Thursday, May 30, 2024

A Subreddit for Dumbphones Is the Smartest Place Online

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Dumbphone life, as r/Dumbphones moderator Jose Briones told me, is about “recovering your time and attention for the things you actually value.” Of course, getting sucked into a subreddit because it was algorithmically suggested to me—based on my extensive online browsing—is the antithesis of that. But it’s how I found r/Dumbphones, now my favorite place on the internet.

The phone you had in 2009” is a decent approximation. Briones got into them in late 2019. At the time, he was logging 12, 13 hours of screen time a day. One night, at around 1 am, he was watching Netflix on his phone and thought, “Enough.”

He tried to go cold turkey with a Light Phone, a tiny bare-bones device with an E Ink screen and only a few basic features. It didn’t work. Life without Google Maps was too hard. The siren song of the smartphone was too strong, so he picked it back up again. A few months later, amid the isolation and stress of the pandemic lockdown, he gave a dumbphone another try. This time, something clicked. He took his dog for more walks, read more books, joined a sports league, and tried more hobbies. He also discovered r/Dumbphones—via the algorithm, of course—and soon became its moderator, helping the subreddit go from fewer than 10,000 members in 2020 to more than 50,000 four years later.

I am part of that growth. Like Briones, I’d tried out a Light Phone back in the day, and also like Briones, I’d failed. When I moved apartments, the Light Phone didn’t come with me.

That was OK, or so I’ve learned from r/Dumbphones. In this community, having a dumbphone is not about succeeding or failing or even about being anti-tech. It’s about asking yourself what you really need from your phone. “It’s a helpful, happy sub,” says Alex Locklin, who joined it in 2024. “We’re all looking for something similar but not identical. I think everyone realizes they’re scrolling too much and missing out on life.” There are no ideological purity tests. No one accuses you of being a faker if your device is insufficiently dumb. I haven’t had to throw my iPhone into the nearest body of water, to emerge cleansed and pure. The sub is more generous than that. In my six months there, I have not seen anything resembling an argument. Arguing with strangers on the internet is not very dumbphone-y.

New arrivals to the subreddit usually search the Dumbphone Finder, a tool Briones made for, well, finding dumbphones. You take a quiz with questions like, “Do you want smart apps?” and “What style phone do you want?” (candy-bar, flip, or touchscreen), and it tells you whether a Cat S22 Flip or a Punkt MP02 might work for you. Briones recommends starting with what you have: Android phones can be rooted and modified; iPhones have parental controls that lock apps.

All I had to do was put my phone down and use some tips and tricks I found on r/Dumbphones. I removed every social media app, tried grayscaling. When I noticed I still kept using my phone to check the time, I looked at some of the photos that users posted, and sure enough, almost everyone had a wristwatch. I got a cheap Casio. I also started putting my phone in a bag instead of my pocket. Makes it much less convenient to absentmindedly pull it out on the subway.

Even these small steps have made the phone feel less like an additional appendage and more like the multi-tool in my bike repair kit. My screen time has gone down by about an hour a day, but it feels like a lot more. I’m still struggling to leave my phone in another room at the end of the workday, but I’m getting there.

At r/Dumbphones, there seem to be only a few longtime residents or recurring characters, unlike on other subreddits. Here, people show up, find what works for them, then vanish. Like a good dumbphone, r/Dumbphones is the best kind of technology: We use it when we need it.


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