In Defense of the Flip Phone

by Matt Powers

The more time that passes, the more ire the sight of my flip phone garners from people. “You still use that?” they ask, somewhere between surprised and disgusted. “How do you get around with it?” “Do those still work?” Or my favorite: “Did you lose your iPhone?” Not so long ago, my flip phone got a light-hearted chuckle from strangers when I used it in public places, but recently people seem borderline offended that I still use one.

What surprises many is that I am using a flip phone despite being in the prime target demographic for a smart phone:
1.) I’m a young, single, college-educated white male
2.) I live in a major city
3.) I work for a website
4.) I used to work at the Apple Store
5.) I’m living in the 21st century

Somehow, all of these sure-bets have failed to make me a smart phone convert. What went wrong? I don’t use a flip phone to be cool or ironic (even the most self-aware, image-conscious person would likely grow weary of the limitations of the flip phone). I can’t explain exactly why I still use one, but it has something to do with cost, durability, and a desire not to be reachable in all manners of communication, at all hours of the day, all days of the week. If something is important enough to elicit my attention on a Tuesday evening or Sunday afternoon, a call or text will be more than sufficient. Luckily, my flip phone can handle both of those.

But there are definitely other, stranger reasons I still have my flip phone.

A year ago, my flip phone got me unwittingly picked up at a bar. I took out my phone while waiting for my drink, and a young woman next to me excitedly pulled out the exact same model. We both had well-formed opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of our Samsung Gustos (strengths, of course dominated the discourse). She was a fan of the way the the phone intelligently learns your texting mannerisms; I extolled the virtues of the “text to email” feature. She even taught me how to quick search the contacts list, a time-slashing measure I use to this day. Looking back, we were definitely doing that “I’m young and live in New York” thing where you talk about something kitchy but really you’re flirting. Except, I was definitely just talking about my flip phone.

Even as our conversation matured from sundry cell phone observations to more typical barroom fare, I kept thinking of more points and flip phone experiences I wanted to share with my new compatriot. We shared a common lineage — we were the last two survivors from a distant land time had long since forgotten who serendipitously bumped into each other in the unapologetic capital of smart phones. We were relegated to an oral history that would be doomed if we didn’t preserve it through T9 word or the Gusto’s very spotty voice recognition software. We talked for over an hour and a half. She kept telling the increasingly-peeved man I kept bumping into accidentally that she was sorry, because this was our awkward first date.

This was unambiguous flirting, but at the time, that only made me think of the calendar function on my phone, which lets you search for stored events by date. I used the opportunity to launch into my feelings on this topic. Even when she put her hand on my upper arm when leaning in close to tell me something, I still didn’t pick up on the fact that this was anything more than a fortuitous flip phone symposium. I was so under the influence of flip phone discussion that after those charmed 90 minutes, I left forever, caught up in the mayhem of my friend who had just broken a beer glass without getting the number of my brave countryman on our unifying device.

I’d like to see an iPhone do that.

Not all of the warnings that smart phoners give are misguided. I do miss out on fun Yelp, Twitter, and Foursquare deals at my favorite bars and restaurants. Loyalty in this new century of ours only counts if you can log it with a mobile device, and I am behind the curve. What I don’t yearn for, however, is my friend Kelly’s almost franticly proud compulsion to “check in” everywhere she goes, most quixotically at a Dunkin Donuts at 2:30 a.m. two weekends ago (nothing free was rendered from this, but much was lost).

I love my flip phone paradoxically because I don’t actually love it. Like many things I don’t love, I don’t look at it often. Sure, I excitedly talk about it when a cute girl at a bar has the same exact relic, but I don’t paw at it endlessly when I’m bored or have a spare minute, and that’s not because I’m a cool, unattached person: It’s simply because there’s nothing to do on a flip phone. My phone has never once obstructed me from noticing my surroundings for more than 15 seconds. I’ve never “tweeted” on my phone. I don’t have to compulsively check it, because when I get a text or a call, it will vibrate and I will tend to it. It also has this really neat function that displays the time on the front of it, saving me from having to wear a cumbersome watch.

I don’t even need a data plan.

Texting is one of the most advanced features the flip phone can handle, and even that gets its own unique little spin you can’t find anywhere else. My mobile can only receive 160 characters per text, so when I receive long messages, they are broken up in chunks, which become like little cliff hangers. Sometimes I have no idea if someone is mad at me or pleased with me based on the first half of their text, and the 20 seconds it takes to get the second half is breathless. I imagine it’s how Alexander Graham Bell felt waiting for the first return phone call. And if you think I’m off by several orders of magnitude, you have obviously never received a lengthy text from a girl whom you just spilled paella all over that the first installment ends in “…just make sure y….” Still gives me chills.

Not all unique flip phone experiences even require a second person. Every couple of weeks or so, I have to delete all my text messages because my dinky phone just plain runs out of space. This sounds annoying, but it’s kind of a cool experiment in memory, because every time I get the message that I’m out of space, I always go back to my earliest text message from the cycle. It’s from a couple of weeks ago, and I am always surprised by what I have written, whether it’s an angry text to a person I haven’t talked to since, or a text from when I was away from home, or a so-clearly-flirty text (emblazoned with far too many exclamations) that it makes my skin crawl just to read it 20 days later.

Of course, any sort of especially sentimental texts can be “locked” so that they’re not deleted in the “delete all” tri-weekly purge, but I find even those never make it past three or four iterations of text deletion. Those are usually the saddest, because they are invariably from unrequited loves or flings that were cut too short, the sappy side of me unable to delete the last text vestige of them from my phone. This is an emotional experience of finality and loss that the endless archives of the smart phone hard drive could never replicate. My flip phone saves me hundreds of dollars a month on therapy.
Eventually, I will get a smart phone. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have proudly said, “Never!” but that was just the hubris of youth speaking. Unless you head for the jungle or the mountains, smart phones will find their way into even the life of even the most fundamentalist flip phoner. Much like analog TV, non-smart phones will eventually be phased out. Somehow, this flip phone issue has transformed me into the reactionary old man who is the last in town to accept the generous offer from the strip mall developers. I know it’s only a matter of time, especially because literally everyone I know, save my parents, has taken the deal. I’m the one in the way of progress, telling people, even some older than me, how much better it was when you couldn’t send an email from the palm of your hand. There are 45-year-old housewives who know more about smart phones than I do. There are likely prisoners incarcerated since the late seventies who have more of a handle on 3G networks.

My aunt has an iPad.

I guess I just want a little more time before I have to stare down this strip mall every day for the rest of my life, and I don’t mean that pejoratively (or at least not entirely). I know strip malls aren’t the most loved things in the world, and I don’t think owning a smart phone is inherently bad, but the similarities are compelling. You can get everything you want in one place, they are unavoidable, they are unsettlingly convenient, and they are everywhere. It’s just different experience, and like futzing with bunny ears, the experience of owning a flip phone is slipping through our fingers.

People are forfeiting their last chance to be off the smart-grid before this country and culture is completely 3G. Smart phone ubiquity is coming, and it’s likely coming very soon. No more weird bar conversation fodder, no more texts being broken into heart-stopping chunks, and no more getting lost on your way to that new Indian place that opened up across town. We will all be beholden to the elegance and agony of the smart phone before you know it, and even the most entrenched flip phone loyalist will have to make the switch. I guess my point is this: what’s the rush?

Matt Powers is a citizen of the world. Also, New York.

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