Challenged by the amount of time and energy today's teenagers devote to staying up to date on their friends' Facebook or MySpace pages or Twitter feeds, the traditional school yearbook is beginning to face a bit of an identity crisis. The extent to which students prefer free online social networking sites over shelling out cash for a hardbound copy of their class memories is unclear. The big issue is how yearbook staffs are grappling with a culture of immediacy and how they are using it to their advantage, experts say.
At Whitney High School in Rocklin, Calif., yearbook editors saw an explosion in Facebook's popularity last fall as their chance to reach students campuswide. They created a profile on the site for the school's yearbook, Details, and used it as a forum where students—whether they're on the yearbook staff or not—could submit content such as photos and story ideas and engage others in conversation about the book through online discussion groups. The Whitney Details account has nearly 200 "friends." And because the profile is registered as a person rather than as a group or fan page, all of the account's updates appear front and center on its friends' news feeds whenever they log in to Facebook—a feature that helps immensely in the marketing of the yearbook.
"We wanted to establish a presence so we could remind students of what we're doing and how they could be involved," says Sarah Nichols, a Whitney High journalism teacher and the yearbook adviser. "We want to always reinforce that it's their yearbook."
Representatives from the largest yearbook companies, like Dallas's Taylor Publishing Co. and Minneapolis's Jostens Yearbooks, say that although yearbook publishing software has become more Web-based over the last few years, they view social networking websites and yearbooks as different, noncompeting entities. "Social networking is a way of connecting in real time, whereas a yearbook tells the story of a complete year and is a keepsake that lasts for decades," says Richard Stoebe of Jostens.
Students tend to agree. "I like getting a yearbook because it allows you to look back," says Mariah Jones, a junior at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, Va. "With Facebook and MySpace, all those photos can be taken down."
A print yearbook has its benefits, but the real-time aspect of online social networking has nevertheless challenged yearbook editors to produce better, more inclusive records of what goes on in and around schools. When Whitney students send their friends Facebook "event alerts" about extracurricular clubs and activities, those posts also appear on the yearbook's profile page. Nichols says the digital posts have enabled the yearbook staffers to identify trends and activities they wouldn't have otherwise known about. "Kids don't see their outside life as part of their school life, so they would never even think to tell us," she says. For example, as a result of Facebook, the yearbook staff learned of and covered a long weekend riding trip held by the school's longboarding club—the term used for skateboarding with boards longer than the usual short skateboard.
Industry executives say that students are more likely to purchase yearbooks if they provide better coverage of the things that they're interested in. "If you ask a kid why they don't buy a yearbook, very often they'll say it's because they're not in it or their friends aren't in it," says Tom Tanton, senior vice president at Herff Jones, one of the country's largest yearbook publishers.
Some also argue that a yearbook's popularity—or lack thereof—depends just as much, if not more, on regional and cultural differences. "We have parts of the country where schools sell yearbooks to 80 to 90 percent of the student body," says Tanton. "But there are other parts of the country that may only sell yearbooks to 30 percent of the student body." Educators say that the economy is a factor, too, since the cost of a yearbook can range from $25 to $100.
Some students also are trying out options that would fit somewhere between the traditional yearbook and an Internet option such as Facebook or MySpace. At Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Conn., a group of students created a special video yearbook just for seniors. But Norwalk High's yearbook advisers say that sales of the video book (which is not connected with the yearbook) have been "terrible." "We're seeing that a lot of those new things aren't really competing with the old-fashioned yearbook," says Anthony Pagano, an adviser and English teacher.