It may seem like Gen Z will never know the satisfaction of slapping a phone shut after ending a call, or the tactility of typing in T9. But the flip phone may be making a comeback.
Sixteen years after the Motorola craze of the early aughts, 26-year-old Amber Giesen bought herself a pink Razr on eBay. The social media manager from Amsterdam was throwing a Y2K party in May and needed the perfect throwback accessory. She documented the unboxing on her TikTok account, @wuddleboo. In the video, uploaded May 6, she shows off its two-megapixel camera and the limited array of games, while playing “Toxic” by Britney Spears.
While Giesen never experienced thrill of owning her own pink Razr in 2005, she does remember playing with her mother’s flip phone as a child.
“Buying it was very nostalgic for me because I saw all the features my mom used to have on hers, like the camera and the little games,” Giesen told Mashable.
On TikTok, the “flip phone” tag currently has over 226 million views. For every video of the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3, a smart flip phone device launched in August 2021, there’s one of a young person evangelizing a flip phone lifestyle as a way to take a necessary break from social media. There are unboxing videos like Giesen’s, clips of the trendy AliExpress Hello Kitty flip phone, and TikToks of users buying “burner phones with bestie” and decorating them with gems and stickers.
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The Digital Fairy, a creative agency with internet and youth culture specialists, coined the term “vintage tech nostalgia” on TikTok, where they examine the “fall of the Apple aesthetic” among teens and young adults. They posit that minimalist tech is out — and that Gen Z is ushering in a new, recycled era of bold, customizable products and busy vaporwave visuals.
Wired headphones are back; vloggers are turning to old camcorders to capture authenticity; and you can now buy a $25 phone case to make your iPhone look like a classic pink Razr. The concept of vintage tech nostalgia is tied to young people’s fascination with Y2K style.
“Aesthetically, flip phones are a lot more exciting than today’s slick smartphones,” Biz Sherbert, a culture specialist at The Digital Fairy, told Mashable over email. “There was more variation in the style and design of flip and slide phones — from invincible, utilitarian Nokias, to business-y Blackberrys, to blinged-out hot pink Motorola Razrs. There was more customization and flair to flip phones.”
It isn’t just TikTok teens who are harnessing the power of Y2K nostalgia and flip phone imagery. In Louisville rapper Jack Harlow’s latest music video for “Luv is Dro (feat. Static Major & Bryson Tiller),” everyone is seen communicating on flip phones, even the 23-year-old artist himself. If you look closely, one young woman is even seen with a pink Motorola Razr — the same device that’s featured prominently in K-Pop artist Sunmi’s “You can’t sit with us” music video.
But are young people buying flip phones for more than just the aesthetics? Wired headphones and flip phones reigned supreme in the early aughts when social media apps like TikTok and Snapchat were just ideas on whiteboards. For a generation of digital natives like Gen Z, they’ve lived their entire lives on screens.
This makes a more analog existence appealing in 2021. Gen Z is disconnecting from plain, modern tech and encouraging others to do the same. As one TikTok advises, “This is ur sign to get a flipphone for summer and to take a break from toxic social media <3.”
Today’s teens are suffering from social media overload. They are in search of lost time. A 2019 Common Sense Media report revealed that teens’ average screen time is seven hours and 22 minutes — and that doesn’t include time spent in front of a screen for school or homework. Flip phones represent an alternate way of living, one in which you can have seven more hours in a day. It forces you to live in the moment.
Singer-songwriter Lorde spoke openly about her quest to lower her screen time in a 2021 interview with The New York Times. She didn’t get a flip phone, but she did log out of social media apps, set her iPhone to grayscale mode, block YouTube from her laptop, and get rid of the internet browser on her smartphone.
The desire to go offline is something Nicky Shapiro, a 23-year-old UC Berkeley graduate and proud owner of a modern AT&T Alcatel SmartFlip Phone, can relate to. He doesn’t follow trendy aesthetics. Instead, Shapiro wanted to replicate an older time when you had to call someone to reach them. “I would watch these old movies, and I was jealous of the pay phones. I watched Desperately Seeking Susan, an ’80s movie with Madonna, and I was like, this is incredible. Like they had to rely on the newspaper! I don’t know it just seemed so fun,” Shapiro said.
I’m not addicted to social media, but I definitely feel addicted to my iPhone.He used his flip phone from February to May 2021, only stopping once he graduated college, moved to a new city, and needed a smartphone for his job.
“I’m not addicted to social media, but I definitely feel addicted to my iPhone. I’ll just pick it up and open Safari for no reason or look at sports scores,” Shapiro explained to Mashable.
“I constantly feel its presence in my pocket. I just reach for it for no reason, I am not even checking the time. I felt a complete reliance and addiction to it,” he continued.
Part of the appeal of the flip phone is the possibility it holds. While Giesen initially bought the phone as an accessory for a Y2K party, she plans to use it as a second phone at music festivals once COVID restrictions are lifted. “It would allow you to live in the moment. You’d be offline and wouldn’t get distracted by your smartphone all the time,” explained Giesen.
Using a flip phone sounds like a good way to unplug, but in a time where menus are scanned using QR codes, young people rely on Venmo to pay each other back, and you often need two-factor identification to log into any account, is it feasible to completely transition to a flip phone full-time?
“I think it is pretty untenable to do any modern job or live in an urban place without a smartphone,” Shapiro shared. “You have to be in an extremely privileged specific situation to actually pull off living with a flip phone full time.”
Shapiro used his flip phone during his last semester of college. He was living with his best friends, and like most of us, he was mainly plugged into the outside world on his laptop.
Other young people fantasize about getting a flip phone, but don’t take the leap. Jacqueline Racich, a 22-year-old Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student, considered getting a flip phone because she feels like she’s less productive when her smartphone is around. “I don’t like how much time can be wasted and how it kills opportunities to be fully engaged and social with other people,” she told Mashable over Instagram DM.
SEE ALSO: Why Gen Z is plugging in wired headphones and tuning out AirPods
Ultimately, the functionality of apps like Google Maps and Spotify keep Racich from actually trading in her iPhone.
Is living with a flip phone worth the logistical nightmare it poses? Shapiro thinks so. “It was truly incredible, I felt no urge to reach into my pocket. I did miss listening to music and podcasts, but it forced me to focus on — this sounds corny as fuck — focus on talking to people and just, like, thinking, which sounds ridiculous but is true,” Shapiro explained.
The release from the stress of texting and social media was super nice.Leo Levy, a 22-year-old living in Los Angeles, agrees. He used a flip phone for six months while in a sober living program. “The release from the stress of texting and social media was super nice,” Levy told Mashable over Instagram DM. He found that because of T9 predictive texting he had to be intentional about who he messaged because it required more effort. “I have considered getting a flip phone again because of the simplicity of it and the lack of distraction,” concluded Levy.
The flip phone is attractive to Gen Z both because of its throwback aesthetics and its limited functionality. It offers an alternative to the screen-first life young people live now. The fascination with the flip phone lies in the possibility it represents: Imagine what you could do with all the time you spend looking at your phone?
“Our relationship to our cell phones in the era of flips and slides was quite different to what it is today,” Sherbert said. “Today’s smartphones distract us and stress us out, as we find ourselves constantly scrolling through social media… But, back in the 2000s, the heyday of the flip phone, you could use your phone to basically just call, text, and maybe send emails or surf a very pixelated web. [There was] no social media to doomscroll.”
Talk to any young person and chances are they’ve dreamed about what it was to come of age before smart phones and social media. It doesn’t help that the lack of smart phones in older movies make plots so much more interesting. Before Sunrise could have never ended the way it did if they could just look each other up on Instagram.
Maybe Gen Z is onto something. Giesen hopes that the flip phone trend catches on.
“It would be really nice and beneficial for people to just log off for a bit and live in the moment.”
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