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The Day the Yearbook Died

March 14, 2007

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Dead-tree books may be passé, but kids still want a place to keep their memories—and keep them current.

When students at El Camino High School in South San Francisco began photo-editing the yearbook this fall, adviser Stephanie Lipman noticed some curious changes. Head shots complete with drop shadows. Flirtatious, studied poses. A whole new veneer of self-presentation. Where, she wondered, did the high school yearbook begin and the MySpace resemblance end? “You understand that their online lifestyle is influencing the way they document their real one,” Lipman says.

Today, popular online communities like MySpace and Facebook are usurping a role that once belonged to paper yearbooks; the result is an open dig into the archaeology of youth. Here inside their digital lockers are snapshots of the tribe: They mug for webcam shots, stow MP3s, and flog their friend lists. They meticulously broadcast all manner of hopes, dreams, and whims. Testimonials for friends and crushworthy strangers abound. “Autographs are the most important part of a yearbook,” says Catherine Cook, a Skillman, New Jersey, high school student. “It’s all about finding out what people think of you.”

That’s been the case for quite some time now. But online, at the social networking sites, every day is signing day, and the venerable yearbook senior blurb is being replaced by profile pages that are updated as frequently as teenage tastes require. Best of all, this playground of personality is almost always supervision-free.

The metaphor was not lost on Cook and her brother, Geoff. Dismayed by their own school annual, in April 2005 the two started, a community site that encourages students to connect, flirt, goad, and vote for Most Likely to Succeed. In 19 months it has amassed 1.5 million users, outstripping even the growth of MySpace—a site, as a ad banner warns, is now populated mainly by stodgy thirtysomethings. Talk about harshing a kid’s buzz.

Even beyond the world of high school, the demise of the dead-tree yearbook is proceeding apace. According to The Kansas City Star, only 100 of the Associated Collegiate Press’s 700-member organizations still publish yearbooks. After 114 years, the University of Texas is thinking about axing its traditional yearbook, which sold to only 5 percent of enrolled students in 2005. Likewise, the University of Missouri’s Samitar folded after publishing annually since 1894, to be survived by a web-only version.

Some reasons for this slow fade from relevance seem obvious. The physical appearance of traditional book-form yearbooks remains largely the same as it ever was. The noticeable differences owe more to the tools used to create them, which have become much more sophisticated in recent years. In fact, the yearbook club has come to resemble the AV club, if not a media lab. While El Camino High sells a DVD version of the school’s yearbook as well—not much more than a hodgepodge video collection of school events—its function is to raise funds to absorb the cost of producing the paper edition, which is $70; high price is another factor favoring web-based alternatives to the dinosaur commemoratives. Selling hundreds of paid advertisements is a virtual necessity, too. While the large “McYearbook” publishers like Jostens and Taylor have begun to roll out some multimedia suppliments, costs remain steep.

But alternatives are emerging. While teaching art in a home-schooling co-op that enrolls more than 200 students in Kansas City, Ruth Downey was disappointed by the lack of affordable yearbook resources available. “Here I was teaching Photoshop to our students,” Downey recalls, “and our school was sprouting sports leagues and debate teams—yet we had no way of producing a professional quality yearbook [to show them off]. It was very frustrating.”

Downey eventually discovered, a web-based print-on-demand company in San Francisco. Impressed by the product quality and price, Downey plans to allow student groups to make class- and club-specific editions. “I can really see the kids personalizing their own annuals for the robotics club, say, or the baseball team.” Downey surmises that bigger schools could benefit from yearbook customization, too. “My college yearbook didn’t tell me what I did at college—it just had my name and picture. A big impersonal book doesn’t get it done anymore.”

This assumes a book can still do the job. Joseph Wolfson, yearbook adviser for two decades at the PEAN at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, has presided over many changes in content and technology. He has no problem policing for language, but other changes have proved more difficult to control. “I have colleagues who bemoan the absence of faculty in our books now,” he says. “There’s less text—the emphasis has moved to the strictly photographic. But the textual material we had was usually pretty terrible,” he notes with a dry laugh. “It was typically done on the fly and without much editing.” He concludes, “It would not surprise me if the PEAN went completely onto the web some day.”

All this serves to underscore the most obvious reason for year-books’ waning appeal: They are no longer the most representative record of students’ identities, their peer groups, or their memories. “Everyone’s online,” Cook says of her peers, and signing day isn’t what it once was. There’s no keepsake like community, and from homework to hooking up, for better or worse, the web is that place today. It is also the virtual backdrop against which adolescents are growing up. It could not be otherwise for a generation weaned on the immediacy of texting, IM, and the hyperlink. From puberty to postgrad, Facebook, MySpace, and its cousins offer their kindred members a shared spot, like a movable yearbook, to document their place and times IRL: In Real Life.

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