First, some backstory: When we scheduled A.J. Jacobs’ new TED talk onto the calendar, the first thing I did was sign up for one of the genealogy websites he recommended. I’m paranoid, and I wanted to make extra sure we weren’t recommending one of those “free” genealogy websites that bait-and-switch you into paying $15 a month, right? So I ran through the process myself, and I feel good about pointing you guys toward the sites A.J. recommends, Geni.com and Wikitree.com. You don’t need to sign up for a paid membership or give a credit card to take part in his project. (If you get a message that you do, write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know!)
Anyway, this explains why I made a stub of a family tree on Geni.com, just me and my mom, mainly to see how easy it was to do. (Pretty easy.) And then I got an email from A.J.: “I couldn’t wait to send you the news that I think I figured out how you and I are related. I hope I’m not wrong (which I could be), and I also hope I don’t freak you out, but I think that you are my … first cousin’s nephew’s wife’s second cousin once removed’s husband’s 7th great aunt’s husband’s first cousin twice removed’s husband’s fourth great grandson’s first cousin.”
Imagine such a long thread of connection, floating around loose in the world until a website knits it up. And yes, I know that a connection that involves more than a dozen links is notional at best, almost comical. But I can’t deny I felt a little bit happier knowing this odd fact, that a funny guy I talked to at a rooftop party a few years ago is also my eleventy-billionth cousin.
And that’s the genius of AJ’s project, to me — it connects you to people alive right now, which is a lot more fun than meeting a lot of dead people in fading photos and census records. Traditional genealogy connects you mainly to the past, and again don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful if you’re lucky enough to know the name of your great great grandmother — but, I hate to break it to you, you’re a bit too late to be friends with her. On the other hand, A.J. Jacobs and I have emailed back and forth, actually kind of a lot lately while we have been getting ready for his talk to go online. I can ask him how he’s doing anytime. And he knows I really care about his answer — he’s my cousin.