The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

Broadbangladesh

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Illustration IHT, by Felipe Galindo

I wrote a piece for the IHT on a company of expats bringing wireless broadband to their native Bangladesh. Would love to have gone there to have a look, but budgets aren’t what they were (love the illustration):

In Bangladesh, where less than 1 percent of the population has Internet access and where the rare broadband connection is prohibitively expensive, bridging the digital divide may require new approaches.

A group of Bangladeshi expatriates think they have found one that could work – a plan to bring affordable Internet access to their homeland through a blend of high-end wireless technology and social entrepreneurship.

Bringing Bangladesh into the Internet age – International Herald Tribune

Death of a ‘Toughbook’

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(update: after two days of nothing, the device is now booting again and Panasonic have offered to take a closer look at it and tell me what happened.)

My faith in my Panasonic Toughbook took a bath today when a waitress poured coffee all over it (and me.) It’s that absurd thing that waiters do of having to put coffee and food down right next to you when you’re clearly in the middle of a key discussion/interview/meeting/nap. It was bound to happen.

Still, I held out hope the Toughbook would be up to it. After all, the videos show guys doing stuff to their Toughbook we wouldn’t do to our partners (unless they asked us to.) I splashed the coffee off under a tap, knowing the damage coffee can wreak. To no avail: within minutes the screen went blank and the thing died.

Now I know why they call them ‘drop- and spill- resistant”. If it’s a spill, you might be ok, so long as it’s purified water. And “resistant”? It resists it, like Niles would Maris.

I bought a new one and am charging the hotel for it; they’ve agreed but I’ll send the lawyers home when I see the money. I happen to have a recording of the point when the coffee is spilt. It goes something like this:

Interviewee: in a fast growth  economy like India. Bangladesh, meanwhile.. [sound of crockery slipping, liquid spilling] oo shit!

Flaks (in chorus): oh no!

Me: (bizarrely quietly) Interesting…

Flaks (in chorus): oh dear!

Me: (still bizarrely quietly) OK…

[Sound of waitress disemboweling self with sugar spoon]

Lessons from all this?

  • Don’t order coffee in five star hotel lobbies when you’ve got a laptop in the area.
  • Don’t believe any waterproof claims from laptop manufacturers. Turns out that spillage only applies to the keyboard. You can see the waitress managed to get the latte everywhere except the keyboard.
  • Don’t settle for less from those responsible than full replacement immediately. I made it clear to the phalanx of hotel management that they would face serious claims if I did not check and rehouse the hard drive as quickly as possible and that meant buying a replacement computer immediately (it helped I was down the road from the place I bought it at the time. Singapore is like that.) It’s not about the computer: it’s really about the data, but it’s also about your day. You’re a working stiff and you don’t deserve to sit on your hands while they try to wriggle out of a full refund.
  • Back up your data regularly. I was lucky; the hard drive was safe. But I bet a lot wouldn’t be.

This, by the way, is what Panasonic say at the bottom of the page on spillage:

Furthermore, if you spill coffee, soft drinks, or similar liquids on the computer, the keyboard or other parts of the unit may become stained. Sugar and other substances may also cause corrosion, so liquids other than water are more problematic. Deal with such spills in the same way as directed for water and then have the unit checked.

Be aware that the spill resistance of these products in no way guarantees that liquids will not harm them or cause breakdowns.

The Innovation Gang

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The AIA winners, Singapore Nov 2007

The past few weeks I’ve been interviewing and writing up the finalists for the Asian Innovation Awards and the Global Entrepolis awards, which are organized in part by my employer, The Wall Street Journal. It’s the third time I’ve done it, and while it’s great to interview them over the phone this was the first time I got to see all of them in the flesh.

The drive to innovate is a weird thing; if I had to identify one thing they’ve all got in common it’s that they’re all their own people. Not a blazing insight, I grant you, but they were characters in their own way, some quiet, some not so quiet, and it was frankly a pleasure to listen to their stories and then try to write them up.

Here are the WSJ.com stories (free access!) which appeared in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal Asia:

Innovator Finds Clever Way to Wash Water” (gold winner – Australia)

Creating Empowerment Through Cow Dung” (silver winner – Bangladesh) 

Rickshaws Drive Entrepreneurship” (bronze winner – India)

GES Winner Stifles Bollywood Piracy” (GES winner – India) 

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Don’t Turn the Poppy Into a Stick

Nothing to do with technology this, but it is to do with racism, multiculturalism, and my old country, Britain. A recent piece by Carol Gould of FrontPage magazine: The First Step to Britishness Is Your Poppy

The poppy is a symbol of the terrible loss of life in World War I in the fields of Flanders, where these blood-red flowers sprouted above the acres of corpses of fallen soldiers. As the decades have passed, the poppy has been worn to show one’s respect for the millions who have died in successive conflicts as recent as Iraq and Afghanistan. On British television, every presenter and anchor wears a poppy. In keeping with the motto of the British Legion—“Wear your poppy with pride”—every shopkeeper, publican, hotel manager and cabbie wears a poppy. This year I proudly bought mine at my local doctor’s office.

It was therefore all the more astonishing last week when I took a long walk along Edgware Road, the most densely Muslim section of London, and discovered that not one person was wearing a poppy. This all started because I was accosted on my corner, a few yards form where I have lived for twenty-eight years, by a young Arab man who began to get very aggressive with me. Was I, he demanded to know, “from the Jewish”?

The poppy is an institution in the UK, and reflecting that, its design hasn’t changed much since I was a kid. It’s one thing the Brits do quite well, and no PR firm has been allowed to jazz up what is one of the country’s key traditions. But reading the piece cited above made me realise, as an exile, how far the country still has to go in understanding that multiculturalism cuts both ways.

The poppy honours those men and women who have fallen in battle since the First World War. One would hope it includes all men and women who have fallen in all battles, but invitees are, as far as I know, those who have fought on the British side in British wars. I worry, though, that someone like Ms. Gould, despite her thoughtful and respectful attitude towards a British tradition, should be trying to turn poppy-wearing into compulsory activity. Not unless she’s willing to learn a little more history.

First off, let’s get the lunatic fringe out of the way. The man who accosted her was stupid, ignorant and offensive. I’m sorry for that. But don’t judge a whole community on that incident, any more than she should judge all white Britons by the racism of the taxi-driver who saved her:

The driver was enormously sympathetic but told me that I had been “asking for it” by walking in what he called “Little Beirut.” He then told me that we were in World War III. His white, working class anger at what he perceived as “the Islamic takeover” of Britain was palpable. He was not the first London cabbie who has told me he would gladly join the far-right British National Party if pushed.

(Little Beirut?) There are two different elements here. Apparent ignorance, or a lack of interest, in the poppy tradition among some sections of the British population, and whether or not this constitutes a lack of sensitivity to the country in which one is resident (or in which one was born):

As I walked along Edgware Road, crossing over from side to side of the long thoroughfare I began to get angry. If one lived in Damascus and there was an annual tradition of some sort similar to Poppy Day, one would show respect for the day and join in.

Well, yes, maybe. Show respect, certainly. Join in? I don’t know. Surely one should be asking deeper questions than simply

“Why do you British Asians (those from Pakistan) not wear a poppy?” He shrugged. “Are you not taught about the World Wars?” I asked.

This kind of questioning, to me, borders on interrogation. No one has suggested that everyone should wear a poppy; indeed, one could argue many of those who died fought for people’s freedom from having to wear something they don’t identify with. Then there’s the lack of historical understanding. Britain’s minorities have a long history, and their history is tightly bound with that of the country. Nearly 1 million Indians (India was then part of the Empire, and included present-day Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh) fought in World War 1, 50,000 of whom died. Two and a half million Indians enlisted in the British-controlled Indian Army during the Second World War. It took 80 years for a special ceremony to acknowledge their role, as this BBC report from 1998 highlights:

Dr Kusoom Vadgama, who is campaigning for greater public recognition of India’s role, says that Indian soldiers paid a price for British freedom. “It’s about time that we were put into text books and children’s history books, so that we can live in the country with some degree of dignity,” she says from her surgery in north London.

Since then, it seems that more recognition is being offered such sacrifice: In 2000 changes were implemented in the Cenotaph service to “recognise the contribution of non-Christian men from the nations of the former British empire who fought for the Crown”. It’s unclear how much this has meant in practice: Last year, according to one observer, saw the first time Karen fighters from what is now Myanmar (Burma) take part, but not much else. One BBC report said it was only this year that

for the first time, on Remembrance Sunday national representatives of the Christian and Jewish communities will be joined at the Cenotaph by those representing the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths. The move signals an increasing awareness of the role that people from Commonwealth countries, especially those of other faiths, have played in war.

Perhaps the delay of nearly a century in recognising that contribution might explain why there was so little enthusiasm for poppy day among young and old on the Edgeware Road.

Skype Cuts Some Rates

Skype has lowered rates of its SkypeOut service to some destinations as part of its first anniversary celebrations. Here are the details:

Six major new countries have been added to the SkypeOut Global Rate, a fixed, low-cost rate of 1.7 Euro cents per minute to popular calling destinations. China, Greece, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Poland and Switzerland have joined more than 20 additional destinations in the Global Rate. Skype has also significantly lowered SkypeOut rates for calling numbers in Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Cook Islands, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Korea, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland (mobile), Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

I’m not quite clear from the press release, but it sounds as if this is an average reduction of 15%.

It’s not all good news: Prices for SkypeOut calls to Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea, Oman, Lichtenstein and Haiti numbers will increase slightly.