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Young boys playing with a lego phone

One of the things I love the most about the relentless march of new technology is how quickly people are able to adapt and, almost by stealth, establish new paradigms.

The evolution of mobile phones is a good case study for future anthropologists.

People around the world have consistently shown their ingenuity in how they are using their mobile phones. Text-speak and the rise of SMS is a prime example. In many countries, SMS is now far more popular than actually talking on your phone. 

Also, when the very first mobile phone came out, who could have predicted how important location services and cameras would become? It all seemed to happen because that’s just how most people were using their mobiles. 

These new shifts are not confined to cutting edge phones either. People without smart devices are still finding smart ways of using the ‘dumb’ phones that they do have.

One way they are doing this is the phenomenon that’s become known as ‘beeping’.

Mobile phone and money in Kenya

Big beeps 

Put simply, beeping is when you call someone and then hang up after it has rung for a split-second. Think of it as giving someone a quick nudge or shout across the room. 

What does the beep mean? It can mean anything but crucially it will be understood between the two parties. Some common messages for beeps are things such as ‘please come and pick me up’ or simply ‘I’m thinking of you, please call me back.’ 

The practice is particularly common in emerging economies like India, Pakistan and the African nations. 

It’s popular because it’s practically free and means that if the second party does want to speak to you, then they’ll have to call you back and bear the burden of paying for that phone call.

It is also just a very simple and efficient way of getting your message across. Who needs words, when a beep says it all?

The repertoire

Beeping was first identified a few years ago in Rwanda by Microsoft researcher Richard Donner, who wrote a paper called The Rules of Beeping.

He said that beeping was: 

“A simple strategy to redistribute telecommunications costs and as a form of code which, intentionally or not, serves to strengthen relationships and reinforce social norms.” 

Mr Donner identified three major kinds of beeps and how they were being used:

  • Most common of all are callback beeps. They are a “request” that the recipient return the beeper’s missed call with a voice call.
  • Prearranged shorthand beeps. For example, ‘beep me when you’ve finished your shopping and I’ll come to pick you up.’
  • Relational beeps are made between friends and expect no reply or action to be taken. It’s used for simple greetings such as ‘hello’ or ‘goodnight.’

The rules

As well as the different kinds of beeps, Mr Donner also found that hierarchies and social conventions have also arisen around beeping. 

For example, callback beeps are sent to people with more money than you because they can afford to pay for the call. Likewise, you can send them to friends and family if you have run out of minutes.

There are also occasions when beeping is frowned upon, such as when you are hoping for favourable treatment from the person you are beeping. A man who is courting a girl should not beep her either. Who said romance was dead?

Mobile call in India

Beeping off

In its simplest form you can think of beeping as a kind of Morse code. Strangers to countries where it is practiced may well find it annoying and confusing, particularly if you keep answering your phone quickly before the caller can hang up!

Even in the UK, I have heard anecdotal evidence that a form of beeping was used among some families with the old fixed-line phones to relay simple messages – “ring the phone twice to let me know you’ve arrived home safely,” and that sort of thing [Ian – we did when I was a kid to let my grandmother know we’d got home].

So, beeping is not exactly new but mobile phone technology has helped it to become a major cultural phenomenon around the world.

Will it last? As Richard Donner said, cheaper operator deals and other disruptive technologies such as instant messaging may very well reduce its popularity. For now though, I think it’s clever, witty and long may they keep on beeping.

Image credits: IIDC and whiteafrican

*Beeping is also known as flashing, but don’t confuse this with wiping or upgrading your phone’s software or firmware, which is also commonly referred to as flashing.