In the age of the internet, life moves quickly. Too quickly. Instant gratification comes at a fault, moments are captured, discarded, and forgotten before they have ended, and everything is intangible. So many of life’s most treasured memories exist digitally, as byte-sized files – saved text messages, photos posted to Instagram, curated playlists of favourite songs – but is floating around the Cloud enough? Systems can crash. Phones can break. Precious moments can be wiped away in an instant. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Generation Z (Gen Z), a generation born and bred on the internet, are beginning to embrace the hobbies of their grandparents.
Insider Intelligence refers to Gen Z as “the generation that was born between 1997-2012, following millennials. This generation has been raised on the internet and social media, with some of the oldest finishing college by 2020 and entering the workforce.” On one hand, growing up plugged in has essentially made Gen-Z-ers fluent in the internet – whether it be through understanding online semantics and diction, knowing the mechanics behind producing and posting online content, and even creating full time job opportunities simply by existing on the web – but being so familiar with the world on screen oftentimes makes the world off screen feel a little less real.
Especially in the midst of the pandemic, where life momentarily slowed down, Gen Z has grown to appreciate the simplicity of “vintage” activities – and there are facts to prove it. In September of 2021, a survey conducted by MRC data found that Gen Z buys more vinyl records than millennials, with 15% of Gen Z respondents reporting that they had purchased vinyl albums within the last 12 months at the time of the survey. When Donald Trump attempted to disband the U.S.P.S. (United States Postal Service) during the 2020 Presidential election, teenagers who met through Tik Tok decided to bring back the art of penpalling in order to save the mail company. There has even been a renaissance of analogue photography amongst young people, with Camera Rescue’s #SaveAnalogCameras survey stating, “The global film community is not only becoming younger but also more diverse.”
In the age of the internet, where nearly everything is accessible, why is Gen Z drawn to hobbies like film photography, listening to music on vinyl, and writing and mailing letters? Maybe it is just that: the internet has made absolutely everything too accessible, too quickly.
The renaissance of film photography
On April 14, 2021, Tik Tok user @sistinestallonee uploaded a video captioned: My parents in the 90s. In just under ten seconds, she displays various photos – physical film photos – of her parents in the 1990s over a remix of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa”. After ranking up over 11.8 million likes, thousands of other Tik Tokkers participated in the trend of showing old film photos of their parents. While young adults of the 1990s had no other choice but to use a film camera to take photographs, the teens and young adults of Tik Tok enjoy the nostalgia associated with the aesthetic of film photography.
In 2012 Kodak – whose business predominantly relies on film – filed for bankruptcy around the same time Facebook acquired Instagram. While it was assumed smartphones would replace the need for cameras, Instagram inadvertently rebirthed film photography by serving as a platform for people to share their photos. Especially within the last two years, Instagram users are even creating second accounts specifically to share film photos, including celebrities like Gigi Hadid, David Dobrik and Joe Jonas. W Magazine observed this trend, noting: “people are going the extra mile to purchase a disposable camera, take the photos, develop the photos, and then scan them to their phones for an entirely separate public account.”
Sophia Ketring, a 23 year old Social Media Manager based in La Jolla, California is among the bunch. In addition to her personal Instagram account, @fififia, she has a second account titled @sophisposable dedicated to pictures taken on 35mm film. Her film account serves as a time capsule of captured memories, including various nights out with friends and travels. “I made the account as a personal scrapbook of memories with close friends,” says Sophia.
“I enjoy using film because I feel like it gives more character to the moment you are shooting. Unlike digital photos where you can now take a million [pictures] in a row, a film photo captures a single moment in time unedited and carefree.”
Matt Rygh is a 21-almost-22-year old film photographer from Seattle, Washington who uses Instagram as a digital portfolio for his analogue photos. In the summer of 2019, he obtained his first analogue camera: his grandpa’s old Minolta SR-7 from the 1960s. “When I was a kid my parents would give me disposable cameras so I had a little bit of exposure [to film photography] but for the most part I just did digital photography. But I really liked how tangible it [film photography] was. It’s cool being able to feel like you’re more a part of the photo taking process.” Over the years, Matt’s collection has grown to nearly 15 cameras, and he is only just getting started.
Matt’s portfolio includes portrait, product, landscape, and street photography. Despite the range in subjects, Matt’s photos are linked through a sense of longing for the past. He grew up loving history and seeing how things used to be – noticeably they were “a lot more simple.” His cameras have caused strangers to strike up conversations with him. “Older people will be like, ‘wait a minute’ or take a double take. It’s led to conversations that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, or maybe they wouldn’t have felt inclined to talk to me, and that’s one of the things I love about shooting outside. I’ve met so many random older people that are curious because they see my camera.”
As someone who has trouble with staying grounded, the tangibility of a film camera gives Matt something to focus on. He showed me one of his “bigger” cameras, a vintage Mamiya RB67, and explained all the variables that go into taking a single photo: loading the film, setting up the tripod, cocking the handle, adjusting the shutter speed.
“Everything is super mechanical so I sit there for a couple minutes and I really think it through. I'm much more aware of my surroundings and it helps me with that. I think that’s the most important part for me honestly.”
In March of 2020, like most university students, Matt moved back to his childhood home at the start of the pandemic and decided to create a Tik Tok account. “I had no idea what I was doing, but it was cool being able to put that sort of effort into something.” Over time, with several mental health breaks in between, Matt’s account grew to 30,000+ followers and over 2.1 million likes, with his content centred around being “a dude with expensive hobbies.” He posts commentary about “tangible” hobbies, videos documenting his growth as a photographer, and tips and tricks for shooting film. Through his Tik Tok account, he has been able to form connections with other individuals keen to learn more about film photography, whether they are experienced photographers or only recently developing an interest.
Matt and Sophia belong to an army of Instagram users taking part in the renaissance of film photography. As of today, the hashtag #FilmIsNotDead has over 22.5 million posts and #35mm has 35.9 million posts. Kodak’s film stock, Portra 400, is the most popular film stock available today – and, according to a survey conducted by FStoppers – has experienced a 64.1% price increase between 2019 and 2022. Whether Gen Z is shooting film for the nostalgic aesthetic, or for artistic purposes, they have actively participated in saving a once bankrupt industry.
Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have made music attainable as ever, yet vintage music formats – especially vinyl records – are proving themselves as fierce competition. According to a report by MRC Data-Billboard, vinyl sales in the United States doubled between 2020 and 2021, increasing from 21.5 million to 41.7 million units. Something that was once sold in trendy stores, like Urban Outfitters, has established itself to be more than a stylish piece of home decor.
Maddie Masinsin, a 24 year old DC-based Senior Program Associate focusing on digital rights and safety, grew up listening to her grandpa’s record collection. Since her adolescence, she kept a mental list of records to eventually purchase once she was older, but never fully made the leap. “It wasn’t until I heard Aly & AJ's latest record [in February of 2022], which really resonated and helped me during one of my worst depressive episodes, that I felt a strong pull to finally invest in a turntable.”
Maddie explained how she relies on ritual and routine to feel in control, especially when her external environment feels like it’s falling apart. “When I put a vinyl on my record player, I have a set relaxation routine and decompression ritual associated with it; vinyl on, candles lit, laying down and almost meditating to unwind.” Currently, Maddie owns one record – Aly & AJ’s a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun – which, presumably, will be the first of many.
Meanwhile, Zade Kaylani, a 23 year old UX-Designer based in San Francisco, California, has been collecting records since 2013. He grew up living near a record store but never bought anything because he didn’t own a turntable – but the moment he bought one, a new hobby emerged. “I really liked having the albums that I loved physically, and that was kind of the start of everything. It was also the age where I started developing my own taste in music.” Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City and Two Door Cinema Club’s Tourist History marks the first two albums of Zade’s now-130-record-strong collection. “To me they are two of the best albums ever. When I hear them, I think of my collection.”
Similar to Matt and taking a photo, Zade appreciates the process that goes into listening to a vinyl. You pick out the record, you take it out of the sleeve, you clean it, you turn on the player, you adjust the speed, you start playing it, and then you have to flip it halfway through. It ignites a connection with the physical media; when you are handling the music yourself, you treasure it a lot more. “I feel like people who shoot film or have records kind of enjoy the labour that comes with it. That’s what gives it value and makes it feel more special,” he says. “We’re obviously not doing it because of how quick and easy it is to play a song on a record player.
The aspect of ‘the unknown’ that comes with a hobby like collecting vinyl is what makes it feel more special: waiting for the record to ship, not knowing the colour of the pressing, wondering if it will come with artwork.
“There's a lot of room for building excitement,” Zade explains. “You know what you’re getting when you go to listen to an artist’s album on Spotify, but it’s not the same for ordering a physical vinyl.”
As our chat came to an end, Zade told me a sweet memory associated with his hobby: his grandparents were visiting his family in California from Jordan, so he went to the record store and purchased a Perry Como record (one of his Grandpa’s favourite artists from the 50s). Zade got home, played the record, and his grandparents shared a slow dance in his bedroom. “The music brought them back and they felt young again and it was the cutest thing. Some of those songs I have never even heard before and it’s not something that would’ve come about if I was just playing music off of my phone.”
You’ve got mail: penpals and snail mail
In 2020, the U.S.P.S. Office of Inspector General published a report on Gen Z and the mail. Despite Gen Z’s constant interconnectivity and readily available access to technological communication formats, the U.S.P.S. found that a majority of Gen Z interacts with the mail, whether it be through sending or receiving letters and packages. Further, they observed an emotional reaction to the mail, noting: “Gen Zers do recognize mail as a way to convey emotional connection. In fact, most said that receiving cards, letters, and packages makes them feel happy — and this was a larger percentage than those who were happy receiving video calls, emails, or texts.”
Jane Hilbert (she/they) is a 22 year old European law student based in Maastricht, Netherlands. Their family was built on a foundation of letter writing – their mom is from the Philippines and their dad is from Germany. The two met in the 90s and kept in contact through handwritten letters. Growing up surrounded by boxes of love notes, it only made sense that Jane would pick up letter writing as a hobby.
Amongst their friend group, Jane is notoriously known for sending notes of appreciation via letter, as opposed to text. They will pick out cards that match their friends' hobbies and interests. “I appreciate the realness of it” says Jane, “I do think that with the Internet you can get the same message across but there’s just a lot more thought and consideration that goes into writing something physically.” Jane proceeded to explain how we live in an information overflow age that even if one were to write out the exact same words [written a letter] in a text or voice note, it can get easily lost. Whereas, if you can physically hold that note in your hands, you can re-read it as you please. Especially during the pandemic, Jane used their love language of letter writing to keep in touch with those they could not be with physically.
Lauren Juzang, a 21 year old music artist and student at Syracuse University, picked up letter writing as a quarantine hobby. Similar to Jane, Lauren appreciates the commitment that comes with letter writing as opposed to sending a text – “it makes you feel special that someone put the time and effort into doing something special for you,” she says.
Letter writing is a meditative hobby for Lauren. As someone with a complicated relationship with technology, she finds herself needing activities to get away from her screens. Sometimes to take a break from doing work on her computer, she will go to a coffee shop and journal and write letters to people she loves. Lauren exclaims, “I think tangible hobbies remind you to stay in the moment and to appreciate the people and moments around you.”
Feeling inspired to start penpalling? Tik Tok users are posting “Penpal Applications,” where they share reasons why someone should be their penpal. For example, over clips of colourful stationary, user @biggodoodle writes “I try to make each letter pretty, we can exchange tons of stickers and little gifts, and I’ll give you song recommendations and cool tough questions.” Her video received over 240 comments requesting to be Penpals – and it is one of thousands of penpal applications meant to find a letter writing match.
Is the stereotype accurate?
On Gen Z’s relationship with technology and media use, Insider Intelligence writes, “Gen Z is the first generation to have 24/7 access to the internet, connected devices, and social media since birth. As a result, they see the physical and digital worlds as a seamless continuum of experiences that blend offline and online information for entertainment, commerce, and communication.” There is no denying that Gen Z’s lives are more intertwined with technology compared to their elders; however, recent studies are showing that, perhaps, Gen Z is not as internet-dependent as they seem. YPulse conducted a report on the top 15 hobbies among 13-39 year olds. A majority of the hobbies were offline, and within them were music, writing, and journaling. Ironically enough, another study found that Gen Z are better than their parents at delayed gratification. This begs the question: is it Gen Z’s fault that they are addicted to the internet, or is it merely a matter of the circumstances in which they were raised?
this article was originally written in March 2022*