest Verwandt.de blog post is about automatically adding everyone to your family circle, and includes a dialog that shows Blood relatives until fifth-degree cousins.

2011-04-22 Yammer blog

The Yammer We'll be back in a moment blog entry appears to have been deleted.

links

2011-04-23 Amazon.com: Geni.com

Amazon.com appears to have removed the Geni.com listing. The reviews of Geni.com can still be found on the user profiles, but do not link to any page. The broken link has been removed.

site links

Geni.com PR and blog posts

forum and reviews

articles

Yammer

Amazon.com: geni.com