Putting the "book" back in Facebook 09.29.2008, 9:37 AM
posted by dan piepenbring
With October just around the corner, American universities and high schools are gearing up for homecoming celebrations, those unabashed nostalgia fests. There's just one problem: the yearbook, one of nostalgia's favorite vessels, is obsolete.
This summer, the Economist reported on the slumping sales of college yearbooks, rightly citing the ascendancy of social networking sites as a major factor in the decline. The article, otherwise well-reported, is sullied by some editorializing in its final paragraph:
Although today's students find yearbooks old-fashioned, they may one day miss their vanished youth. Long after Facebook and MySpace have become obsolete and the electrons dispersed to the ether, future alumni might just wish for the permanence of ink on paper.
Callers on an NPR Digital Culture segment had similar misgivings, as did those interviewed by the Toledo Blade. Though I'm by no means a Facebook apologist, their argument strikes me as specious. It conflates intangibility and impermanence; because we can't hold the website in our hands, it says, those electronically-stored memories are liable to disappear on us overnight. While I'd never bet that Facebook and its ilk will be around forever, I believe its information can and will persist at one venue or another -- there's little to suggest that digitized content is somehow more ephemeral than its print counterpart. In fact, at present, more users are concerned about their ability to destroy that information than to preserve it. If anything, Facebook might be too permanent. So much for that pesky electron ether-dispersion...
Despite the presence of "book" in its title, few critics to my knowledge have construed Facebook as the ultimate electronic yearbook. They focus instead on its broader "social network" applications. That's all well and good, but what is Facebook if not the quintessential model of an electronic book done right?
Like its conventional print brethren, Facebook chronicles the lives of a certain network's members. It's teeming with photos and groups; its wall posts are the digital equivalent of those slangy well-wishes from your friends and acquaintances (and maybe a stranger or two).
Since users provide the data, it's matchlessly comprehensive -- and most of this data, if not all of it, is driven by nostalgia and memory-making, the desire to memorialize your glory days. Certainly it's no coincidence that, when it launched, Facebook catered exclusively to college students, with high-schoolers hot on their heels. This demographic overlaps perfectly with "the yearbook years."
One of the yearbook's biggest drawbacks has always been its linearity: how many people do you know who read them from start to finish? Facebook's search bar bypasses that structural issue, providing a degree of accessibility that strikes fear in the hearts of yearbook indices everywhere. Facebook's contents are individually tailored, fully customizable, and unconstrained by timeframes.
It's also totally free.
The site, then, is a better yearbook than any yearbook can be. It suggests that the networked screen is, at least for this purpose, an infinitely more versatile medium than the static page. In considering Facebook as an electronic book rather than as a mere web franchise, we see how this new medium can improve upon the tried-and-true formulas of the print age.
To be sure, I'm not championing the sort of navel-gazing, quasi-addictive Facebook usage that consumes some of my generation. (Full disclosure: I'm 22.) Nor am I claiming that social networking sites are the only cause of waning interest in yearbooks as an institution. I'm just saying that the turning point has come and gone. Consider that a Bethesda, Md. high school recently republished Facebook photos in its yearbook; consider that DePauw University's 2008 yearbook modeled itself after Facebook to woo buyers. If this isn't the simulacrum replacing the original, I don't know what is.
There's arguably another, bleaker lesson to be learned here, which is that Facebook's true victory over print is predicated on its ability to massage our narcissism. Perhaps MicCalifornia, a commenter on the Economist piece, says it best: "The first thing we do when we get our yearbooks is see how many pictures we are in. Who needs it when with Facebook, I am in all the pictures."
Posted by dan piepenbring on September 29, 2008 9:37 AM
Drew Kupsky on September 30, 2008 10:50 AM:
I've been using Facebook for about 3 years now, and I absolutely love it as a way to keep in touch with people I don't see very often anymore. But it's not a yearbook. The Facebook profile of a college student or recent graduate certainly looks like something out of a yearbook, but this is usually temporary.
Generally speaking, I've noticed a big change in the Facebook profiles of people I know about 6-12 months after they graduate. Their college party photos come down, their privacy settings go up, and their "target audience" switches from college friends to potential employers and coworkers. I'm not saying this is necessarily bad, but I am saying it's not something that can (or should) happen to a yearbook.
The academic library where I work has yearbooks going back 85 years. Collectively, they make an invaluable record of student life from 1913 until 2005, the last year for which a yearbook was printed. Unlike those books, Facebook is constantly in flux, and while this flexibility certainly has many advantages, it makes Facebook basically useless as a record of the past, and only marginally better as a memento of college days gone by.
sol gaitan on October 1, 2008 12:29 PM:
The comparison between Facebook and a book, perhaps stops at their name. But, the important aspect that Facebook shares with the book we are still trying to perfect, is that it enables communication between "reader" and "writer". That we continue to value books as permanent and their electronic counterparts as impermanent tells more about the past than about the future. Time freezes in yearbooks, in social networks it flows in a sort of chained present moments that become past as we place them within an individual's history, as we memorialize them. This renders a much more intriguing notion of time and how we perceive it.
Victor Curran on October 2, 2008 12:20 PM:
Dan, I grew up with ink-on-paper yearbooks, but my daughter (one year younger than you) introduced me to Facebook, and I love it.
When its inventors decided to call it FaceBOOK, what they had in mind wasn't the yearbook, but the cheap directory that colleges used to print up with names and photos of all the incoming freshmen. Its official name (at my college, anyway) was the Freshman Register, but it was universally known as the Pig Book, for the unflattering mug shots it contained.
We used to sit in the dorm finding cute girls in the Pig Book and cold-calling them to ask for dates. It wasn't very classy, but it was as interactive as the available technology (land-line telephones) allowed.
The Pig Book was nothing more than a phone book with pictures, and it was never intended to have a long shelf life. Facebook just took the Pig Book and infused it with all the interactivity we wished it had back in the 20th Century. If anything, Facebook has more permanence than its ink-on-paper ancestor.
Yearbooks are another matter. The Economist's point is well taken: If you want to freeze a moment in time and keep it intact for decades, even centuries, you can't beat ink on paper. What may soon be obsolete is the generic yearbook, replaced by customized print-on-demand yearbooks.
bowerbird on October 2, 2008 2:42 PM:
> The academic library where I work has
> yearbooks going back 85 years. Collectively,
> they make an invaluable record of student life
> from 1913 until 2005, the last year
> for which a yearbook was printed.
some time, probably sooner than later, we'll realize
that dropping that tradition was an unwise decision.
let's hope we don't make many similar mistakes.
Dan Piepenbring on October 7, 2008 1:33 PM:
Thanks for the feedback, all.
Interestingly, your concerns mirror those aired by commenters on Kirsten's latest entry ("How do you want to read?", 2 October). Impermanence remains the prevalent qualm with the Facebook-as-yearbook model, and with electronic texts as a whole.
I grant that, as a young dude discussing an even younger website, I lack the necessary foresight to proclaim that Facebook can and/or will eclipse the yearbook. At this juncture, there's no telling what percentage of, say, the Class of 2008's Facebook photos, groups, wall posts, favorites, etc. will still be around in a decade or two. Vanity suggests that we may get embarrassed en masse at some point in 2009 and start bowdlerizing our once fertile profiles.
Thus, if what we're after is a lasting record of college life for our personal use, then perhaps the yearbook gives its electronic cousin a run for its money. I'm not convinced, though, that university archivists need be concerned with the demise of yearbooks. To my knowledge, most college libraries keep painstaking records of the goings-on at their institutions; at my college, it was easy to access flyers, newspapers, minutes, rosters, papers, and more -- taken in toto, these primary sources comprised a more interesting and thorough account of college life than any yearbook, and with my library's online databases, finding what I needed was no more or less difficult than plumbing the depths of a yearbook's index. In short, I believe that dedicated archivists can readily outshine the efforts of yearbook editorial staffs.
Furthermore, comparing content alone, a carefully-timed snapshot of Facebook still trumps anything on in print. If we were to somehow archive or print the Facebook profiles of a network's every member at a certain time -- say, the whole of Harvard's Class of '08 circa June '08 -- we would wind up with a more enriching "yearbook" than the yearbook itself.
Clearly, problems with preservation and data management will crop up with any developing medium, and one of our long-term tasks is to ensure that electronic media meets or exceeds print in terms of longevity. To claim that Facebook has, at present, the staying power of a conventional print book was more than a little sensationalist on my part, but I maintain that the comparison is an apt one in other respects, and that there's much we can learn from Facebook as a model.