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Why yearbook photos are viral candy on social media.

A teenage girl poses in various ways for yearbook photos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Adriana Flores could have chosen a standard high school quote to go along with her senior portrait: “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,” or something like that. Instead, for the text under her class photo, she went with the poet Gucci Mane: “If you ain’t got the sauce, then you’re lost. But you can also get lost in the sauce.” It’s anybody’s guess what her classmates and teachers thought of the choice, but Twitter—like, a nice little chunk of it—certainly approved: In May, she snapped a picture of the page, tweeted it, and was rewarded with more than 6,000 likes. Not bad for a hitherto-internet-unfamous teenager.

That number is nothing compared with the 252,000 people who liked Marcus Williams’ tweet about some Parent Trap–style yearbook antics: Marcus’ twin brother, Malcolm Williams, purportedly sat for both his own picture and Marcus’ when Marcus was out sick on picture day. Marcus’ viral tweet is a marvel of brevity, using just 87 characters and a photo to convey what could be an epic tale:

The tweet only works because its audience has a pre-existing understanding of things like yearbooks and picture days—and, OK, twins and their antics. In Malcolm’s picture, he smiles. In Marcus’, he looks stoic, ensuring his brother wouldn’t be relegated to “Not Pictured” status but making sure he wouldn’t outshine the twin who actually made it to school that day.

The only thing that trumps a teen on the internet, of course, is a dog, and in May, Twitter went nuts for a dog named Miss Peanut when a tweet indicated that her work as a school therapy animal earned her a spot in the yearbook. Given those 325,000 likes, you’d think Twitter had never seen a dog or a yearbook before, let alone the two things combined. A yearbook isn’t that special: If every secondary school in the U.S. published one, the country would be churning out 36,000 of them each year. They’re usually edited by students and teachers, people who are free to insert therapy animals in them at will. Yet people ate this one up. A dog! In a yearbook!

Flores’ modestly viral yearbook picture, Williams’ much-liked tweet, and Miss Peanut the therapy dog are all examples of an increasingly cherished commodity in the online content mines: Every late spring and early summer, as predictable as the blooming of that one sad little patch of flowers in front of a high school’s main entrance, we are treated to a new class of funny yearbook pictures and quotes. They pop up in our social media feeds, and websites like BuzzFeed and the Daily Dot report on and aggregate them. These pictures and quotes do things like pay homage to Beyoncé; they obliquely reference beloved shows the teens in question have consumed on Netflix; they casually dispense truths about race; they proclaim themselves out and proud; they subtweet dumb things the undersigned won’t miss about high school. All of them react against the expectation that high school yearbooks are a place for formality and self-seriousness. And, of course, they thrive on social media, where there’s nothing more viral than a sassy teenager (except perhaps, as previously conjectured, a pet). For those recovering yearbook club members among us (guilty), it’s a welcome throwback. Peeking into someone else’s yearbook is like catching a glimpse of a neighboring universe, similar in broad strokes to the one you inhabit but distinct in the details. Some are very distinct: Recently New York magazine published a yearbook of Trump administration officials, and it was predictably delicious.

All of which makes it worth considering the increasingly weird place that this physical token plays in our digital world. The yearbook is by now a quaint concept. It is a relic of an earlier age, before social media arrived to drink the humble clothbound keepsake’s milkshake. It used to signify an endpoint: There were some people you would stop seeing regularly after graduation, but you’d have their yearbook picture and quote, if your school did quotes, to remember them. But social media remakes all of life into a constantly curated yearbook and each and every one of us into yearbook editors. The idea of being frozen in amber as your high school self just doesn’t apply anymore; we record ourselves in hourly increments, not yearly ones.

I’m not suggesting we stop making high school yearbooks or printing keepsakes; I don’t want to put Jostens out of business. But it is notable how the rituals of high school have been subsumed into social media’s voracious hunger for content, in effect becoming just another thing you can share to earn views and likes (see also this other weird thing that happens every spring, when the teens start making memes of their AP tests). A yearbook page becomes one more morsel of content for you to share in your digital feed, flattened and equal with a snap of a meal from a few days ago. If your post goes big, maybe you’ll earn a lot of likes and try to “invoice” Twitter; there’s no real way to capitalize on even an outsize amount of social media attention. And yet each year these posts continue to go viral. As print products become more and more antiquated, is part of what keeps them going that we like to share them on social media? It sometimes feels like a tactile thing’s most important reason for existing is to be captured and consumed digitally. Pics or it didn’t happen, right?

Our love for seeing yearbook photos online proves we still have a certain reverence for old-school traditions like printed material (no matter how irreverent our yearbook quotes may be). We still need physical objects if for no other reason than to take pictures of them. And in a world of screenshots, there’s also something about the trappings of high school that continues to inspire nostalgia. Maybe this is evidence more than anything else of the way popular culture has trained us to place an undue emphasis on prom, graduation, and the big game. In any case, our desire to take pictures of these events and then share those pictures only serves to reinforce their importance. Earning a yearbook superlative in a real yearbook probably still matters, too.

Social media, in the way it revolves around attention, isn’t so different from high school itself. All human beings have a need to be noticed sometimes, but in the throes of high school, when we’re all hormones and id, our need for validation is especially naked. The same is true on social media, where getting that like or follow back always seems of the utmost importance.
It follows that any shoutout to high school ends up feeling especially authentic and relatable to certain audiences. The teens, man, they’re gonna save us! If choosing a yearbook picture and quote with viral glory in mind seems performative, it’s worth remembering that yearbooks have always been performative. They were a version of social media before social media, a pre–Instagram profile example of curating one’s personal brand. The “have a great summer”s and “stay cool”s may have fallen out of fashion, but the need to distill one’s persona to wallet-photo size just might be eternal.