GenerationStation is a gift from my father.
On the morning of April 26, 2004, as I silently sat with my entire family in the long wooden pews of our parish church for my father’s funeral, some thoughts came to my mind. What will future generations know about Dad? He lived such a meaningful and impactful life but we’re not very good at preserving people’s life story. Why do we know so little about our own ancestors? With all of our modern digital technology, can’t we preserve the essence of Dad’s life with stories and photos so that our descendants won’t feel the same frustration? I added this problem to my “Ideas” file so that I wouldn’t forget the problem amidst the chaos of that week.
I have been in the technology industry since 1995 when I started an interactive agency at the dawn of what would become the Internet boom. Involved in a variety of start-ups since then, I had always hoped to pursue an idea of my own. I remained both curious and aware of recent technology trends as part of the discovery process.
While culture had fully embraced computer technology by 2004, it was still before the birth of Facebook and YouTube so the solution to my problem wasn’t completely obvious. Social media and user generated content were still unchartered territories. I had the problem, but didn’t know the solution and that seed of an idea stayed with me for the next several years. While I figured my desire to digitally preserve my family’s history wasn’t unique, I knew the solution had to be something that would be easy for anyone who could access the Internet
In 2007, Dad’s first cousin, Tom Dowdle, whom I’d gotten to know over the past decade, sent me an article on John Dowdle, my great grandfather, from a 1922 Chicago magazine. The article was written on the occasion of his death and none of our family knew much about him. It was an article that would make anyone proud to say you were related to him. It starts out, “Hundreds of Chicago citizens were saddened at the announcement last week of the death of John Dowdle, a pioneer contractor of Chicago and one of the best known and most highly respected citizens of Chicago.” Wow! I immediately thought again about how it would be great if there was an easy web site where I could upload this article so that my family could read this, and more importantly, our descendants could enjoy 100 years from now.
Birth of a Start-up
Late 2008, I stumbled upon PB Wiki (now PB Works) which offers open-source collaborative software that makes it super easy to create your own wiki. I immediately realized that this was the solution: a single collaborative page for every deceased family member where the community could create and maintain a biography, stories and media. There would be only one page per person and it would link to the rest of the family. Basically, evolve the family tree way beyond just names, dates and places but tell the tapestry of stories that truly recount someone’s life. This was the aHa! moment that would push me to finally take action on the idea. (part 2 of this post is here)