Ripping up the yellow pages

No more yellow pages. Flickr / Thomas Hawk. CC BY-NC 2.0.http: //test.test The announcement that the Yellow Pages will cease their 50-year circulation in January 2019 reminded me of the grinning strongman Geoff Capes. In the 1980s, the ability to rip a phone book in half seemed like the ultimate symbol of human strength. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records still contains a number of records of phone book rips – the highest number of phone books ripped from the spine in a minute is 33. Yet when the last copy of the Yellow Pages is delivered, its continuing legacy will not be limited to such anecdotes.

Launched in 1966, the Yellow Pages are perhaps the most well-known classified business directory. Known for its voluminous presence, hence the wonder of the tear, it has become a staple in homes and workplaces. When a business or service was needed, the Yellow Pages were a trusted source. The most recent version spans from slaughterhouses to yoga, covering everything from taxidermists to graffiti removal. Inevitably, the rise of the Internet has led to a decrease in interest in these artifacts of a slower age. The relative thinness of recent editions bears witness to this: the book is getting smaller and smaller from year to year. Tearing up the yellow pages is no longer quite a feat.

The famous Yellow Pages television commercials give an idea of ​​the importance and cultural significance of these big yellow books. Spanning the ’80s and’ 90s, the best-known of these advertisements involved a man trying to find a book. While browsing the bookstore list, JR Hartley finally found a rare copy of his own book Fly Fishing. It was part of a series of ads in which people turned to the Yellow Pages for help – in another case, a house party leaves a young man in need of a French polisher to remove a scratch on a table before her parents came home from vacation. Yell, who is behind the yellow pages, even has a “classic ads” section of those ads on their YouTube channel. Either way, these books were portrayed as a heartwarming presence who could enforce order, find the things we need, solve problems, and enable us to negotiate a complex world. Ads stay in the mind in part because of how smart they are, but the yellow pages’ apparent power to make a messy world knowable and accessible has also played a role.

As these ads suggest, the influence of the Yellow Pages actually lies in the power of its rankings. Some of that power is found in the names of companies. Today we have companies concerned with search engine optimization, aiming to achieve the best possible position in Google searches. Something similar happened with the yellow pages, but instead of the logic of Google’s PageRank algorithm governing names, alphabetical classifications prevailed. In addition to choosing the category to include and the type of list to have, companies sometimes also name themselves taking this format into account. If you were looking for a Taxi for example, you would be faced with a series of attempts to play the format – with A1, AAA, etc., used so as to appear as early as possible in the list. It’s a small indicator of how the classification systems we use come to shape the world and what we know about it.

When we encounter objects, places, people, animals, etc., our “coded eye” places them in these grids.

Classifications not only shape behaviors, they also influence what we know about the world and what we can discover. In their book Sorting Things Out, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explored the many ways that classifications play a role in the organization of our lives – from classifying people, types of work, and medications to how we let’s organize our homes. They found that we are developing our own classification systems that contrast and match the broader classifications given to us. Think, for example, of how the music is organized. We may have our own ways of organizing our music collections and playlists, and these can compete with broader genre classifications.

In the classic book The Order of Things, Michel Foucault provided a historical account of the importance of classifications in shaping the way knowledge develops. In this book, he examines how classification systems are established and integrated into knowledge development. How we order the world matters. Categories shape what is known and how it is understood. Foucault suggested that these classifications form a grid. When we encounter objects, places, people, animals, etc., our “coded eye” places them in these grids. The result is that these grids have a great influence on how we see the world around us.

Categories and grids can be powerful in helping to deal with a confusing world, they can be liberating. They also bring limits and can push us towards reductive, restrictive or even damaging interpretations and attitudes. Theodor Porter, in his work on our reliance on numbers and quantification, argued that categories can have the effect of “ignoring their individuality.” Such categories have the effect, according to Ian Hacking, of “making up people”. It is for these kinds of reasons that Imogen Tyler argued that we should be more aware of “the consequences of classification systems and the forms of value, judgments and standards they set.” In this vein, to cite just one relevant example, the groundbreaking work of Nisha Kappor and Kasia Narkowicz illustrates just how damaging the brutal application of categories like citizenship can be. The point is that categories are not neutral or natural or fixed things, their selection and application is an active presence that frames our way of seeing the world. Of course, the Yellow Pages are by no means a damaging presence, but it might give us pause to think more broadly about the role categories play in our lives, especially as they are being reshaped by social media and others.

As an extension of things like classified newspaper ads, the Yellow Pages have been an important part of developing and consolidating the classification grid that orders the world for us. As classifications continue to shape knowledge, they will bear traces of things like phone books, even as we move to new forms of media. They will live the same way that content is categorized in things like Twitter lists, Pinterest boards, Spotify playlists, images tagged on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook and even in the hashtags we use. These classifications are shifting in new directions as the media itself changes. Social media classifications are notably more dynamic and varied in form.

One obvious observation to make about the end of the printed yellow pages is that they provide yet another marker of our shift to an online, intangible world. However, there is a little more to understand what this endpoint might reveal. The Yellow Pages were part of the story of how we came to classify the social world. Its circulation may be coming to an end, but our impulse to categorize and categorize complexity and disorder will continue. It is in the way it provided and cemented classifying ways of approaching the world that the legacy of the Yellow Pages will continue.


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Marvin M. Moreno

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