November 28, 2007
'When Someone Beeps You, You Know the Reason'
The new issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication has a terrific paper on the rules of ‘beeping’. That’s when somebody calls your mobile phone, lets it rings once, and hangs up. It’s a totally established mode of communication in places where airtime is still precious, most notably Africa.
It’s a ping in the purest sense: Exactly one bit of information is conveyed. Ah, but what a bit! The article defines a taxonomy of beeps — the callback beep (“call me back, because I’m out of airtime”), the relational beep (“I’m thinking of you”), and (get ready) the pre-negotiated instrumental beep (“yo, come pick me up now, as we agreed”).
But really, it’s all about the anecdotes. Because there are all sorts of interesting social dynamics involved. For instance:
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. They 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.
And of course:
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 friends’ phone if you do not have airtime.
What I love most about this is how contextual the information is. The beep means nothing — nothing! — without all the social understanding surrounding it. For instance:
As Immanuel explains, a beep can mean the exact opposite of the one before it. In his case, some of his dairy farmers beep to say, “there is no milk,” others to say, “there is milk.” The only difference in what Immanuel sees is the number on the missed call log; he uses his knowledge of the relational context and the meaning of past beeps to determine which beeps “mean” what.
This paper reads half like an academic study and half like an awesome, weird Wired or New Yorker article. Check it out. It’s a big world out there.