The New York Times Prints Junk Articles, Too

It’s behind a paywall, but the New York Times published an article by Kalley Huang on Saturday entitled “The Hottest Gen Z Gadget Is a 20-Year-Old Digital Camera.” The synopsis: what’s old is new again. 

My problem with this article is that people are treating it as some sort of carefully researched study or write up, when it’s simply a limited observation amplified. As in “I observed some people using older compact cameras and decided to ask them why.” 

There’s little doubt that the younger generations go through a constant churn of fads. How durable those fads are is an entirely different story. Usually, these off-center trends are ignited by someone trying to stand out from the rest, and the minute others start piling on and making it a recognizable fad, the whole thing starts to collapse because…well, you’re no longer standing out if everyone is doing it. The influencer market is rife with sustainability issues, because if you can’t keep standing out, you end up disappearing into the mainstream.

Nikon tried marketing the Zfc to Gen Z users via the retro fad (but with colors!). That had a modest impact for about two months by my estimation. Again, once a larger portion of a group is doing something, if you were doing it to stand out you’re no longer doing so. Even the smartphones have been prone to this: the rise and fall of filters and portrait mode are just two examples. Both are lingering, but they’re no longer the “must have” thing. (As I write this, we’re celebrating 16 years since the iPhone announcement.)

The one common thread in the NYT article is that Gen Z is picking 1990’s compact cameras because they produce worse results. These digicams are the new Snapchat filter of the month, apparently. 

The statistics cited by the article seem to me to be faux:

  • "On TikTok, the hashtag #digitalcamera has 184m views.” This implies that people are searching for the hashtag. Nope. Is #digitalcamera a hashtag that is one of the most popular? Not according to InfluencerMarketingHub. Note that you could have a single post seen by 184m people that generates this statistic. Moreover, can you find a #digitalcamera post that’s not a Gen Z using a 90’s compact camera? Yes.
  • “Last year, 36 percent of U.S. teenagers said they spent too much time on social media.” And yet the premise of the article is that Gen Z users are using those 90’s compacts to post on social media (see below) and stand out with overexposed and blurry images. 
  • “…searches for Nikon Coolpix increased by 90 percent, she said.” The she is an eBay spokesperson. Time period? None. Volume of such searches (it matters whether it previously had been just one or a million)? Not noted. Can I verify the claim? No. 

The conclusions in the article also seem overwrought and fraught with false comparisons:

  • “Instead of paparazzi publishing these photos in tabloids or on gossip websites, influencers are posting them on social media.” Paparazzi in the 90’s didn’t tend to use compact cameras. This appears to be an attempt to tie the anecdote from Mr. Hunter into something bigger. Clause A and Clause B have no real connection. 
  • “…nostalgia for the Y2K era…has seized Generation Z.” Later in the article we get “rewinding the clock to 2007”, so which is it? Y2K era, or early 21st century? The author seems confused and unable to form clear conclusions that gibe with one another. More likely they were reaching to build enough material to justify an article. And do we get any statistics to support the word “seized”? No. 

And then there’s this: “This time, the poor picture quality isn’t for lack of a better tool. It’s on purpose.” In the 90’s I was producing quality images from compact cameras for magazine publication. This continued through the early 2000’s. The compact cameras were a decent tool of the time, though they required the user work hard to get good results. Casually using an older camera without optimizing what it’s doing generates is not really different than using one of the many gimmicky filters that are available in smartphone apps. It’s just a slightly different look created a different way. 

So we’re back to this: if the basic premise of this article is correct—that Gen Z is flocking to 90’s digicams—it’s just a fad. But I have difficulty finding clear evidence that it’s actually a documented fad worldwide. More likely, publishing such an article will blow things up into a fad with higher visibility temporarily, and many of the young reading the article will say “why didn’t I think of this?” and then buy a 90’s digicam. Too late. By the time it arrives and you figure out how to use it for your influencing, the fad is gone. Come up with your own fad, Z-folk ;~).

Finally, did you note the article’s URL? Very SEO (search engine optimization) friendly, given that it includes the words Olympus and Canon. Of course, it doesn’t use the words PowerShot, Cybershot, or Coolpix, so what’s the point?

As a paying NYT subscriber, this article isn’t up to the level I expect as a reader, and the title (“hottest”) and sub-head (“opting for”) aren’t supported by the facts in the article. 

Okay, Boomer. But dismiss those with experience and knowledge at your own risk.

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