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.

Satellites to the Rescue

Satellite image of Muzaffarabad region of Pakistan showing landslides caused by the 2005 south Asian earthquake. Map created on 13 October 2005

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation on how satellites and space technology are helping, and might help, in the case of big medical emergencies, from earthquakes to Ebola. It’s a slightly different tack for me and perhaps not the usual fare for loose wire blog, but I thought I’d throw it in here anyway.

When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was seen leaving a conference in Geneva in November 2005 clutching maps of the south Asia earthquake disaster, it was evidence that satellites – as a key weapon in humanitarian emergencies – had arrived.

In the hours and days after the October 8 quake struck killing more than 73 000 people and injuring some 150 000, experts from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United Nations scrambled to gather and interpret images data from satellites to assist rescue workers on the ground from local authorities to nongovernmental organizations (NGO), like Télécoms Sans Frontières.

WHO | Space technology: a new frontier for public health

Google’s New Interface: The Earth

image

I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

image

Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

Thwarting the VoIP Eavesdroppers

Interesting piece in Intelligence Online (subscription only) which mentions the growth of both software to intercept VoIP traffic, and services to thwart it. Companies mentioned: Amteus [company website] which “has developed secure software for Voice over IP (VoIP) communications but also for e-mail and file swaps.” Amteus basically works by establishing a peer to peer connection and encrypts with a one time key. On the other side of the fence, the article says, are companies “like Israeli firms Nice Systems and Verint as well as France’s Aqsacom, are already marketing solutions to break into and record telephone conversations on the Internet.” [all corporate websites]

An interesting world
 

Spammers Need To Be Funnier

Spammers should understand that if the best way into our inbox is by entertaining us. Most spam is just awful: offensive, grammatically dreadful (even allowing for efforts to get around filters) and revealing of the piteous lives the spammers and their drones lead. But if they could only smarten up their act we’d probably let them through. The guy, or guys, with a random “from” address creator get my vote. I just can’t help scouring my junk folder for gems. Here were some I found a few months back. Here are a few more:

Microwaving C. Grammes
Maillol L. Shrews
Lofting C. Amendable
Monomania I. Buxom
Zelma Mooney
Trammelled S. Intercessions
Amateurism G. Causal
Highchairs P. Polyphemus

There is a strange genius at work here.

(Some more:

Schoolwork B. Unrepeatable <era…
Threatenings T. Unanimity <stefa…
Aquaplaned J. Mammography <ya…
Unscrambling A. Proposes <yves…
Geronimo A. Lagging <mpneves@j…
Mischievousness R. Chestnut <co…
Preying A. Pallets <wilson@puerto…

Geronimo A. Lagging somehow appeals to me)

May 9 2006. Some more just in:

Saffron I. Compression <kmccarty…   
Deliberations R. Torpedo <tausq@…   
Accompaniments B. Exhibiting <m…   
Amputation H. Ulna <sharma@pro…   
Dubrovnik G. Overnight <cate@sl…   
Lummoxes B. France <newsbastar…   
Gluey E. Suitcase <jorge_f@u2clu…   

May 12 2006. Some more:

Cathy A. Capitulating <marcpa@g…
Toil T. Synthesizes <kevink@good…
Mildew A. Devastation <od_K@gr…
Threnody A. Tonsillectomies <wsul…
Electrocardiographs L. Downer <s…

May 13. More:

Cathy A. Capitulating <marcpa@g…
Toil T. Synthesizes <kevink@good…
Mildew A. Devastation <od_K@gr…
Threnody A. Tonsillectomies <wsul…
Electrocardiographs L. Downer

May 14:
Coxswain I. Connoisseur <tkriehle…
Inch R. Snoozed <baque@glslab.com>
Microscopes V. Baluchistan <maec…
Caucus V. Summerhouses <mlovell…
Imperative C. Urges <rabe@goed…
Carson L. Hostage <happyguy_pt…
Altiplano J. Thirstiest <alwyns@gr…
Unkind U. Downstairs <binner@bri…

What Early Groomers Used For Hair Gel

I don’t use hair gel anymore — no, really — but I do remember wandering around war-torn Kabul trying to find some when my stash ran out during an unexpectedly long stint there shortly after the Taleban takeover. Needless to say I felt somewhat superficial about it, given all the suffering around me, and was worried it was frowned upon by the puritanical Taleban. I shouldn’t have worried: most of them wore eyeliner, took way too much interest in my babyish features and in any case, there’s a long history of wearing hair gel, as National Geographic News reports:

Male grooming has an ancient history in Ireland, if the savagely murdered bodies of two ancient “bog men” are anything to go by. One shows the first known example of Iron Age hair gel, experts say. The other wore manicured nails and stood 6 feet 6 inches tall.

Disappointingly, you have to look elsewhere to find out what kind of hair gel. I personally like Slick from Body Shop, but it might not have been available then, namely between about 400 BC and 200 BC. Another piece from National Geographic, suitably titled ‘Iron Age “Bog Man” Used Imported Hair Gel’ details the product he was using:

The man’s hair contains a substance made from vegetable oil mixed with resin from pine trees found in Spain and southwest France. The man might have used the product, researchers say, to make himself appear taller.

Sounds like my friend John.

Plaxo, Privacy and ‘Suspicious Behavior’

It seems that there’s renewed interest in Plaxo, the contact sharing service that has attracted attention both for its inventiveness and its privacy implications. First off, a reader from France, Vincent Prêtet, wrote in comments to a previous post that

Plaxo is an amazing great tool to manage an adressbook. I use it since a few months and I am really happy of doing so. However, in France too the use of Plaxo gives rise to a real debate: is Plaxo’s system and are Plaxo’s users respecting the Laws as far as individual rights are concerned.

An EU-law (directive) goes as far as writing that nobody is allowed to transmit “personal data” like contacts of an addressbook to a Third without having first noticed each of the contacts.

Vincent asks whether any similar case being made in the U.S. He’s also started his own blog on the subject (in French).

Another reader has sent in a screen capture from Zone Alarm that seems to indicate Plaxo “does much more than just collecting personal info”:

PlaxoZA

I’ve asked Zone Labs about this message, who offer the following:

Yes, it does appear to be one of our alerts. The “Enables Plaxo to Securely Integrate with Outlook Express” is probably the name of Plaxo’s process that that triggered the alert. The rest of the copy is the standard message for all “suspicious” alerts. The idea is to let consumers know when a process is occurring that we believe can have security ramifications and let them choose to move forward or not. One of our primary goals is to make sure people have control over what installs on their PC.

Let me know if you’d like me to check with our security team on Plaxo specifically, but typically with the OSFirewall we aren’t looking so much at specific programs, more at the actual behavior of a process (at a glace, I suspect any program that tries to integrate with Outlook that we don’t have specifically whitelisted would trigger the same alert).

At first glance, then, it looks suspicious. But on closer inspection I feel this is more a case of Zone Alarm being a bit too alarmist, or at least not building up a decent database of programs it can whitelist. Plaxo is not exactly a new kid on the block, and although I have my reservations about what Plaxo does, I’m not sure it’s tracking keystrokes, mouse movements or other ‘user behavior’.

Doubtless Stacey, Plaxo’s privacy officer, will weight in shortly on this!

Damn The Helicopters

From the BBC: France nabs gun-toting pensioner

An 81-year-old Frenchman has been given a one-year suspended jail sentence for firing a hunting rifle at helicopters dropping water on a forest blaze.

David Thiel opened fire on 21 July when the low-flying helicopters disturbed his afternoon nap near Grasse in the south of France, court sources said.

During his arrest the man swore at the policemen and hit them with saucepans.

The Blogosphere (Tree)mapped

I was intrigued by this effort to count the number of blogs around the world and offer a break down by region, if not country. The results, though very rough, and which include large slabs of the world (like South America), offer up some interesting conclusions, particularly for Asia. Bottom line is that there is a huge chunk of the world blogging outside the English language.

Here, just the hell of it, is a rough treemap I put together of the data provided by The Blog Herald’s Duncan:

Blogs5

The overall total is in the 60 million mark (and of course this figure is open to questioning, as it was by my colleague at WSJ.com, Carl the numbers guy). The pink covers the very broad figure of those U.S-based blog hosters, and includes speculative figures for the UK, Australasia etc. Light blue is Asia — the bits too small to have their labels visible are for South and South East Asia, both roughly host to 1 million bloggers each, and the much smaller, redder boxes cover Russia, Africa and the Middle East. The darker blue box is France.)

Even if the South Korean figure is off, there’s still a striking element to all this, which I think sometimes gets lost in the blogosphere noise: Asians are blogging in their own languages in huge numbers, roughly equal to the ‘Anglophone’ world, and yet there’s very little crossover between these groups, or even among them. Worthy of a closer look, methinks.

Hong Kongers Flock Online

The folks at Nielsen//NetRatings have released their latest Global NetView Analysis (PDF only) which shows, as they put it, that ‘the majority of usage growth has come from increased frequency of access or user session growth. Australia, France, Hong Kong and Italy saw double-digit growth in the number of monthly user sessions (see Table 2). In comparison, the U.S. experienced no growth, second to last in the rankings.’

To me, though, the most interesting part is how much time Hong Kongers spent online last month Nielsen time online hours compared to anyone else (22 hours), including Japanese (15 hours) and Americans (14 hours).

This is new: It represents significant (25%) growth over last year Nielsen time online yoyg and, as Nielsen//NetRatings points out, compares strikingly with the U.S., where people actually spent less time online than they did in the same month last year.

I have no idea why so many Hong Kongers spent nearly every waking moment online last month. Perhaps it was the weather. I’ll be up there later this month. I’ll ask around.