The Future of Yearbooks

May 18, 2009

In the past couple of weeks, I have been sorting through a bunch of old stuff that I had in storage, and in the process uncovered my old high school yearbooks.  I was one of the photographers for the yearbook, and I also found a large collection of the photos I’d taken, in the form of black and white negatives (mostly 35mm, but some 120).   Also, as it happens, I’ve just recently gotten in touch with a number of my old classmates.

So I was interested to see Prof. Dan Wallach’s post on the future of yearbooks, on the Freedom to Tinker blog from Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.  (Prof. Wallach is Associate Professor of Computer Science at Rice University.)  He cites a newpaper article from the Dallas Morning News reporting that today’s high school students are much less interested in traditional “hard copy” yearbooks.

Why spend $60 on a dead-trees yearbook when you can get everything you need on Facebook?

He goes on to identify some of the elements of value that a traditional yearbook potentially provides:

  • Higher quality photographs
  • Editing, captioning, and indexing of content
  • A physical object that people can interact with (your friends write in messages)
  • An object that will last for a while (just like any book)

As he points out, doing away with the physical book raises quite a few issues.  Permanence of the record is a big one: my own yearbooks have lasted ~40 years, and are still in pretty good shape, with all my friends’ annotations intact.  He also raises some interesting questions about the potential for censorship, and for squabbles over who owns what rights in the content.

It’s an interesting read, and presents another example, as with newspapers, of how new developments in technology have the potential to change our lives in unexpected ways,   The moral of the story, pehaps, is that the Law of Unintended Consequences is still very much in force.

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