I am generally not a rule breaker. I think my natural fear of consequences and ridicule has made sure of that. However, every now and then my bold, reckless streak likes to make itself known.
The general rule when it comes to writing about the living is don’t. Or do, but do so with permission from the person you are writing about. Now, there are other moral questions to consider. Will publishing the information hurt someone? Is this information already public knowledge or has it already been published by someone else? Is it factual information or an opinion? Regardless of the answer to these questions, the unanimous opinion of the genealogically inclined masses I polled on Twitter was: ask permission anyway! In the end, the goal is to be thoughtful and conscious of the old adage: Do unto others as they would do unto you (i.e.: don’t write about the living without their permission unless you don’t mind the same being done about you!).
…but there are exceptions to every rule. Or, rather, sometimes you get so desperate that you create exceptions.
Flashback to March 2018. My “white whale” of genealogy since I started researching was finding the identity of my great-grandfather Giulio DiBagno’s 4 sisters who remained in Italy when he came to America. A cousin in my DiBagno family Facebook group posted a photo of 3 children (two boys and one girl) she found in the photo album her brother kept when he visited Italy in the 1970s. He had written the names of the children on the photo. The last name of the children matched the married name of a woman who I had suspected was one of the sisters. So I did what any millennial in my position would do: I looked the children up on Facebook. I found an account of a woman whose name matched the girl in the photo, who looked the right age, and who was located in an area of Italy that made sense. I contacted her through Facebook messenger…months later, I was still waiting on a response. My heart sank. I was so sure it was her and that she would be the key to unlocking the information I was searching for, but with no response, I would never know.
Flash forward 6 months to September 2018. I had just started this blog a month earlier in August and my 4th post was about the missing DiBagno sisters. Here’s where the rule breaking comes in. Though I knew these people were probably living, I posted the photo of the 3 children (among other photos), with their names, and my story about searching for them and contacting the woman on Facebook. I admit, I went rogue and broke that basic rule of genealogy blogging: don’t write about the living! So why did I do it? I’ve narrowed it down to these reasons:
1). I believed that this was something they would never see and therefore never be offended by. Why would they see it? If they lived in Italy, they might not speak or read English. Plus my blog was a month old and not even close to popular…what are the odds that, even if they could read it, they would ever find it?
2). Despite all of this logic, I secretly hoped they would find it. I was willing to take the risk of getting blasted if this somehow helped me find out about my family. Plus, if they did contact me and take offense, I could always remove the information at that point.
3). Desperation. With no response via Facebook messenger and no other leads, I really had no other perceived options.
I have already written about the conclusion to this story in a previous post, but to sum up, it’s now October 2018, a month after I had written the original blog post and 7 months after originally contacting the woman (who I refer to as A*) on Facebook.
This is taken from the follow up blog post:
I had just walked into the building where I worked. It was the end of my lunch break and I was returning from a nearby coffee shop, coffee in one hand, flipping quickly through social media accounts on my phone with the other before I prepared to put it away and get back to business…when I saw the Facebook message. It was from A*’s account and the writer introduced herself as A*’s daughter. She apologized that they were just now responding, but her mother didn’t know who I was (understandable…I had introduced myself, but I wrote in Italian, since this woman lived in Italy, and my Italian is admittedly sub-par).
The night before they contacted me, A* had been online, googling something or other (maybe her own surname), and came upon my month old blog. She saw the photograph that I posted of her as a child and enlisted her daughter, who is studying English, to translate. They realized that the person who wrote the blog post was the same person who had contacted her months earlier on Facebook (c’est moi!) and contacted me back.
In my blog post, I expressed my hope that one day A* would respond, stating “I think she may be the key to putting together this puzzle.” A*’s daughter finished her own post with the line,
“We want to help you put the puzzle together.”
Since then, A*, her daughter, and I have kept up a correspondence that has been both incredibly rewarding and brick wall toppling. They helped me put the puzzle pieces together, as promised, and I have met some incredible cousins in the process. They are warm and wonderful and have been an unquestionable blessing in my life. They both are always patient with me and my many questions (it’s also proved a great excuse to practice my Italian, though I do still rely on google translator). We found we have quite a bit in common, though we live in very different places. They are giving me a greater understanding of my ancestral homeland and what it must have been like for my great-grandfather there, in addition to what it was like after he left. We are hoping to one day visit each other and meet in person. Truly, I can’t wait to finally hug my cousins!
The moral of the story is: rules are rules for a reason, but going with your gut can be an equally valid and ultimately rewarding alternative path. Every situation is different so use your own good judgement and try to take the path that causes the least harm and the most good.
Looking back, I realize this situation early in my genealogy blogging career taught me a lot. Even though it worked out for me, it also taught me about what to do and what not to do. Though she never asked me to do it, I have since removed her name from the post and given her the pseudonym of A* (among other minor changes). I’m more careful and conscientious now because I realize this was the exception, not the rule. As such, I always ask permission or I use pseudonyms when writing about the living. I believe in the logic and morality behind the rule to not post about the living without their express permission. On the other hand, I also don’t want to dissuade people from going against the grain now and then. It helped me find my family and I will never regret the decision to be a one-time rule breaker.
If you do intend to write about the living, please consider following some of the preferred methods used by those polled in the lovely genealogy Twitter community:
1). Ask for their permission first! If they don’t give it, don’t write it. Easy!
2). Use pseudonyms (though make sure to keep in mind that there are some out there who are quite clever and can figure out who you mean so this is not always foolproof if complete anonymity is the goal!).
3). If you’re writing someone else’s story, let them read it before publishing so they can make changes or nix parts that they don’t want included. This way you know they will truly approve of what’s being put out there.
4). Write it, but publish it privately so that only you can read it. If there ever comes a time that permission is given or no longer needed, there it is. If not, you will at least have it for yourself.