(See Jonathan Donner's “The Rules of Beeping” in the October issue of the online Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.)
Phone credit low? Africans go for “beeping”
By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Sept 26 (Reuters) - If you are in Sudan it is a “missed call”. In Ethiopia it is a “miskin” or a “pitiful” call. In other parts of Africa it is a case of “flashing”, “beeping” or in French-speaking areas “bipage”.
Wherever you are, it is one of the fastest-growing phenomena in the continent’s booming mobile telephone markets — and it’s a headache for mobile operators who are trying to figure out how to make some money out of it.
You beep someone when you call them up on their mobile phone — setting its display screen briefly flashing — then hang up half a second later, before they have had a chance to answer. Your friend — you hope — sees your name and number on their list of “Missed Calls” and calls you back at his or her expense.
It is a tactic born out of ingenuity and necessity, say analysts who have tracked an explosion in miskin calls by cash-strapped cellphone users from Cape Town to Cairo.
“Its roots are as a strategy to save money,” said Jonathan Donner, an India-based researcher for Microsoft who is due to publish a paper on “The Rules of Beeping” in the high-brow online Journal of Computer Mediated Communication in October.
Donner first came across beeping in Rwanda, then tracked it across the continent and beyond, to south and southeast Asia. Studies quoted in his paper estimate between 20 to more than 30 percent of the calls made in Africa are just split-second flashes — empty appeals across the cellular network.
The beeping boom is being driven by a sharp rise in mobile phone use across the continent.
Africa had an estimated 192.5 million mobile phone users in 2006, up from just 25.3 million in 2001, according to figures from the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union. Customers may have enough money for the one-off purchase of a handset, but very little ready cash to spend on phone cards for the prepaid accounts that dominate the market.
Africa’s mobile phone companies say the practice has become so widespread they have had to step in to prevent their circuits being swamped by second-long calls.
“We have about 355 million calls across the whole network every day,” said Faisal Ijaz Khan, chief marketing officer for the Sudanese arm of Kuwaiti mobile phone operator Zain (formerly MTC). “And then there are another 130 million missed calls every day. There are a lot of missed calls in Africa.”
FACTBOX-Commandments of “beeping”
(Reuters) - “Beeping” — calling a contact on their cellphone then quickly hanging up to prompt them to call you back and spare you the charge — is one of the fastest-growing phenomena in Africa’s booming mobile telephone markets.
The following rules for the practice are extracted by Reuters from a forthcoming paper on the subject by researcher Jonathan Donner:
1. “The richer guy pays.” It is acceptable to beep someone if you are short of cash and they are flush with credit. Never beep someone poorer than you.
2. Do not beep too often. Two beeps in a row is just about acceptable if you want to request an urgent call back. Any more and you risk becoming a pest.
3. Maximise the efficiency of your beeping by prearranging shorthand codes with friends, family and contacts — for example, two beeps to be picked up by a taxi driver, one to say you are coming home.
4. Never beep someone if you are trying to get in touch to ask a favor. You don’t want to risk annoying the person you are trying to win over.
5. Never flash your girlfriend, unless you want to look cheap. One Rwandan interviewed for the paper said “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.”
(Source: “The rules of beeping: Exchanging messages via intentional “missed calls” on mobile phones”)