Every Generation Has Something to Say About Rotary Phones

Why videos of young people failing to use the old-school phones are going viral.

Screenshot from the video showing two teenage boys in front of a rotary phone, attempting to dial with it.
Is this thing on?
Screenshot from video

Is it possible that the object most likely to unite Americans of all ages is, against all odds, the rotary phone? Stay on the line, because I believe this to be true.

There’s a video circulating on Twitter—almost 4 million people have watched it over the past week—of two teenage boys struggling to make a phone call on a rotary phone. Though the video was reposted and grabbed tons of eyeballs over the past week, it turns out to be a more low-resolution version of a video that previously went viral earlier this year. Factor in that this is just one of several young-people-struggling-with-rotary-phones videos to travel widely online over the last couple years, and we’ve got a burgeoning genre on our hands. (I wouldn’t say young people’s encounters with rotary phones are a trend, but I will also note that a recent challenge in Fortnite, the blockbuster video game, had players dialing rotary phones.)

The rotary-phone-vs.-kids video even already has its own tropes: the vertical format; the youngsters’ bumbling dialogue; the elders narrating gleefully off screen; the first kid stepping aside to make way for the second kid, who’s so sure that she knows what the first one did wrong; one’s quiet realization that these kids might not know what a dial tone is; the hopeful look back at the adult to see if they finally figured it out this time.

One of the pleasures of these videos is that they reverse the more common scenario of young people befuddling the old with their newfangled technology—for once, the old people get to be the in-the-know party here. They are also refreshingly good-natured: One doesn’t sense that the kids are being harshly mocked for not being able to use these obsolete phones, a lack of exploitation that can be hard to come by in our age of prefab viral moments.

But I have a hunch that these rotary phone moments resonate most because as a generational litmus test, the rotary phone is hard to beat: How a person tends to react to one tends to correlate almost exactly with his or her age. If she’s comfortable using one, she was probably born before about 1985; if she doesn’t know how to use one but remembers encountering them in childhood, she was probably born between roughly ‘85 and the late ’90s; and if she’s never seen or even heard of one, there’s a good chance she’s a member of Gen Z.

You could say that’s how rotary phones divide us, but it appears to be the opposite. The impulse to talk about one’s personal experience or lack thereof with rotary phones is near-universal. When the latest viral video provides an opening, in my experience, members of Gens X, Y, and Z alike just can’t help sharing whether they know how to dial a rotary phone and what growing up with one, or not, was like for them. When the above video appeared in our work chat, one millennial recalled learning about rotary phones from movies, and another from her grandparents’ house. “My parents gave me their rotary phone when I was a kid and I used it as a toy,” reported yet a third millennial. A non-millennial colleague piped up to share, “It is baffling to my children that there are phones that do not have games on them.” More people chimed in from there, adding grist to my theory: Pretty much everyone has something to say about the rotary phone.

This impulse gets at the sci-fi reality that in many people’s lifetimes, they have watched phones evolve from rotary-style to the tiny computers we now all carry around in our pockets. These videos are a simple, perfect way to stop and digest how a parent and child can have had such different experiences with such an intimate technology. (There’s also the added layer of the technology of the viral video itself: You can now use a phone to watch videos of old phones, and through processes also done on phones, that video may be a rip-off of earlier videos via the mysterious supply chain of video virality.)

This could be one of the last time periods there will be such a universal way to process these feelings. Alexis Madrigal has written for the Atlantic about the relationship between obsolete technology and nostalgia: “[T]here is pleasure, ‘That’s my shit!’ kind of pleasure, in possessing this knowledge of obsolete lived experience. As the technologies we live with exist for less and less time, a more precise psychological archaeology becomes possible.” Tech is now evolving so fast that in the future, there likely won’t be a whole cohort of people who grew up with the same kind of phone; instead, there might be an itty-bitty microgeneration that had one specific model of a smartphone at one specific time. In the future, will virality exist, and what will it look like? It may be more difficult, but I’m confident that Gens Y and Z will still end up finding ways to roast their children. Technology changes, but parents and children making fun of each other is eternal.