The Rules of Beeping

The Rules of Beeping: Exchanging Messages Via Intentional "Missed Calls" on Mobile Phones

This paper explores the widespread practice of “beeping” between mobile phone users in sub-Saharan Africa. Beeping involves calling a number and hanging up before the mobile’s owner can pick up the call. The mobile’s call log and address book functions signal who called, and when. Most beeps are requests to the mobile owner to call back immediately, but beeps can also send a pre-negotiated instrumental message such as “pick me up now”, or send a relational sign, such as “I’m thinking of you”. Based on interviews with small business owners and university students in Rwanda, the paper identifies the “rules of beeping” and assesses its significance using a variety of frames, including linguistics, structuration, and communication technology and economic development. The paper contrasts beeping with SMS/text messaging, and suggests paths for future research.

Reliable estimates of the frequency of this behavior are not yet available, but there are indications that the practice is widespread enough to merit closer investigation by the research community. The consultancy firm Gamos (McKemey, Scott, Souter, Afullo, Kibombo, & Sakyi-Dawson, 2003) found that 38% of users of public payphones and telecenters in Uganda, Botswana, and Ghana regularly beeped mobile users from these phones. A Kenyan GSM company suggested in 2005 that its network carried four million flashes per day (Mutung'u & Gakuru, 2006). The Financial Express (2006) article from India suggests that "while cell phone operators are reluctant to give the exact share of missed calls, according to industry estimates, it is somewhere around 20-25%" (n.p.). Another Indian report estimates the proportion as over 30% (Kurup & Gupta, 2007). These proportions are of significant concern to network operators, since missed calls burden often-crowded mobile networks and do not always generate revenue for the operators.

As the above media quotations illustrate, not all beeps mean the same thing. Some are requests to call back; some are little signals that the beeper is thinking of the recipient. Others convey a pre-negotiated instrumental message, such as: "I'm done with my work, pick me up." This study draws on interview data from Rwandan mobile users, along with observations from secondary sources such as popular media articles, to identify three kinds of beeps—callback, pre-negotiated instrumental, and relational—and to synthesize unwritten "rules" governing their use (Murtagh, 2001). The article assesses the significance of the practice using adaptive structuration theory (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994) and other recent approaches to technology appropriation, contrasts beeping with SMS/text messaging, and suggests paths for future research.

Various theoretical lenses could be brought to bear on the phenomenon. The practice raises interesting sociolinguistic questions and is undoubtedly influenced by the varied contexts and cultures of its adherents. This article draws on adaptive structuration theory to describe beeping for several reasons. First, beeping is a nearly-global example of an ongoing interaction between social practices and technological factors. Although its roots are in behaviors "invented" in the landline era, the practice has evolved, become more nuanced, and spread more widely in response to a combination of social, economic, and technological conditions most common in the developing world.

Beeping and Its Analogues

Although the social practices surrounding mobile telephones are a topic of increasing interest to sociologists and communication researchers (Castells, Qiu, Fernández-Ardèvol, & Sey, 2007; Katz, 2003; Ling, 2004), there have been relatively few mentions of beeping or missed calls in the literature, and even fewer in-depth investigations.

In their overview of Finnish teens' mobile phone behaviors, Oksman and Turtiainen (2004) describe "bomb calls," calling them a "recodification of the ring tone through mutual agreement." They explain that "these no-calls are made to get attention, for amusement, to save money, or to communicate through a system devised for the purpose" (p. 327). The researchers suggest that bomb calling was particularly popular among young teens in the earlier period of mobile diffusion in Finland, but that the practice was viewed as "childish," even by older teens.

Reports from the economic development community suggest that the practice is common across many African nations (Chipchase & Tulusan, 2007; McKemey et al., 2003; Oestmann, 2003; Samuel, Shah, & Hadingham, 2005) and is not limited to teens. Slater and Kwami (2005) describe flashing as both an economic and symbolic practice, noting how "Michael, a man who flashes the same five people every morning, is not merely keeping in touch but also discharging obligations and responsibilities" (p. 10). Sey (2007) describes flashing in Ghana as one of a set of cost-saving strategies developed by users. Others note that beeping conventions in Africa differ between men and women (Alhassan, 2004; Chango, 2005).

Researchers have observed the practice elsewhere in the developing world. Aminuzzaman (2005) and Chakraborty (2004) each describe the messages conveyed by "miss call culture" in Bangladesh, citing examples of coded beeps and those that simply mean "I'm thinking about you." A large survey in India and Sri Lanka found frequencies of missed call use ranging from 10% of light users in Sri Lanka to 35% of heavy mobile users in India (Zainudeen, Samarajiva, & Abeysuriya, 2006). Pertierra and his colleagues (2002) report that some Filipinos "'miscall'…to remind friends about unanswered texts. Prudent texters do it to save credit" (p. 89) Barendregt (2005) observes the same process in Indonesia, "where it is called memancing or fishing" (p. 56).

Bar et al. (2007) refer to beeping/flashing as a notable example of appropriation in Latin America, in which users do "new things in new ways" using technologies available to them (p. 26). Horst and Miller (2006) describe social practices surrounding the "call me" feature provided by Jamaica's Digicel. The feature essentially replicates a beep in text form, allowing users low on credit to send a few free texts per month to other subscribers, requesting a callback. They cast the company's actions as a response to a "micro-economy of credits" and suggest that in so responding, the company has helped Jamaican mobile users create and maintain broad-reaching, intertwined social support networks.

Other techniques to send free messages make use of the landline infrastructure. For decades, landline users in the U.S. and elsewhere have been able to place an operator-assisted collect call, in the hope that the target will either accept the charges or reject them and call back at a cheaper rate. Haddon and Silverstone (1996, p. 67) describe another low-cost "signaling system" among the elderly, including between one interviewee "and his new lady friend":

To save money and still maintain a relationship at a distance, the couple had pre-negotiated an instrumental meaning to their intentional missed calls—differentiated in this case from any other calls by the specific number of rings. The discussion will return to Frank later and consider why this cost-saving behavior has blossomed so dramatically in the 21st century.


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