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.

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

The Third Screen Talks to the Second

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Nokia has finally woken up to the potential of connecting its phones to a computer. I’ve written elsewhere about the PC Suite, but its latest version has made some great strides in allowing you to use the computer to manage and monitor your cellphone.

The vision is a simple, and yet elusive, one. We work on our computers when we’re stationary. And on our phone when we’re mobile. But as far as we’re concerned we’re still doing the same thing: working. We can synchronize our data between those two devices, but operating both in real time is more problematic: there are tools to allow us to access our computer data from a phone, but sending and receiving SMS messages, for example, is still considered a phone activity, not a computer one.

It’s a technical barrier, not a lifestyle one.

Nokia, the biggest cellphone manufacturer in the world, has been slow to wake up to this weak link, but they’ve now seemed to see it. We should be able to send and receive SMS messages just like we can send and receive email messsages. It shouldn’t make any difference to us how people communicate with us; the medium shouldn’t matter.

But anyone thumbing out SMS messages in the office when they’d rather be typing them knows it does.

The PC Suite, once just a way to synchronize data between phone and computer, has now started to move into this space. Now it’s not a suite, so much as a Communication Centre. It’s become the interface for your phone (or phones; Bluetooth lets you connect more than one device simultaneously) when you’re at your desk.

The real improvement, therefore, is in the way the desktop software (Windows only) works with messages and contacts on the phone. Previously it was clunky and slow; it felt like the computer was downloading all your messages and contacts each time you wanted to do something. It was often faster just to tap the message out on the phone.

Now it’s fast and easy to use. Your computer will also let you know when a new message arrived, something the old software didn’t. The software is also good-looking and remarkably rich in features. Indeed, I’d argue that you don’t really need Outlook for your contacts with this kind of software working so well. (And yes, it handles non-Western alphabets well too.)

Some weaknesses: there’s still no way to add a phone number to existing contacts—as opposed to creating a new one. And when I first ran the software it ate up nearly all my processing power, which wasn’t pretty (it’s since settled down.)

Intriguingly, there’s a Firefox extension for synchronising bookmarks between your computer and phone browsers.

This is the closest I’ve seen to making the phone an appendage to your computer, where it seamlessly integrates in terms of data and functionality. Some steps to go, but kudos to Nokia for pushing the envelope. Hopefully soon enough we won’t notice or care what medium—SMS, email, chat–we’re using, because it will all be one simple interface. That day just came closer.

SMS, Toilets, Bike Theft and Cars

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I remember an instructive conversation with a guy who developed services for the mobile phone. I was suggesting some fancy service or other that involved a small app sitting on the phone. He said it wouldn’t fly with users. “No downloads, no registration, keep it simple,” he said. “Or it won’t stick.”

Maybe that’s why SMS is so powerful and why, still, it’s the method of choice for services on the cellphone. Emily over at textually.org has found some more, illustrating how SMS is not just about simplicity, but flexibility.

Tackling a more urgent problem there is SMS toiletting, where text messages help you relieve yourself. In London, Shanghai, and, via MizPee, anywhere in the U.S., those caught short can SMS for the address of the nearest loo. To guarantee you  have a pleasant experience, some toilets in Finland are locked. Of course, then you can open the door of a locked loo by SMS.

Then there’s what I’d call, for want of a better term, conditional SMS: You’ll only get your SMS depending on certain factors:

  • An SMS service that delivers text messages based on the recipient’s location. JotYou  lets you specify a location so your friends get your message only when they arrive at school or the mall. Yeah, I can’t quite figure out the use for this yet either, but I’m sure there are some.
  • Or a service, yet to be launched, that will ensure the sender knows when his message has been read. More on this anon.

When you marry the SMS with other tools, you can dream up some great services. Like this one from the UK:

  • A system that combines a motion detector and SMS is being used to deter and catch bicycle thieves in Portsmouth, England (picture above). When the bicycle owner locks up their bicycle they send a text to a security office to trigger the system to guard it. Then if someone then moves, or tries to move the bicycle, a sensor in the lock emits a silent alarm which triggers a CCTV camera to zoom in and take a picture. Result: bike theft down by 90%.

Bottom line. SMS still has a lot of leg left to it. Why? Because it’s simple. Because every phone can do it. Because it’s cheap. Because it’s tied to the most versatile device we’ve yet come up with: The mobile phone.

Information I’d Prefer Not To Get Via SMS

Some thing you don’t want to hear via SMS. Students in India can receive their exam results by text message (along with a free bottle of beer or something): not sure I want the most important news in my young life to pop up on my cellphone when I’m dancing the night away. And now the UK is planing to inform immigrants their visas have expired via SMS: “Hey Johnny Foreigner. Your time’s up. Get out” type thing, presumably:

Mr Reid said the plans for a text messaging pilot scheme to remind immigrants about their visas were a “tiny” part of a new enforcement strategy designed to “block the benefits” of Britain to those in the country illegally.

Tsunamis, Warnings and the SMS

Systems — especially warning systems — need to work perfectly, or not at all. Take Thailand’s new tsunami early warning system, which recently failed a trial because busy phone networks took hours to deliver vital SMS messages, while some some warnings sent by fax didn’t turn up at all, according to AFP. (More on the drill from DPA here.)

The report quotes Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Centre as saying that text messages sent by cell phones to emergency coordinators around the country took hours to arrive, while warnings sent by fax during the morning drill also failed to arrive. Said Pakdivat Vajirapanlop, the centre’s deputy operations chief: “The problem we faced was with communications. We have no idea whether our messages sent to local operations chiefs by fax and SMS arrived on time or not, and by midday some of them said they did not recieve the SMS. We need to know whether they have received our messages. What can they do if the messages don’t arrive on time? Then the warning is useless,” he said.

Indeed. SMS is not a reliable way to transmit messages, especially during a crisis. A warning system is as weak as its weakest link, and relying on SMS, or even fax, is not going to work. I’m just not sure what would work under such circumstances. The system needs to have an inbuilt check that a) ensures the message reaches its destination and b) the sender receives confirmation that the recipient has received and opened the message (what you might call passive acknowledgement. The recipient doesn’t need to actively acknowledge the message has been received, because that requires a further step. The message itself actually has an inbuilt acknowledgement mechanism.

SMS actually allows this confirmation, where the user can receive an SMS back informing him his message has been received by the sender. This system is not perfect of course, since nowadays SMS messages are filtered by increasingly sophisticated smartphones. So, for example, in the past an SMS’ arrival would intrude upon the recipient by a) making a noise and b) appearing on top of any other data or image on the phone’s screen, now smart phones can handle the SMS differently, from directing it to a specific folder to not appearing on the screen at all if another program is being used, or the phone is in silent mode, say. A great example of technology actually getting in the way of using the communication device as an alerting mechanism.

There are other ways, of course. One could use email trackers like MessageTag or DidTheyReadit which would alert the sender that the email has been sent. Although not popular with privacy advocates, this might be a way to inform a sender of a tsunami alert that a message has been read — even when, and perhaps where. Perhaps email trackers could be packaged and sold for this purpose?

On the other hand, how about picking up the phone and calling someone?

Treo 650 Spontaneous Reboot When Sending SMS Messages

Here’s a tip that’s completely useless for anyone who a) doesn’t have a Treo and b) hasn’t had their Treo spontaneously reboot when sometimes sending SMS text messages. As I couldn’t find this solution elsewhere, I thought I’d post it here for now.

  • Go to the home page of the Treo and in the ‘App’ menu select Delete…
  • Scroll down the list until you find Messages Database. (You’re now going to delete all your past SMS messages, but it’s a small price to pay.)
  • Delete it.

Your Treo should work fine now.

How To Stop Texters Having Accidents

I’m getting increasingly concerned about the potential for serious ‘texting accidents’ (what I’m going to call textcidents). These occur when two or more people are walking along texting into their cellphone and, oblivious of their surroundings, bump into each other. I’ve already advocated public ‘SMS Crannies’, where people can move out of the flow of humanity on sidewalks and pedestrian precincts to do their texting, but this doesn’t seem to have caught on.

So here’s another idea: Transparent screens that allow the user to see their screen, while at the same time seeing obstacles and hazards ahead of them. Of course, you would think that the screens are so small nowadays that most people would get some sense of other people, objects or animals encroaching into their path, but these are people who are walking along a crowded public space typing, so I’m not sure that ‘sense’ is in plentiful supply here.

I don’t have any studies to hand here, but I’m pretty sure that if the screen is transparent, the texter will be able to register both the text on the screen and whatever is behind it — in this case a lumbering giant bearing down on them.

The U.S.’ Next Big Thing: SMS-TV

No question that the U.S. is ahead on lots of cool stuff, but it has yet to be subjected to the world of SMS-TV. SMS-TV is when TV programmes let viewers vote, or submit competition entries, by text message, usually via a premium number. I have to admit I’ve never done this, but a lot of TV programs have it now, both in Asia and Europe, and it’s clearly a big revenue earner.

Says Idan Miller, SVP at zone4play, an SMS-TV supplier: “While SMS-TV isn’t yet a household product in the U.S., throughout Europe it is huge, and the U.S. is next. For [reality show] ‘Big Brother’ in the U.K., they charged $.25 per SMS and got about 100 million SMS messages throughout the season. For many mobile carriers in the U.S., it can be a major growth area in income.” Earning $25 million for audience interaction? Not bad.

It’s not just about money. “Big TV networks can also benefit as they crave ways to get their viewers to talk back and stay engaged with content brands. The loyalty engendered may be even more valuable to a TV industry that is suffering declining network viewership and fragmented attention spans,” says Miller.

Social Technology vs Antisocial Technology

After chatting with Jerry Michalski, a great guy and a keen supporter of social software, I was given to thinking. This is what I thought: I know other people use the term, and I haven’t read everything they’ve written, but I feel the world of technology can be divided between ‘social technology’ and ‘antisocial technology’.

To me social technology is technology that brings people together. Antisocial technology tears them, or keeps them, or encourages them to be, apart. An example: A phone brings people together because it connects them (unless the person is dialing a recorded message, I guess, but even that’s a form of social interaction). An example of antisocial technology: Earphones. They squeeze out the environment and make it much less likely the wearer will interact.

So how well does this distinction work? And is it useful? Well, one complaint about computers is that they tend not to bring people together. But is that true anymore? Email, chat, blogging, Wikis, online gaming, all create interaction. But is that enough? Are these interactions improvements in quality, or just quantity? The answer, to me, would determine whether the technology is social or anti-social. (Antisocial is defined as either meaning ‘shunning contact with others’ or ‘unwilling or unable to conform to normal standards of social behavior’.)

Jerry, if I’m recalling our conversation correctly, made a distinction between social software and productivity software (Office, all that kind of thing). He pointed out we’ve been obsessed with the latter for so long, whereas now we’re beginning to explore social software, such as networking sites, Wikis, chat etc. I think that’s an excellent way of looking at things. Productivity software is great for helping us write that memo, that report, that novel. But it doesn’t help us ‘socialize’ it, as Indonesians have a habit of saying. By that I mean it doesn’t push the end-product out into the world so it bumps into other people, other ideas, other cultures. To that extent productivity always meant ‘personal productivity’ and while it helped a lot of folk, it also helped cement the idea that sitting at a computer is a solitary, introverted and antisocial activity. (Ignoring for a moment the ‘team productivity’ component, which still keeps ideas within an established, i.e. not a social, group — the team.)

Looking at things away from the computer, I can easily see an argument that it’s not the technology that’s social or antisocial, it’s how you use it. True, up to a point: SMS is a great way to communicate with people, so it’s social technology, right? Not if you’re doing your texting while your bored, disgruntled and ignored spouse is sitting opposite you in a restaurant. An MP3 player is not a social technology, because it seals you in from the outside world. But not if you find yourself sharing what you’re listening to with strangers, building connections where they didn’t exist. So there are grey areas.

But I see the distinction as good enough to survive this nitpicking. WiFi is a great social technology, as is VoIP. Both allow people to communicate with other people in cheap, efficient ways. These technologies are likely to be truly revolutionary because of this, and that is most clearly visible from where I am sitting right now: a place like Indonesia, where the infrastructure is lousy, the phone companies expensive and slow to deploy new lines, and people yearning for a cheaper, better way to learn, share, work and meet new people. Viva social technology.