There’s family, and there’s business. And then there’s the business of family. By some estimates, the family history and genealogy business is worth billions of dollars.
A lot of family history sites, like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and FamilySearch.org, offer databases for looking up ancestors and building family trees. But family is often more nuanced than that, and the Web service I’ve been using for the past few weeks takes a more personal approach.
It’s called StoryWorth, and it works by regularly sending email questions that prompt you and your family to ’fess up and jot down their memories. The result is a private place where family members can read and hear each other’s perspectives on childhood, relationships with relatives, and even their thoughts on how the world has changed during their lifetimes.
StoryWorth is free for the first month, and after that it costs $49 per year. Considering the fee, it can feel limited. It’s clearly not a be-all family history site — you can’t look up your ancestors, and you can’t build a family tree. But it’s still a cool idea, and it takes a unique approach to filling in the gaps.
Before getting into how the app works, it’s worth knowing a little bit of the story behind StoryWorth. The idea for the site came a couple of years ago to Nick Baum, a former Google engineer, while emailing with his parents in Sweden. Baum, who lives in San Francisco, wanted to find a way to get them to share their life stories outside of his visits with them, so he started sending regular emails asking his dad questions about his past. The idea quickly caught on among Baum’s friends and their parents, and he officially launched it as a service last April.
StoryWorth is still small — and by that, I mean that Baum is still the only employee at the company, along with his wife Krista, who works on it part-time. Baum declined to share how many users the site has, but he said that around 25,000 stories have been shared to StoryWorth so far.
To get started, I signed up at StoryWorth.com, and added a handful of family members to my account by entering their email addresses. (I also explained to them separately that I was trying out a new service, which might be a good idea if your family members don’t like getting emails from services they haven’t signed up for themselves. Because, really, who does?)
I also opted to share my stories with all of them, but initially set their stories to have limited viewing, in case relatives didn’t want their stories viewed by others.
Then the questions started coming in. Every Monday, we each received a different question from StoryWorth in our inboxes. These included prompts like: What were your grandparents like? Where did you go on vacations as a child? What is your favorite children’s story? Are you still friends with people from high school? What was your first boss like?
Baum says there are “hundreds” of different pre-crafted questions that are sent out to StoryWorth users. And you can switch to another question, or edit and rewrite one of your own. (Editor’s note: Scroll to the bottom of the article to try answering a StoryWorth question.)
There are a few ways to respond to the questions. You can reply directly to the email prompt. You can also log in to the site when you have a free moment and write your answer there.
And you can opt to reply “by phone,” which means StoryWorth will call your mobile phone, and an automated voice will instruct you to record a story. This audio file is then immediately uploaded to the family history. This is especially useful for people who are older, and maybe don’t spend a lot of time typing on a keyboard. It’s also nice to think that you’ll have those voice recordings from relatives later on.
You can also attach photos to your posts, although you can’t upload video clips.
A few, though not all, of my family members took to the idea of StoryWorth. Within the first week, I had responses from my mom, aunt and one of my brothers. I found out who my aunt’s favorite high school teacher was, which Christmas my mom remembers most fondly and what my brother, who is ten years my senior, remembers about our dad growing up.
I also contributed a few entries of my own: An essay about my grandparents, a story about my first big vacation (and my bizarre childhood obsession with the John Fogerty song “Centerfield”), and a voice memo describing what my mom was like when I was growing up.
So far, the stories have been fun to read. As is often the case with memory, it’s hard to know how much is 100 percent accurate — and as the “Real World” saying goes, I’m curious about what would happen if people stopped being polite and started getting real on StoryWorth. But that’s all part of family histories, too.
To be sure, StoryWorth has room for improvement. I’d like to see a mobile app at some point; right now, when I tap on the “reply” button in a mobile email, I’m taken through a couple of different steps before I can actually log in on the mobile browser.
Most of my gripes are around the layout or functions of the website. The site’s homepage is a display of the avatars of you and your family members, rather than a newsfeed of the latest stories that have been recorded. This means you have to click on each family member’s photo — and, subsequently, one of the question links below their picture — to view that person’s stories.
Changing your sharing settings isn’t intuitive, either: When you edit who can see your stories, you’re supposed to select a family member and hit “Send Invite,” even though they’ve already been invited to the site. Baum says he’s considering changing this to something that makes more sense, such as “Share Stories” or “Give Access.”
So, let’s say you’ve decided not to continue using StoryWorth. At any point, you can go to your settings and export everything in PDF format. The audio files can also be downloaded and saved as MP3s.
StoryWorth isn’t going to help you find long-lost relatives or create a distinct timeline of your family history. But it’s thoughtful in its approach to personal stories that may otherwise not be shared among family.
Re/code readers: Want to jot down a few memories of your own? I’ve included five questions below; click on each one, and you’ll be taken to a StoryWorth form. Note: Your answers won’t be saved unless you open an account, which is purely optional, and free for a month.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.