Ripping up the Yellow Pages

Yves here. I know this seems silly, but the Yellow Pages is stopping publication before its user base is done with it. I know my 89 year old mother will miss it and the friends of her I have met feel the same way.

A perhaps more important objection is that screens are still inferior to print media in scanning for information quickly. I see this every time I buy newspapers to read on the airplane. I can flip through all the stories quickly and inevitably run across and read ones I missed in the online version that I scanned the night before. Similarly, when I’ve had to look at the hard copy of Yellow Pages, I similarly encounter more vendors, and am also willing to entertain ones that might not have the most prominent ads.

By David Beer, a Reader in Sociology at the University of York and the author of Metric Power, Punk Sociology, Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation, and New Media: The Key Concepts (with Nicholas Gane). He is on Twitter @davidgbeer. Originally published at openDemocracy

The print version of the Yellow Pages may be coming to an end, but the cultural legacy of classification it embodied goes on – in the encoding even of our very eyes…

 Yellow Pages no more. Flickr/Thomas Hawk. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The announcement that the Yellow Pages will be ceasing its 50 year print run in January 2019 reminded me of the grimacing strongman Geoff Capes. In the 1980s the ability to rip a phone directory in half seemed to be an ultimate symbol of human strength. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records still carries a number of records for phonebook tearing – the greatest number of phonebooks ripped from the spine in one minute is 33. Yet when the last copy of the Yellow Pages is delivered, its ongoing legacy will not be limited to such trivia.

Launched in 1966, the Yellow Pages is perhaps the best known classified business directory. Known for its bulky presence, hence the wonder at ripping, it became a staple prescence in homes and workplaces. When a business or service was needed, the Yellow Pages was a trusted source. The most recent version stretches from abattoirs to yoga, covering everything from taxidermists to graffiti removal. Inevitably the rise of the internet has led to a dwindling interest in these artefacts of a slower age. The comparative slimness of the recent editions is testament to this: the book is getting smaller with each passing year. Ripping the Yellow Pages is no longer quite such a feat.

The famous Yellow Pages TV adverts give a sense of the importance and cultural reach of these hefty yellow books. Stretching across the 80s and 90s, the best known of these adverts involved a man attempting to track down a book. Working his way through the list of booksellers, JR Hartley finally tracked down a rare copy of his own book Fly Fishing. This was part of a series of adverts 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 from a table before his parents arrive home from holiday. Yell, who are behind Yellow Pages, even have a ‘classic adverts’ section of these adverts on their YouTube channel. In all cases, these books were depicted as a comforting presence that could impose order, find the things we need, resolve problems and allow us to negotiate a complex world. The adverts stick in the mind partly because of how smart they were, but the apparent power the Yellow Pages to render a messy world knowable and accessible also played a part.

As these adverts suggest, the influence of the Yellow Pages is actually to be found in the power of its classifications. A little of that power can be found reflected in company names. Today we have companies preoccupied with search engine optimisation, aimed at getting the highest possible position in Google searches. Something similar happened with the Yellow Pages, but instead of the logic of Google’s PageRank algorithm governing namings, it was the alphabetised classifications that held sway. As well as choosing what category to be included within and what type of listing to have, companies would sometimes also name themselves with this format in mind. If you looked for a Taxi for instance, you would be confronted with a series of attempts to game the format – with A1, AAA, and so on, used so as to appear as early as possible within the listing. This is a small indicator of how the classificatory systems we use actually come to shape the world as well as what we know of it.

Classifications don’t just shape behaviours, they also influence what we know of 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 part in how our lives are ordered – from the classification of people, types of work and medicines to the way we organise our homes. They found that we develop our own classificatory systems that contrast and match with the broader classifications that we are given. Think, for instance, of the way that music is organised. We may have our own ways of organising our music collections and playlists, and these might compete with broader genre classifications.

In the classic book The Order of Things, Michel Foucault provided a historical account of the importance of classifications for shaping how knowledge develops. In that book, he looks at how classificatory systems are established and embedded in the development of knowledge. 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 and the like, our ‘encoded eye’ places them within those grids. The result is that those grids have a big influence on how we see the world around us.

Categories and grids can be powerful in helping is to manage a baffling world, they can be liberating. They also bring limits and can push us towards reductive, restrictive and even damaging interpretations and attitudes. Theodor Porter, in his work on the trust we place in numbers and quantification, has argued that categories can have the effect of ‘abstracting away their individuality’. Such categories have the effect, Ian Hacking has suggested, of ‘making people up’. It is for this type of reasons that Imogen Tyler has argued that we should be more aware of the ‘consequences of classificatory systems and the forms of value, judgments and norms they establish’. In this vein, to pick just one pertinent example, Nisha Kappor and Kasia Narkowicz’s ground breaking work illustrates, just how damaging the blunt application of categories like citizenship can be. The point is that categories are not neutral things nor are they natural or fixed, their selection and application is an active presence that frames how we see the world. Of course, the Yellow Pages is in no way a damaging presence, but it might give us pause to reflect more broadly on the part that categories play in our lives, especially as they are being reshaped by social media and the like.

As an extension of things like classified newspaper advertising, the Yellow Pages was a significant part of the development and cementing of the classificatory grid that orders the world for us. As classifications continue to shape knowledge, they will carry traces of things like phone directories, even as we move on to new media forms. They will live on in the way that content is classified in things like Twitter lists, Pinterest boards, Spotify playlists, tagged images on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook and even in the hashtags we use. These classifications are mutating in new directions as the media themselves change. Classifications in social media are notably more dynamic and varied in their form.

An obvious observation to make about the end of the Yellow Pages in print is that it provides yet another marker of our move to an online and immaterial world. However, there is a little more to understanding what this endpoint might reveal. The Yellow Pages was part of the story of how we have come classify the social world. Its print run might come to an end, but our impulse to categorise and classify complexity and mess will continue. It is in the way that it provided and cemented classificatory ways of approaching the world that the legacy of the Yellow Pages will continue.


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  1. Lunker Walleye

    Thank you, Yves. The Yellow Pages were bound together with Residential and Commercial listings in our neck of the woods. Mother placed our phone book first under the clunky yellow dial phone and then the light weight pink Princess phone in the niche in the hallway. It is astonishing to think that the Yellow Pages are younger than me. Sad.

    Thank you for re-opening comments.

  2. Jeff N

    I still have a copy of a 1998 yellow pages in my office desk, whenever I want to hire a service, I check & see if they were around back then. If they were and they are still around now, then I figure the service must be doing something right!

      1. flora

        Context? Who needs context? Individual data points don’t require context. Google AI has sorted that all out. /s (I’m an analog person in an increasingly digital world. sigh…)

  3. HopeLB

    What will my neighbor, 94 year old Fred, who got into a heated argument with Comcast over Judge Judy and then cancelled all internet and tv service, do? What will Rosa. who also is very old, but unlike PHD Engineer Fred never had a computer or smart phone? (Guess they’ll hold on to their old Yellow Pages and new businesses will not reach them.) What about those either in rural areas (Verizon just scrapped service to Monanta, didn’t they?) or those unable to afford internet or a smart phone? Yellow Pages should offer their book at a cost to those who want or need it. I use our Yellow Pages’ Blue Section ( Fed., State, and local government numbers) frequently.

  4. McWatt

    I personally won’t miss the Yellow Pages. Having been ripped off for years as an advertiser with their particular almost monopoly (only one other competitor in my area). Rates were extremely high. Later they tried the scam of moving their services to the internet. When I signed up for their services and then changed my mind the next day, they refused to tear up the contract and I was forced to pay for a year of their internet advertising.

    I also won’t miss the fake Yellow Page bills that were sent several times a month from different scammers pretending to be Yellow Pages.

    Yellow Pages may have been good in the “good old days” but it morphed into an unfriendly and unfair business in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Count me as another one. I did an ad for one year, and what a waste of money that was.

      I also remember having to pay an exorbitant monthly landline bill so I could have (drumroll) a business listing in the Yellow Pages. Whoopee. It was boldface type that cost me something like 50 bucks a month.

      And don’t get *me* started on those fake Yellow Pages bills. Oops. I’m started. Looks like I need to chill my chili peppers.

  5. Ned

    “Launched in 1966?” That date is wrong.
    I have old San Francisco phone books going back to the 1950s that had a yellow tinted commercial section, along with the white residential pages. A ten story warehouse on Vermont and Beverly in L.A. had a giant Yellow Pages ad on the side of the building similar to the one in the photo as early as 1962.

    What’s ruined the quality of the book is the “competing” Valley Yellow pages put out by Verizon that’s expensive and doesn’t list most people or businesses. Ma Bell’s greedy offspring have ruined the neighborhood.

    A more important thing than the ditching of the book is the attempt by AT&T to abandon its copper phone lines in favor of cell service. The landlines work in a power failure, as long as you don’t use the electrically powered wireless sets plugged into the land line, they are reliable, if maintained, and are a literal lifeline for older people w/o cell service.

    Oh, and they don’t give you brain cancer as long as you use the phone plugged directly into the landline. Heard about yet another real estate saleslady who has tumors all through her head after decades of cell use.

    1. MichaelSF

      they are reliable, if maintained,

      There’s the rub. In my neighborhood in SF ATT didn’t seem too keen on maintaining the legacy copper. Switching to a local ISP that rolled out their own gigabit fiber to the house eliminated the “why is there so much static/such a slow DSL speed — oh, look, the fog is in/it is raining” problems.

      1. Dave Beer

        That’s right Yves. It refers to the UK launch date. It’s taken from the official dates provided by Yell.

  6. Wukchumni

    20 years ago when I had a storefront business in LA, I spent over twice what I paid in rent, for yellow page ads.

    They had you by the short and curlies as they were literally the only way anybody knew you existed, and boy did they play one business against another, you want your print to be in red so it stands out, that’ll be a grand more a month?, you want your print ad to be bigger than your competition, that’ll be a couple grand more a month?

    They didn’t nickel and dime you to death, they went for the jugular vis a vis the thousands…

    Good riddance!

  7. Brian Ploszay

    I’ve been getting yellow pages dropped off at my rental units for years. No one bothered to pick them up and they went right to the recycling bin. Still, some old school advertising still works, especially signs. People don’t completely live in the cyberworld.

  8. Jim A.

    If you’re interested in the history of the classification of knowledge, the book The Book on the Shelf is worth a read. Back when books were hand written and very expensive and the only good reading light was natural light, libraries had chained books and they were read right next to the shelves that they were stored on.

    In a bigger sense, computers have allowed us to fully index material in a way that was just impossible with card catalogs. I have to explain that in the old days, you could look or the title, or author, or by a defined subject term IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER from the beginning. Remembering a word in the title was useless unless it was the first (non initial article) word.

  9. RickM

    From the anecdote department: My grandmother was a residential building contractor from about 1954 to 1967; unusual occupation for a woman way back then. Anyway, my grandfather died in December 1962, and she didn’t renew her expensive Yellow Pages ad (which was part of the local phone book from Southern Bell), in a small market where word-of-mouth was sufficient . Much later in 1963 she got a call from the sales rep notifying her that she hadn’t paid her bill. When she told him she hadn’t renewed the ad, the rep replied that he had a signed contract from my grandfather, dated recently. When she told him that the signer had been deceased since December of the previous year, she heard a hang-up, and nary a peep out of Southern Bell ever again.

  10. Oregoncharles

    At least in the southern Willamette Valley, the Yellow Pages have print competitors. Or maybe we’re down to just one. If you miss the original, you could look around for the imitators.

    Yes, I still drag out the book for local services. But then, I used to read cereal boxes while eating breakfast, too.

    1. Lyle

      Where I live there are at least 3 to 4 different yellow pages, as the split of the Bell System encouraged folks to go into the business for themselves. (A town in the Tx Hill country) Different versions tend to concentrate on different local population centers. (They avoid the general adds of the online yellow pages for places wildly far away). BTW which yellow pages company made the announcement, the spin off of the bell system? To say Yellow Pages is to generic now

    2. Angie Neer

      Why’d you stop reading cereal boxes? My family jokes about how I will read anything within reach while I eat, and enjoys booby-trapping my place at the table with things like terms-of-service contracts and graduate-level topology textbooks. And no, I have no comprehension of topology above the “a coffee mug is the same as a doughnut” level.

  11. Kirk

    This announcement only applies to one YP directory in the UK. American YP marketers are still around and trying their darndest to remain relevant. I just renewed my add for the upcoming book. Yes, I know that the YP is losing users every year, but I do get some clients from the ad, so I’m keeping it for now.

  12. John S

    …my business memory goes back to 1967, when I entered the moving industry in Orange County, CA….The largest ad in the OC YP BOOKS was held by Schick M & S. As long as they renewed their ad for the biggest space sold, they were guaranteed the first spot in the Movers Listings. Schick purchased full page ads for ALL the Yellow Page Books and their phones never stopped ringing.

    The first spot in a specific listing category always got more calls than the second or the third, etc.

    The YP salespeople convinced buyers that the closer your ad was to the front of your business section, the more your phone would ring. Movers (and Appliance Repairers, Massage Studios, etc.) rushed to buy the biggest ads they could afford, so that the Instant Need Purchaser would be captured.

    Movers could have saved ZILLIONS if all ads were limited to the size of a business card.

    The YP were the best $$$$ value for our advertising and marketing dollar. Zillow, and basically open access to the RE Multiple Listing Services was not available “back in the day”. So, unless the move was Corporate Paid, the only way to reach the Average Joe Move Up Buyers was the Yellow Pages.

    I remember Color being added in the 90’s. And, then there were other frills and extras that were pushed by their salespeople. And, the YP salespeople were PAID A LOT for not doing very much.

    In some ways, the YP put themselves out of business. By forcing prices and costs to such a level that buyers stopped purchasing ads and consumers found other ways of finding out about businesses and services that they needed.

    The Music Recording Industry also put themselves out of business. From single songs on 45’s and 78’s, they went to 33 LP’s. Then they eliminated 45’s and put only ONE HIT on a LP. And, the money rolled in from every store. And, Hallelujah! along came the CD and consumers REPURCHASED THEIR ENTIRE COLLECTION OF MUSIC to play on CD Players. What could go wrong?

    But, Alas! Along came Napster…..and file sharing and i-tunes and whatever else kids use today…….

    And, the Big Record Companies slip-slided away and so did TOWER RECORDS.

    By the way, ALL THINGS MUST PASS, The Story of Tower Records is just wonderful and is available for free on Showtime.

    I will miss the YP’s and Tower Records and Drugstore Soda Fountains and Sleigh Bells in the Snow…

    1. JB4049

      Actually what really f@@@ed the music business was always increasing the retail price of the music regardless of format. When a compact disc or cassette tape costs around a dollar, or less, to mass produce went at retail from $11.99 to 17.99 or more in less than a decade people noticed. When customers switch from CDs to cassette because of the rapid increase in cost, the industry raised cassette prices from ~9.98 for a fairly new album to 12, 13, even 15 for it. Heck, releases from earlier decades selling at 4.99 had similar increases.

      Billboard Hits of 1959 or whatever for ten dollars plus tax. Can the class say the word Greed?

      There might still have been large music stores. Plenty of people wanted hard copies instead of downloading, even if just as a backup or out of habit. Plus it helped to talk to the staff who often were knowledgeable. But at some point, too many said no. Yeah capitalism is wonderful at strip mining.

  13. Dale

    Wow, I still use the yellow pages over a computer search when I am looking for something. Will be a sad day when they stop printing.

    1. lyle

      The problem with yellow page web sites say on motels that the chains ads get dragged into the search listed as serving area x. This is not any local locations but just a generic we exist. (not very useful if looking for a place to stay) As another example looking for home repair services they list folks up to 100 miles away in some cases, These sites to fully replicate the traditional yellow pages need to put distance and location filters into their search algorithms.

  14. HotFlash

    It seems the Yellow Pages are indeed, very old. I don’t remember back to 1883 (stop giggling!) but I can’t recall a time, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, when the phone book for our teeny tiny Michigan town plus several nearby hamlets did not have a yellow pages bound with the white pages. Came up to about 1/2 inch — I never understood until I moved to Toronto references to kids being sat on phone books to raise them to dinner-table height — but I digress. When I opened a bike shop in Canada in 1970 we got a free Yellow Pages listing with our business phone (just one line, in alpha order within the category, which could be puzzling). In the early 1980’s I had a friend in my choir who worked for them — Teledirect or something it was called, IIRC it was a Bell spin-off — not sure, wasn’t paying attention to such stuff back then.

    These days I immediately bin the Yellow Pages, and the White Pages, too, but I admit to consulting yelp when I am trying to find a *local* business. Regular searches give me results that are not the service/goods I asked for and/or not local. I appreciate their curating, although I take the reviews with many grains of salt.

    1. Edward E

      Way back in the day I remember asking an Ozarks country boy if he was enjoying the (Yellow) book he was reading. “It’s okay, but there are way, way too many characters to keep up with.” he replied

        1. Edward E

          Yes and his name is Reed A Lott. When he gets a little older he met Paige Turner and it was love at first sight, reaching for the same book. It’s still the greatest match in Newton County Library history. They have three children, Speed Reed, Loredda and Liza Lott. They say Liza is blessed with an overabundance of imagination.

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