Last April, I was late to acknowledge my beautiful niece, Sarah's, 19th birthday. Well, OK, I'll come clean: I didn't remember it until a few days later. Now before you "tsk, tsk" me, remember that at the time, I was moving my parents out of their home of 28 years and into assisted living.
For all of us, though, life is just too busy, isn't it? Whether families are scattered across the globe or living in the same neighborhood, it gets tough keeping up with each other. Even the annual events, birthdays and anniversaries, sometimes fall by the wayside. But the good news is that you never have to miss another birthday or family event, thanks to the miracle of technology. If technology is one of the reasons we're all so busy, let's turn that around and use it to our advantage!
Computers to the Rescue
You can use your computer for online communication via social-networking sites or by creating your own family Web site. The trick is to create a site that doesn't feel like just another task in your already busy schedule. You have to make the site work for you. Here are some of the ways you can use a site to help you stay abreast of family activities:
Use it to plan events, from holiday celebrations to family reunions or anniversary celebrations.
Create a shared calendar and get e-mail reminders for birthdays, anniversaries, or other important events in your family life.
Keep an easy-to-update address list for all family members.
Post short family stories about the championship your son's sports team may have just won, your sudden empty nest on the day your daughter leaves for college, or your grandchild's first day of kindergarten. You may not have time to make a phone call about these things, but taking five minutes to share the story on the family site is manageable—and everyone gets the story at once.
Carry on discussions or live chats about fun or serious topics.
Share photos and store them all in one place that everyone can access.
Make a repository for family history by creating an online family tree, sharing family recipes, or telling stories about ancestors who shaped your family's heritage.
Families are using social-networking sites, such as Facebook or Yahoo! Groups, to create private "groups," which invite family members to join and enable them to easily communicate via online posts or discussions. Rolanda Pyle of New York is part of a Facebook group that currently includes 38 members of her extended family. The family group is named after her great-great grandmother." Group members post announcements about all sorts of things, including family get-togethers, information about their own businesses, deaths in the family, and memorial services. In fact, they're now planning an 18th birthday trip to the Dominican Republic for Pyle's niece. Pyle says the site is effective for quickly getting a message out to her large family all at once, without having to make numerous phone calls.
Suzie Schottlekotte of Bartow, Fla., agrees. She and her husband set up a Yahoo Groups e-mail list for her extended family, and it has been essential for her. "When my son was in critical condition after a terrible car accident a few years ago," she said, "I was able to send out one e-mail through that group and have hundreds of relatives and their churches praying for him. Knowing my relatives were out there thinking of us was a huge help."
On social-networking sites, families can set up and plan events, share photos, post their current activities, and engage in online discussions. The drawback is that the group is only accessible to family members who have set up profiles on the site of choice. If some family members do not want to register with the site the others chose, they will not be able to see the group's posted information.
Family Web Sites
Instead, individualized family Web sites are a great option if you want to create a gathering place for all ages and technical skill levels. While some family members may not be up to social networking, most are willing to visit a Web site, as long as it's simple to use. Family Web sites offer some of the same features as the social-networking sites, such as photo-sharing, online discussions, and creating personal profiles, but family sites tend to offer more calendars and better ways to share your lore and history.
William Carter of Bel Air, Md., says his family uses its Web site to share news about vacations, birthdays, new babies, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, reunions, and updates when someone is in the hospital or sick. "Recently my uncle put up an announcement that their beloved dog had suddenly passed away. I was so glad to know, so I could send a note. I knew how important that dog was to them," he said. "I really like the Web site, because I get an e-mail reminder a week ahead when a family birthday is coming up. With 11 nieces and nephews, their children and a growing family, I have to jog my memory so I don't miss anyone."
The best news is that you no longer have to be a technology guru to create your own Web site. There are dozens of online tools and tutorials you can use to build your site. I tried 11 different sites to set up a family group or site on the Internet. While at first glance many of the sites seemed similar, I found there were differences in cost, disk space, functionality, themes, or templates for a site.
Sites such as Groupsite.com, Shutterfly’s Nexo and Qlubb include family as a type of group but may go beyond your needs. They cater more to other kinds of groups, such as sports teams, professional clubs, or schools. Other sites, such as myfamily.com, FamilyLobby.com, and MyGreatBigFamily.com focus on groups of kin. I found the simple features offered by the family-focused sites to be more useful for my family’s needs.
Most of the sites I tried were surprisingly quick and easy to set up. If it took me more than five minutes to create the basic site, I moved on. Getting started should be very simple: Create your profile, name the family site, and choose from a list of basic features. Once the basics are done, however, you can spend as much time as you want perfecting the site by adding calendar events, choosing additional design elements and inviting family members to join.
Here are some key considerations when you set up your family Web site:
- Get input from other people who use family Web sites. Talk to friends in person and in your Online Communities on AARP.org. Find out how these people have set up and now use their sites.
- Identify a purpose. How do you want to use the site? What do you want to accomplish for your family? Make sure the site you choose will accomplish your goals.
- Beware of hidden agendas. As you look at the various sites, keep in mind some of them exist as a means to get you to use their other products, such as photo–sharing, creating family trees using their software, or planning reunions.
- Shop around for useful features. A variety of themes and options are available in the templates offered on most sites. You can choose different designs, calendars, and photo galleries. Other options include file uploads (for sharing family documents), guestbooks, discussions and chats, lists of members and their addresses, and family news. Some sites offer the ability to post recipes, create family trees, take polls, or even to build an online "family museum." Others include links to helpful articles, world news, or the weather. Try all the features you would like to include to see how easy they are to use.
- Examine and compare costs. The price of the 11 sites I tried varied greatly—from free to more than $200 per year. Every site had a complimentary level of service, with the option to upgrade by adding features, disk space, or by increasing the number of users. Some sites offered a 30-day free trial rather than an ongoing free option. One site had a one-time, $100 activation fee. When looking for yourself, closely examine and compare costs before you commit. I tried each site's free option first before choosing an upgrade. Finally, write yourself a note in your calendar so you remember that most sites will automatically charge your card again in a year to renew your account.
It is important to remember that a Web site like the ones I've described will only be effective if your family members use it. Here are some tips for creating a usable site: Before you get caught up in all the cool features you can include, and before you spend a great deal of time setting up the family site, ask yourself whether any of the features would make the site easier or harder to use. Avoid themes or templates that are visually disorganized or frenetic. "Less is more" is a good adage for you as you design and lay out the site. Remember you want to make it simple for family members to find, use, and contribute to the site. Get a user-friendly site up and running to start your family connecting, and keep them coming back.
Here’s hoping my family Web site and yours will keep us from forgetting any more important events this year and beyond!