Katherine Boehret

When the Web Becomes the Family Dinner Table

Have you ever felt guilty for hearing news about your mother second-hand? It’s all too easy to fall out of sync with your family, especially when relatives are spread out in different states, time zones or countries. So it makes sense to use the Web to keep in touch. And while email has its place, as do photo-sharing sites and blogs, none of these solutions truly knits family members together in an environment where everyone can share, post and comment on content — much like sitting around the dinner table.

For a demonstration go to www.myfamily.com/demo

This week, I tested one of the many Web sites created specifically to target families: myfamily.com. Myfamily is a free site that serves as a place where invited members can upload photos, videos, news, recipes, family-tree entries and other data in a few steps. Naturally, this idea of helping families stay in touch through a Web site is one which many companies are anxious to monopolize. Sites vying for the spotlight include the likes of Famster, The Family Post and MyGreatBigFamily.com. Some of these charge monthly or annual fees and offer features like online chatting within the site or ritzy background music while the site is being viewed, neither of which are currently included in myfamily.

Myfamily’s ace in the hole is its popular relative, Ancestry.com. Both sites are owned by parent company, Generations Network Inc., which means that Ancestry’s wealth of digitally scanned data and genealogy research can be linked to myfamily.com, enriching the site. Another big plus for myfamily is that it gives users the chance to add voice recordings to photos. These can be used to narrate a slide show (called SnapGenies) or when commenting on a shared image. Voice comments are added by following on-screen instructions and calling a 1-800 number.

I enlisted help from seven of my family members to test our own myfamily.com site. With a little coaching, my 82-year-old grandfather added a digital photo and an accompanying audio comment to our site. My Mom supplied images, voice comments and text comments. And my Dad needed only a little time during a busy week to add his voice comments to photos I posted of last year’s Thanksgiving.

But myfamily.com isn’t without its flaws. The site has been around by name for 10 years; however, I tested the newest version of this site, myfamily.com 2.0, which is still in its beta, or test, stages and is definitely still working out some of its bugs.

For example, a “What’s New” list on the home page should display recent site changes yet unseen by the user, but a video that I posted didn’t show up here, nor did new comments about photos. Also, two of my relatives received error messages when first trying to access the site with my invitation. And when a friend of mine added a 96-person family tree to her own site, the tree disappeared upon her next visit. (Luckily, she found it via an emailed link from the company.)

Myfamily cleverly starts new users on a page where they can create a site, rather than first asking for a username and password, as is done by many sites. It works on Macs and PCs, and on all three major browsers, though Apple’s Safari browser has a few hiccups.

For now, myfamily.com doesn’t offer unique URLs like www.boehretfamily.com; instead, users go to myfamily.com and sign in with a username and password. The site automatically remembers you when you return, so regularly accessing it from the same computer is a cinch.

The family member who creates the site (in this case, me) is designated the administrator and can invite anyone to become a site member. Invitees are labeled as either members or guests; the former can add content to the Web site while the latter can only view and comment on the site’s contents.

Administrators can choose from four themes with different colors and patterns, and each site is laid out in the same way: members listed on the left, three advertisements, a centered photo and lists of What’s New and Upcoming Events. Myfamily will introduce themes with more variety in the next few weeks.

Simple tabs running across the top ridge of the page organize the site’s content into Photos, Videos, Discussions, SnapGenies, Trees (as in family trees), Events, Files and People. I got started by dragging and dropping batches of digital photos from my hard drive onto the site using a fast uploading tool. Photos can be listed alone or in virtual albums, which organize them a bit better. I also added videos to the site, and though these took a little longer to load, they were as easy to post as my digital photos.

Myfamily.com’s integration with voice comments is a huge plus for the site. I smiled listening to my Mom’s emotional tone in a heartfelt comment that she left with a photo of my cousin’s 21st birthday. On another photo of two relatives asleep in chairs after Thanksgiving dinner, my Dad left a voice comment in which he joked about how exciting the dinner must have been. These comments could easily have been left in text form, but by following on-screen instructions to call a number, enter a PIN and leave a message, my own family site suddenly became much more personal.

I also used the phone to create narrated slide shows called SnapGenies. I spoke into the phone to describe each photo and then skipped to the next image on my computer screen before talking about the next shot. When finished, I hung up the phone, and the result was a simple slide show that anyone in my family could play back with ease. The instructions for ending these SnapGenies could stand to be a bit clearer, but myfamily says it is working on this.

Family trees can be created on the site or uploaded from existing family-tree files. Photos, audio and video can be uploaded from your computer to the tree, and these trees are shared with family members who can also contribute to them. With an Ancestry.com subscription (annual U.S. searching cost is $13 a month), users can attach historical census, immigration and military records to their trees, as well as hints about other people. Before the end of the year, myfamily.com users will be able to upload content from a family site directly to the tree.

My sister posted a couple of items under the Discussions tab: a recipe for Skillet Tamale Pie in Recipes, and Web sites related to our next family vacation in the News section. She asked our whole family to take a look at a list of midvacation excursions to decide which ones we wanted to go on, evoking a few responses from the younger members.

In its current state, myfamily doesn’t limit the amount of data uploaded to a site, though individual file sizes are technically limited (videos can’t exceed 100 megabytes each and photos can’t exceed around 10 megabytes each). Myfamily plans to offer an ad-free subscription model at the start of 2008 that will offer more storage; the company estimates that this paid model will cost about $30 annually.

Email updates are sent to site members daily or weekly to inform them about the site’s latest developments. Improvements are on the horizon for myfamily.com, including person-to-person chatting through the site, simple photo editing and the ability to create hyperlinks in posts.

The myfamily.com name has 10 years behind it — staying power that resonates with families who worry about their tediously entered data disappearing should a Web site go belly-up. To placate old and new site members, this 2.0 version of the site needs to make sure it’s dependably usable at all times. The new version of myfamily.com is off to a good start, and family members of all ages will feel comfortable here whether browsing the site or adding content of their own.

-Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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