If you’re like me, you have boxes and boxes of old photos and other personal and family memorabilia stored away in your attic, closet, or garage, waiting to be organized and shared. But the task seems overwhelming – which makes it easy to avoid.
Amateur family historians may no longer have that excuse. A website launched last month, Web Biographies, not only simplifies the process of reconstructing your own life and those of your ancestors, but promises to store your information forever after you die.
Web Biographies is the creation of Denver entrepreneur Scott Purcell, who says he wanted to build an online tool that would guide users through the potentially immense task of documenting a life. The tool had to make it easy for people to connect their own biographies with those of relatives, and help people get past the paralysis of the “blank page” effect, says Purcell, who is the founder and former president and CEO of Epoch Networks, a prominent Internet service provider in the 1990s. To see what Purcell and his partners have created and how it can be used, check out the online biography of David Purcell, Scott’s father.
I interviewed Purcell about the venture on April 27.
Wade Roush: Where did the idea for Web Biographies come from?
Scott Purcell: Like a lot of people, growing up I sat around the kitchen table hearing stories about great aunts and great-great-grandfathers, and very little of it is written down. My mom is sick. Hopefully she won’t pass away, but if she did a lot of that history would be lost. It always bugged me that I didn’t have access to it. A couple of years ago I thought, let’s write it down on the Internet. But all the tools out there were geneaology stuff, for making family trees.
My partner and I were playing around on MySpace and were very impressed by what they were doing. But MySpace is used mainly by young people and to be honest, it’s a bit of a chaotic mess. We said, “There should be a MySpace for grownups. Let’s do it.”
WR: There’s a huge pack of blogging and photo sharing sites, including MySpace. How is Web Biographies different?
SP: Photo sharing and blogging and things like that are all very valuable. I’m not going to say anything negative about them. But the way we let people organize their data is different than what anyone else is doing. We are a biography-specific site, allowing you to write your life story and interconnect your story with other family members’ stories to form a living family tree. You could say we have blogs and photo sharing, but it’s tied together with a biography focus, and with special tools like the bio-wizard.
WR: What’s that?
SP: When you first log on, you are sitting there with a blank page in front of you. To you and I, that may be a wonderful thing, but to a lot of people, a blank page terrrifies them. The bio wizard suggests over 500 topics, broken up by chapter. It helps people get over that blank-page effect. If you click on Growing Up, say, there is a field for notes saying How I Was Raised.
There are 15 suggested chapters to your biography, and you can create an unlimited number of subchapters. In the “Family” chapter you could have a subchapter called “Stories from Mom.” Culinary buffs could have a subchapter for Wine. Under Recipies I have desserts, vegetables, meat etc.
WR: What else is different about Web Biographies?
SP: There’s the legacy part. When you pass away, your biography will be sealed so it can remain online, for your kids, your grandkids, for people doing class projects 50 years from now. Whereas places like MySpace delete your data after 120 days if you don’t log in.
WR: You mentioned that users’ biographies can interconnect. How does that work?
SP: When you write a biography and your brother writes a biography, you can then link your biographies together as brothers, and they would both show up in your family tree, along with the most recent writings and photos from your other family members. Friends can also linke their biographies.
You can password-protect your biography if you don’t want it to be public. Obviously, you want your brother to be able to see your biography, so we automatically connect those together, so your brother doesn’t need the password.
WR: Does Web Biographies have any social-networking or social computing features?
SP: Not yet. The business is really focused on writing your biography and then connecting with family and friends. We have on the drawing board a long list of things we’re going to be doing. We will be adding communities based around common interests at some point, probably at the end of the year. Sewing or music or whatever.
WR: How do you plan to make money?
SP: There’s quite a range of ways for us to make money. The first 10 megabytes of storage are free. If you want more space than that, you pay an annual subscription, up to the point where you pass away, and at that point we seal your biography and it’s never deleted, and is stored free or charge. We also incorporate ads from Google’s AdSense program when you’re viewing other people’s biographies.
There will shortly be a search feature, and we will add sponsored results to the search results. And we will have partnerships with photo-sharing and printing sites like Snapfish. Eventually, we may even get into helping people with wills and estate planning.
WR: Last question. Many people have commented that the ease of blogging and publishing other things on the Internet doesn’t necessarily foster high-quality content – it just turns the Internet into a vanity press for the masses. What makes you think people’s biographies will be worth reading?
SP: Well, if you put it that way, MySpace has 40 or 50 million people doing vanity publishing. I guess I wrestle with the question. Who isn’t interested in writing or preserving their legacy? If you lived a life that doesn’t deserve to be remembered, that’s kind of sad. I don’t care what you’ve done in the world – what you’ve done for work, vacations, anything – you have a story to tell and that story is meaningful.
WR: Have you had anyone take you up on your offer of free storage, post-mortem?
SP: We had a community of over 300 beta testers shaking the bugs out before our launch, and are gaining new members every day. Thankfully, we haven’t had anyone pass away on us yet.
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