Ancestry used to have a smartphone App to find possible famous relatives. Many people enjoyed the We’re Related App as speculative fun with the occasional correct suggestion. Ancestry disabled the App in 2019, and hasn’t released anything similar yet.
Finding a famous relative or ancestor can be a great advantage to your genealogy research. There could be well-researched biographies, extensive newspaper articles, and richly documented family trees. Unfortunately, there are also lots of garbage family trees purporting to represent the lineage of well-known people. So, you’ve got to be careful about doing lots of research for evidence of suggested relationsihps.
Will Ancestry bring back a feature to find your famous relatives? And do you have any alternatives? This article takes a look back on Ancestry’s app with a bit of speculation as to what’s to come. Then we’ll review Geni.com and FamilySearch as alternative ways to research potential famous relatives using your family tree.
Ancestry And Famous Relatives
The We’re Related App has an interesting history. Ancestry.com weren’t the original developers. But it originated with a man with a strong shared history with the company. Paul Allen was an early CEO of Ancestry, which he left in 2002.
One of Allen’s new companies created a Facebook App in 2008 called “We’re Related“. It wasn’t aimed at finding celebrities – it was more about investigating family connections with Facebook friends.
Ancestry has a history of growing through acquisitions, and it purchased the We’re Related app in 2012. The genealogy giant rolled out a new mobile App called “We’re Related” in 2016. This App completely integrated with Facebook, in that you needed a Facebook account to get started.
The smartphone App had several different features. It retained the aspect of connecting with your Facebook friends. But it also integrated with Ancestry’s massive database of user-submitted family trees. Of which the quality can only be said to vary.
The App presented users with possible famous ancestors such as Benjamin Franklin. More notably, the app also presented possible living relatives. Barack Obama and Miley Cyrus were some famous faces offered up as 7th cousins to a lot of We’re Related users.
Of course, this made the app a fantastic marketing tool. It encouraged users to share their new “possible” relative and ancestors with all their Facebook friends. Along with sending an invite for getting the app and joining the fun.
I installed the We’re Related App when it came out – and didn’t get a single hit. I suspect that American users got the most results.
To be honest, I wasn’t too disappointed to miss out on the category of “Supreme Court Judges”. But “Crime Fighters” sounds like there was a chance of getting Wonder Woman or She-Hulk as cousins. That would be kinda cool – and no less improbable than some of the examples reported by people on social media. Holy Terrible Trees, Batman!
How Did Ancestry’s We’re Related App Work?
There was plenty of speculation amongst genealogists about how Ancestry’s new mobile app worked. It was clearly stitching together many different Ancestry family trees to come up with the suggestions for relatives. But that would require tremendous computer power to trawl through millions of trees every time a user opened the App.
If you’ve tested your DNA with Ancestry, you’ll be familiar now with ThruLines, which presents you with predicted ancestors and relationships. But the Ancestry We’re Related App pre-dates the release of ThruLines by several years.
Some people suggested they had built a single massive tree behind the scenes. It was a reasonable assumption, given that Ancestry used to have a feature called the One World Tree.
I wrote an in-depth article about Thrulines, which mentions an Ancestry patent filed in 2014. It describes a multitude of separate groups of family trees. My guess is that We’re Related was using an early version of ThruLines.
Why Did Ancestry Discontinue the We’re Related App?
Ancestry hasn’t given a public explanation as to why they discontinued the We’re Related App. So this section has to be speculative. Which is more fun!
Ancestry’s Half-Baked Explanation
Ancestry simply says on their corporate blog that they morphed it into something else.
“We’re Related assets have been rebranded to We Remember, which captures some of the value lost by the discontinuation of the We’re Related app”.Ancestry Blog
Ancestry launched the We Remember website in 2016 for people to create free memorial pages for the deceased. I can’t see an obvious connection to the We’re Related app, but maybe they repurposed some of the back-end technology.
Never heard of “We Remember”? I doubt many people have. There seems to be very little marketing around it, so I don’t think that We’re Related was nixed in order to support this separate website.
The We’re Related App was always free. People speculated that Ancestry had killed the application in preparation for rolling out a paid alternative. Yet there hasn’t been any sign of a direct replacement of any kind.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018. It shone a light on bad practices by Facebook apps, and Zuckerberg had to take action to deal with some shady companies. This has nothing to do with Ancestry or the We’re Related app. But the bad smell from the scandal wafted over other legitimate apps that integrated with Facebook.
And Ancestry didn’t help itself. Is this the creepiest feature description ever written?
“We’re Related Nearby lets you find relatives who are literally close to you. We use your location to check if there are others using this feature within 500 yards of you. If so, we’ll tell you if you’re related.”Ancestry’s We’re Related App
The “literally” cracks me up. We are really genuinely totally telling you that the guy on the next park bench is using this App. And now he knows that you are too.
I’m speculating that Ancestry weighed up the number of free App users converting to paid subscribers versus the potential for bad PR. And I don’t expect them to jump back into a new app for this any time soon. Of course, the great thing about a blog article is that I can come back and rewrite this if I’m totally wrong!
Exporting Your Ancestry Tree To Use Elsewhere
The next sections look at two alternatives to the defunct We’re Related app. You would need to create a family tree on either Geni.com or FamilySearch.org (or both).
You should always review the security and privacy policies of any online platform before you add your family tree. Pay particular attention to the approach taken to the details of living people. I sometimes choose to remove living people from the version of my tree that I copy elsewhere.
This article is a step-by-step guide to downloading your tree from Ancestry to a GEDCOM file. This file can then be uploaded to other websites. You can also use desktop software to edit it before an upload. You can’t do a partial export of your tree from Ancestry, so I use the RootsMagic software to create a GEDCOM file with chosen portions of my tree.
Using Geni.com As an Alternative Way To Find Famous Relatives
The Geni genealogy platform was acquired by MyHeritage in 2012. But it’s a separate website from MyHeritage. You can create a free Geni account without needing a MyHeritage login.
Geni is a “one big family” collaborative tree type of platform. In other words, you share your tree with other people who may make changes to details in the shared space.
However, there are a set of people who are considered to be of historical importance. Their entries are locked down and cannot be edited by the masses. These are called Master Profiles.
Geni curates a list of famous master profiles on their Popular Profiles page. These may be deceased historical figures or living celebrities. You can see the page here.
In order to see if I’m connected to any of these people, I need to get a tree onto Geni. I’d never used the site before writing this article, so I went through the steps to add a family tree.
Adding Your Tree To Geni
My small GEDCOM file processed in a matter of minutes. A Geni upload will take a lot longer with bigger trees – in fact, it processes collateral branches in chunks at a time.
I’m not sure if I was under some threshold of people in a tree, but the Geni site told me that I needed four more entries. So I manually added four more people. Then I went hunting for famous relatives. Or in Geni’s eyes: Popular Profiles.
Geni’s Popular Profiles
Right now, the top three Popular Profiles are Joe Biden, Queen Elizabeth II, and…Toumas Gerdt.
I didn’t recognize the third name, and the bio was in Finnish. A quick internet search told me that he was a renowned Finnish soldier who died in 2020. Gerdt is an unusual entry on a page dominated by American presidents and European monarchs. But I noticed quite a few Finnish entries on the first few pages. I’m not sure how this list is chosen, but I understand that it changes from time to time.
This is already a step up on Ancestry’s We’re Related app, which was very American-focused.
But all that European royalty wasn’t of much interest to me. And I didn’t see any way of filtering the Popular Profiles by location, which might be handy for someone of Irish peasant stock (like me).
Me and Non-Cousin Joe
Speaking of Irish stock, my most likely possible distant relative on the top page was the top man: Joe Biden.
I was following instructions on a Geni blog page that told me to click on a blue “How Are You Related?” button. I looked in vain for a blue button, before I realized that its absence means that Geni hasn’t found a relationship path (I thought the button might launch a search).
Disappointingly, this is what I have instead of a blue button: “No path to Joe Biden, 47th Vice President of the USA”.
Finding Famous Relatives on Geni
As far as I can tell, the process of finding famous relatives on Geni involves clicking into profiles on the Popular Profile pages and looking at the top of the page for a blue button.
In other words, there’s no way to say to Geni: “show me all your popular profiles that may possibly (or improbably) be related to me”.
In order to see the presence or absence of the “you’re related” button, you do have to open each individual profile.
This would be super-inefficient on a speedy website. But the Geni website was painfully slow for me when I spent a few hours on it while writing this article. Perhaps I got it on a bad day.
I think that the most reasonable way to look for famous relatives on Geni is from a “known” starting point. This would be where you already have an inkling or family rumor that you are connected to a specific person.
But isn’t there a search function, I hear you ask? Yes, but it seems to be a paid tier. The list of results is shown to a free account, but clicking on a profile throws up a payment page.
Finding Famous Relatives with FamilySearch
FamilySearch.org is the genealogy site owned by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Like Geni, it also has the concept of a giant collaborative tree.
As I already had a family tree on FamilySearch, I didn’t need to upload a GEDCOM. I could jump straight into my famous relative hunt.
However, if you don’t have a an account on FamilySearch, it’s free to make one. And you can upload a GEDCOM copy of your tree.
If you’re logged in, this link should take you to the famous relatives page.
I did notice on their help page that all the examples of possible famous relatives were American presidents. So I wasn’t too surprised when my Famous Relatives report showed this:
“No famous relatives found”.
But at least this tells me that FamilySearch does go off and look for paths between yourself and their lists of famous individuals. You don’t have to click through profiles like Geni.com. That’s a big advantage.
Using Newspaper Archives To Find Famous Relatives
When I searched a newspaper archive for my great-grandfathers name and birthplace, I stumbled across a lengthy article in the “crime” section. But it was his neighbor who was up in court charged with arson. My great-grandpa and his siblings – children at the time – were questioned as witnesses by the local sergeant.
The lawman gave an account of their clothes and their shoes – footprints had been found and he was looking for mud as evidence. I was fascinated at the detailed description, and sent copies to my cousins.
Another favorite article of mine was a relative fined a shilling for being “drunk in charge of an ass“. Hardly fame or infamy – but seeing the names of people you know in print gives a little thrill of discovery.
Ancestry owns Newspapers.com, a separate newspaper archive and website. The different subscription can be confusing, and I’ve written a full article breaking it down.
You can get a free week trial with this link to Newspapers.com (sponsored link).