Has Facebook Killed the Yearbook?

Instead of a frozen-in-time memory, you get constant updates about divorce, job loss, and illness

My daughter Marcy is, God willing, graduating from college in May (I know, I know; that went so fast!), so her school has been sending me, and her, lots of brochures and e-mails regarding the traditional sorts of things that college seniors accumulate in remembrance of their happy-go-lucky four years in paradise. She’s not much of a jewelry person, so we don’t need the mailing for the class rings. But the letter about yearbooks gave me pause.

[SIGNUP]I love yearbooks. I have a lot of old yearbooks — my dad’s, my mom’s, my kids’, even various extras from high school and college for years other than mine. In vintage shops and antiques stores, I’ll always stop and look at a yearbook. Every year or so, I take out my old high-school yearbook and page through, admiring (or laughing at) the photos, wondering what those people look like now, what they’re doing, whether they’re happy or not. I even, now and again, take out my mom’s or dad’s and read the quaint quotes and best-wishes and nicknames (Pep? Bunkie? Dinky?) they contain. I get a sense of continuity and permanence from these perusals, a realization that I, and my parents, and my kids, are all part of something broad and enduring and larger than ourselves — the secular humanist’s church, I guess, complete with gym bloomers and marching bands.

When my son graduated from high school last year, he had the option of buying an “online yearbook” instead of the real thing. I figure it’s only a matter of time before the actual tomes are passé. When Marcy was home for Christmas break, I asked her if she wanted a yearbook from her college. She paused for a moment, to think about it, then shook her head no. “There’s Facebook now,” she pointed out. “It’s not like when you graduated and lost touch with everybody. We’re all connected now.”

I’m not on Facebook; I think it’s creepy. I’m still in touch, via phone and e-mail, with the people I want to be in touch with; I find the prospect of folks I was borderline-friends with 40 years ago popping back into my life disconcerting. I suppose it’s not quite so creepy if I think of Facebook as a constantly updated yearbook, one where you can always replace your photo with one you like better (as my friend Jane did back in 12th grade, painstakingly pasting a shot she preferred into 300-some books) and keep writing in the margins into eternity.

But what I love best about yearbooks is that they freeze us in time, capture us on thresholds (about to start high school; about to graduate high school; about to head off into the world) and pause us there, trembling on the edge of infinity in all our awkwardness and hopefulness and fear. I don’t want to know everybody’s stories of failed marriages and businesses and kids, any more than I want to see how gray Judy’s gotten, or how cancer’s made Tim gaunt. I want them preserved in my imagination as they are in my yearbooks, silly and familiar, smiling a little stiffly, fresh from homeroom or French or field hockey, with the future a banquet laid out just for them.