Priya Mittal, a 19-year-old freshman at Brown University, lives for spontaneous FaceTimes. She’ll be at the library in the middle of her Intro Economics problem set, or in her room changing into her pajamas after a shower, when a friend will surprise her with an out-of-the-blue iPhone video chat invitation. Even if she’s still wrapped in a towel, she’ll pick up — that’s all part of the fun.
It’s also a generational thing. That is, for groups of college students and high schoolers, texting is out. Their go-to method of communication is FaceTime. “If you want to say something to someone, you don’t call them on the phone anymore,” says Kyle Baker, a 21-year-old junior at George Washington University. “You’ve gotta see their face.” Baker says he FaceTimes his friends “all the time,” and doing so is “totally normal.”
I can back him up. I’m 19, and for my friends and me, random FaceTimes are a way of life. I FaceTime my friends without warning to ask them for help on homework or just to see when they’re free to meet up. It’s easier (and far more fun) than texting, and we’ve been doing it for more than two years now. FaceTime was released in February 2011, when I was 11. My peers and I literally grew up with it.
So for Gen Z, this trend isn’t necessarily new. But in recent weeks, it’s become the subject of a debate about age and what side of the millennial generation you fall on. Basically, if you think random or spontaneous FaceTime calls are weird, you’re probably old — at least that’s what people on Twitter are saying. It all more or less started last month with Time West Coast Editor Sam Lansky:
Lansky’s tweet, which received over 200 retweets and more than 2,000 likes, left some feeling exposed and others feeling validated. “Feeling personally victimized, but okay,” replied Michael Curfew, a self-described twentysomething counselor, photographer and hip-hop instructor.
Unless they’re coming from his mom, random FaceTime calls are “weird,” he tells me. “I need a heads-up if someone is going to try to FaceTime me so I can attempt to look cute. I don’t want the person calling me to see a gremlin on their screen.”
Another response to Lansky’s tweet came from Matthew Crawford, a lawyer “on the very end of the cutoff for millennials,” as he puts it. “Wow I didn’t expect these personal attacks on the internet today,” he wrote in his reply.
“FaceTime is notorious for [making] your face look fat,” Crawford says now. As such, he never uses the feature unless he has to.
“It’s weird,” says Alex Morash, a Florida-based writer in his early 30s. “It’s very personal to FaceTime with someone. You might be half-dressed or your hair could be a mess. You should text and ask first.”
“The very last thing I want to do is look at my face, talking to another face,” adds Carly Rallo, a 32-year-old realtor from New Jersey. “Especially without any warning. I feel accosted via my phone. And I love my phone.” (In her reply to Lansky’s tweet, she called FaceTime “rarely necessary.”)
But it’s not that Gen Z thinks FaceTime is necessary. It’s just the mode of communication they’d rather use today. “If we have a close relationship, I’d be more likely to FaceTime randomly or even use FaceTime as a substitute for regular calling,” says Sydney Vine, a 17-year-old New Jersey high school senior.
“It’s normal between good friends,” says Sonia Shah, an 18-year-old New York University freshman. “And I’ve noticed that over my time, from middle school to high school to now, FaceTiming has become more normalized and people have now begun to FaceTime me for random things and quick questions rather than calling or texting.” Even when they’re in more private settings: “I have a friend who regularly FaceTimed me while when he was using the bathroom. I guessed he liked the company,” says Ghael Fobes, a 20-year-old Syracuse student.
The uptick could be linked to a growing desire for human connection among young people. “It just feels more personal,” Arya Jha, a student at the University of Chicago, says of FaceTime. “It satisfies the human need to both see and hear someone’s voice when speaking to them.”
“Getting a FaceTime allows me to connect deeper with my friends than I could over messenger or texting. Just being able to see their face — it’s a nice surprise,” says Jake Hannigan, a 22-year-old D.C. resident and recent Northern Arizona University graduate. Similarly, Santi Guiran, a first-year student at Princeton University, adds, “On FaceTime, you can really see people’s demeanor, which makes it a lot more powerful than just a phone call.”
Deep connections aside, the trend does exclude some people, regardless of their age. When I say FaceTime, I mean Apple’s FaceTime service, not Skype or anything else. You need an iPhone to join the conversation. In the same way no one wants to put you in their group chat if you can’t iMessage and get those coveted blue bubbles, you’re going to miss out on the spontaneous video chat trend if you have a Samsung.
But for older millennials with iPhones, all the video chatting among teens and early twentysomethings is convincing some of them that the act isn’t as weird as they may have first thought. (Maybe it’s FOMO?) “I became friendly with some Twitter mutuals that I met in a group chat on social media,” explains Jacques Peterson, a 30-year-old Australian journalist and one of the individuals who responded to Lansky’s tweet. “I’m 30 and they’re in their very early 20s, so I found it totally [confrontational] and awkward when they started FaceTiming me. But now I’ve gotten used to it.”
And so, these days when FaceTime calls, he’s sure to answer.