My Week With a Flip Phone

Photo: Credit

“Oh, is that an iPhone 6?” someone asks. Two-thirds of the dinner party turns to look at the girl who’s just taken her phone out to check a message. “Can I hold it?” someone else asks. “Does it really bend when you sit?” “Man, that’s huge.” “How’s the camera? I hear it’s the best camera.”

The girl passes it around with a shrug and offers a few low-key Luddite excuses for her embrace of new and exciting technology. “I didn’t even want one, really,” she says. “My other screen was just so cracked. So I thought, If I have to get a new phone, why not?”

Another woman turns to me. “I’m just, like, so not into technology,” she says, just loudly enough. “I still have an iPhone 4! And I don’t even load music on it.” I ask her what she does on long walks or the subway.

“I just look at the world. I mean, God, can’t people just do that anymore?”

I’m at a gathering of people I don’t really know, many of whom have septum rings and stick-and-poke tats, so I wasn’t exactly expecting to be the coolest person at the jamboree. Normally, I would just shut up at this point and fume at the insufferable nature of people who claim they don’t need music on the subway. But tonight, I have an ace in my pocket.

So, as if I’m just casually checking an incoming message, as one does, I pull out my brand-new phone — a Samsung flip phone. A flip phone.

Lately the flip has been discussed as a sort of “status phone” among cool people, like pretentious technophobes and Anna Wintour, so I’m wondering if my newly acquired flip phone will provide me entry to this club. With a satisfying fwaaap! and a flick of the wrist — like I’m opening a switchblade — I pop that faux Luddite’s over-inflated bubble. There’s a moment of silence as I pretend to text away — slowly, precisely, laboriously. For I am on a flip phone, and I revel in my slow text messaging, much as a slow-food early adopter would revel in raising her own chickens.

“Whoa,” says Zoe, a particularly cool redhead who was seconds ago blowing cigarette smoke in my face as if I were invisible, “is that a flip phone? Rad.”

Does the hipness of the flip represent a rebellion against mindless iPhone addicts? A fear of the hackable Cloud? A desire to return to simpler, more social times? As a smartphone addict who literally sleeps with my iPhone clutched in my hand (it’s an alarm clock!), the idea of something that allows me to communicate but can free me from the attention-prison of a smartphone is enticing. And I’m not alone. A Pew study revealed that 9 percent of American adults don’t use smartphones, including 15 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 13 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds. So a few weeks ago, after reading this Medium essay heralding the flip phone as the phone of cool girls, I decided to give smartphoneless life a shot.

For the sake of this experiment, I attempted to switch over my iPhone entirely, but doing so would have caused me to lose my unlimited data plan with AT&T. I’m committed, but not insane. Instead, I purchased a burner phone with no data plan, so all I can do is call, text, and occasionally play Tetris or snap a photo. The self-imposed rules: I allow myself to use my lame old iPhone as an iPod, because if I have to listen to the lullaby of the C train I’ll go crazy. But I can’t use Rdio, Spotify, or the Public Radio app. I also cannot use Instagram, Google Maps, Dots, Candy Crush, Tinder, 3nder, the Dominos app, etc. It’s going to be a challenging week.

I acquire the phone on a sunny Friday afternoon. And maybe it’s the warm sunshine or the promise of a weekend, but I have to say, I actually like the little guy almost immediately. For all that Apple emphasis on design, there is really something kind of clunky about the rectangular iPhone. My new flip is as smooth and small as a rock tossed about by the sea. It feels nice in my hand. It fits in all of my little pockets. I can text using one thumb with ease, albeit slowly. And the battery: oh my God, the battery. By the end of my first weekend I haven’t charged it once!

The early reviews from friends and acquaintances suggest that having a flip phone agrees with me in ways an iPhone never has. A selection of comments from that first weekend:

“I saw you using that when you walked in and thought, Either this girl just dropped her iPhone or is, like, so over technology.” —Dude at party. (Cool.)

“When you said you got a new phone, I thought, Ugh, that hooker got the iPhone 6.” —A friend who knows me too well. (Bucking expected behavior. Cool.)

“I think I want one!” —My cool friend Richard. (Inspiring other Cools. Cool.)

“Refreshingly old-fashioned.” —A supportive friend. (Like a Polaroid camera. Fuckin’ cool.)

“This would be cooler if you’d never stopped using your flip phone.” —A frenemy. (I chalk this up to jealousy. Cool.)

“I’m in Japan right now and tons of people are using flip phones. They’ll be huge in the States in five years.” —A friend abroad. (Endorsed by Tokyo. Coolest.)

“Why are you texting me from this number. Did you break your iPhone again, Allison?” —Mom. (Just … not cool.)

“I don’t know if it’s your dress or that flip phone, but you seem cooler today.” —A co-worker. My favorite co-worker. (Mysterious origins of Cool. So cool.)

By Tuesday I am officially a “dumb-phone user,” except I’m so cool now that I don’t need labels. This is just my phone, y’all. Chill. My flip is four days old and things are going great.

Obviously, there are still some technological difficulties. T9 might have been advanced when I got my first phone in middle school, but now it’s just slow and clumsy. I can’t group text. When a “friend” chooses to text me the first several pages of The Great Gatsby, followed by the complete lyrics to “Where’s the Party At” by Jagged Edge, and it all arrives in about 40 separate messages, I want to murder the world. There is no Google Maps, so I’m always kind of lost. I can’t check my work email. My photos are laughably bad. The iPhone might be the symbol of a desperate striver, but its camera is a godsend. Here is a photo I took of a scenic vista while on vacation with my flip to illustrate the misery:

Photo: Courtesy of Allison Davis

But there really are a number of perks to the “dumb phone.” The aforementioned battery life is truly amazing — I only have to charge it once a week. I actually prefer calling rather than texting. Everything is far more efficient as long as people answer their phones. And when they do, they are usually so delighted by my strange, ancient practice that I think it makes their day. So I’m also doing good deeds. I don’t even miss emoji, because the phone translates them into adorable little emoticons for me. A cat becomes: =^.^=. And the fish looks like this: <*)))<.

And, more important, as promised by all discussions of flip phones out there, this technology helps me nail the three tenets of very cool:

A Laissez-Faire Attitude: Without modern conveniences like Google Maps, Seamless, Waze, and Immaculate Infatuation, I’m pretty much helpless when I’m away from my computer. And I love it. All of a sudden I’m like, “Oh, can you take a picture of that for me? It’s cool if not.” Or, “I’m not sure where that bar is. Or how to get there. But it’s fine, we’ll find it, man. Just trust.” Try being easygoing with your electronic leashes, nerds.

An Air of Mystery: My text messages become exercises in minimalist brevity. No nervous chatter or idle texting or random quips about things I just saw in the street. T9 makes it impossible to text for texting’s sake. If you don’t know me, you might think my tone is curt. Or I might be busy, or maybe I’m a sociopath — who knows! I’m indecipherable. My brother, who insists on asking me questions, devises a system for me to use: 1 for yes, 2 for no.

Aloofness: In 2000, when I was in middle school, I read a mini-profile in Elle of French actress Virginie Ledoyen, love interest of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach. The piece called her the new “It” girl and to illustrate her “It”-ness the writer mentioned that Ledoyen had a very slender, platinum Nokia flip phone that was always ringing but she never answered. That line has always stuck with me. It’s a life lesson: If you don’t answer, they will call more. Out of sheer inability to keep up with the flow of messages from iPhone-using friends, I don’t respond to most text messages. As a result, I probably appear very aloof, and therefore very cool. One might even mistake me for French.

By Wednesday, I am so aloof people have stopped trying to get in touch with me. I understand why the “It”-girl status of Ledoyen was so short-lived. “What’s the point of me texting you if you aren’t even going to answer,” a friend asks/demands. We’re on a string of group texts and I’m not doing my part and eventually they just stop including me. Nobody ever said being a trend pioneer was easy.

It’s annoying to not be able to transfer funds immediately, or use Google Maps, and I miss a number of appointments because I don’t have my trusty iPhone calendar. I have to plan ahead for everything. But I have to say, the week has made me a better person. I didn’t have an iPhone to distract me at dinner. For once, I wasn’t the asshole scrolling through Instagram during hang-out time. I interact with other humans now. Did you know there are birds in the sky? You don’t when you have an iPhone. So did the flip phone automatically cover me in some kind of cool-person shine? I’m going to say yes, mostly because people are way too impressed with anyone who isn’t an iPhone zombie these days. The bar is pretty low.

At that party, I excuse myself to go make a phone call — I refuse to T9-type directions to my friend. I’d like her to show up before the end of the night. “Excuse me, I need to make a phone call.” Zoe claps her hands with delight. “You call people.” And then launches into a story about a friend who had sex with someone who called her the next day. Everyone is shocked that someone had a sexual encounter followed by conscientious human interaction and not “Thx” with an accompanying eggplant and donut emoji. I feel all smug. I’m not only flip-phone-level cool but flip-phone-level kind and flip-phone-level mature.

Zoe continues. “But we decided, it’s not even about the flip anymore,” she says, tossing her hair. “We’re looking into beepers.”

My Week With a Flip Phone