A few days ago a Reuters report described how Africans (and others) have devised ingenious methods to communicate with cell phones without incurring charges. This is accomplished by beeping: placing a call and allowing the screen on the receiving party's phone to flash for long enough to identify the caller. The person placing the call then quickly hangs up, hoping that the call recipient will phone back. Of course, there is a winner and loser in this game because someone has to complete the call and pay the minutes. Jonathan Donner, who works for Microsoft Research India, investigates the economics and social dynamics of cell phones and is going to publish a paper in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (Vol. 13, No. 1) in mid-October called "The rules of beeping: Exchanging messages via intentional 'missed calls' on mobile phones." The article is based on a series of interviews with cell phone users in Kigali, Rwanda who are identified in the article only by their first names. Here is a first peek at the "rules" detailed in the article that govern the elaborate etiquette behind beeping: Rule 1: Send callback beeps to people with more money Returning to the most common kind of beep--the request for a callback--there are clear conventions as to who should beep, and who should not. The negotiation, of course, centers on whom should pay for the voice call. Upon returning to Ghana, [Rodney] Nkrumah-Boateng [a Web columnist] learned this rule from his cousin:
Noticing my confusion, she laughed and patiently explained it all to me. She would allow her mobile phone to ring only once when she called me on mine, and then deliberately cut it, thereby indicating that she wanted me to call her back. Obviously, because I had just come home from abroad, the automatic assumption was that I could afford to call her back.
Such calculations are not restricted to interactions between friends and family. Telecommunications expert Andrew Dymond calls this the "richer guy pays" rule, and suggests that it is part of "the accepted way of doing business in Africa". Employers and employees represent a special case of "richer guy pays". Generally, employees can beep employers to request a call back, as long as the resulting call is about business matters. Indeed, Innocent actually purchased used mobile handsets for each employee of his garbage-hauling business [everyone mentioned is from Kigali, except where noted], providing only enough access and airtime to allow for beeping, and transforming the handsets into one-way call receivers. He encourages his employees to beep him to stay in touch on the job, but says he ignores the beeps on days when his employees are not working. Though most Rwandan mobile users pay for calls via prepay cards, which run out frequently, a few elites have post-paid monthly contracts. Not surprisingly, owners of post-paid numbers get many beeps from people a) knowing they have minutes to cover the call and b) assuming--correctly--that they have financial wherewithal to do so. To make matters worse, phone prefixes in Rwanda include a special designation for contract accounts, meaning that one's status as a person who "always has units" is broadcast to the handsets of all one's communication partners. Originally, this special designated number was a desirable status symbol. However, some are suffering from beep fatigue, and according to Filicien [a marketing student], are hiding their numbers and contract status by disabling caller ID. Says Nicole, the [computer science] student, "My dad [owner of a contract account] did not know that people beep for saving money. He used to call back all the time but now that he knows it is about saving money, he has stopped." Rule 2: Send callback beeps to friends and family when you've run out of minutes Among equals who trust each other, and call each other often, the "richer guy pays" approach may not apply. Instead, there is an understanding that if one person runs out of money on his prepay account, he or she can beep the other. Husbands and wives can do this, or, as Fred, a plumber notes, colleagues: "I beep people I work with so that they call me when I don't have money." Rule3: If you're asking for a favor (or a favorable treatment), don't send a callback beep In the course of daily life, there are certainly cases where it is important to start off with a good impression, or to keep a favorable impression. The subtle obligations and expectations which tie people together influence when it is acceptable to send a callback beep, even beyond the "rich guy pays" credo described in rule #1. Two examples--customers and courtships--came up in the interviews. Patrick, a supplier of live chickens to hotels and restaurants, explains: "With customers I have to take care, because it's me who wants their orders, and mostly they can't spend their airtime on me, so it's me who always calls. I can't beep them". Like supporting a toll-free number in the United States, some Rwandan customers expect their suppliers to foot the cost of communication. Lillian's lunchtime customers at her restaurant beep her daily, demanding a callback. She explains, "Customers beep to check on whether there is food left. Some are customers who are going to bring me money. So, when I see a number that I know, I have to call back, so I use a unit or two. There are some whom I don't call back because they have nothing constructive [profitable] to tell me." Like Patrick, Lillian says she never beeps customers. There are exceptions. James, a baker, has a single major client, the local university, which accounts for half his business. He sometimes beeps this client when he is low on airtime, but tries to keep it to a minimum so as not to abuse the trust they have built up. As described above, Immanuel's rural dairy suppliers beep him, because they think he has more money than they do. He explains: "The supplier only calls when he wants to be paid." Romance and beeping have their own rules. Nkrumah-Boateng observes, "No self-respecting man would dream of merely flashing his wife or girlfriend...Never mind the fact that it was Sugar Daddy himself who bought the phone and regularly buys her units." Filicien the student makes similar point:
If you are chasing after a lady, you cannot beep. You have to call. Beeping is for friends. When a girl you do not know well beeps you, you have to call back if you are interested. You cannot even text. She has to see that the effort is being made. Borrow a friend's phone if you do not have airtime. Text is not two-way.
Also single, Fred puts it bluntly: "I don't beep girls because it's me who needs them. In Jamaica, Host and Miller found a similar attitude towards use of the "call-me" feature offered by Digicel; male suitors who sent a "call me" message to their prospective partners were considered "cheap". Rule 4: Don't beep too much Beeping twice may increase the likelihood that a call target will call the beeper back. If the beep is between two people who know each other, the second beep can remove any confusion as to whether the beep was intended to request a callback or just to say hello. If beeping from a number that the recipient will not recognize, the beeper must be prepared to beep multiple times, just to get a response. Immanuel [who works in dairy sales] explains: "When the number is not programmed in my mobile, I can't call back but if he/she insists, beeping me again and again, I finally call back." Filicien reiterates the unwillingness to return calls from unknown beepers: "Recently, someone has been beeping me, but I don't have his name. If it were really important, he'd call". And yet, don't over-do it. This warning seems to apply to both callback and relational beeps. Innocent, the garbage collector, complains that his daughter beeps "too much". Filicien explains, "There is gossip if someone beeps too much. If my friend beeps once in the morning, I smile. If she does it two or three more times in the day, and is doing it to others also, it gets bad." Indeed, it may be a faux pas to force others into calling you back to talk about nothing in particular. In Uganda, The Weekly Oberver notes: "In 99.99% of the time, there is even no serious issue to beep you about. It is a beep and when you call back someone simply asks: "Where are you?" The full article will be available later in October at this url: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/donner.html