“Beeping” or “flashing” is when someone calls another person’s cell phone and hangs up before the recipient can answer. The cell phone call log tells the recipient who has called, and the communication is almost entirely free. The latest issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication explores the culture of beeping, and how it facilitates low-cost communication throughout much of the world.
A major benefit of beeping is that it saves time. Personally, I often intentionally neglect to leave messages on other people’s cell phones. I think messages are often unnecessary, since recipients usually will see my missed call. At one point, my coworker admitted to me that she had more than 80 unheard messages lingering on her cell phone, having refused to listen to them over an extended period of time. Make no mistake, she returned most of the calls, she simply didn’t listen to the messages.
A slight change comes into play in dating situations. One Rwandan interviewee for the article said, “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.”
In my informal research, beeping is often considered bad form in the United States, though it’s not a universal faux pas. The article reports on a “miss call culture” in Bangladesh, where beeps can mean “I’m thinking about you,” or a variety of other coded messages. According to the authors, the relational beep, often between friends with no expectation of hearing back, “is perhaps particularly attractive to shy teens, who can express interest in another person without having to compose a customized message.”
Much of the information for the beeping study was collected in Africa, where cellular communication can be quite expensive. Beeping culture is an innovative way for people to take part in new telecommunication technology, without prohibitively high costs. And since the social norm is that the “richer guy pays” for the call, distributing the costs of social interaction based on who is able to pay. Telecommunications companies have tried to set up a pricing structure based on calls and texts, but users have found away to skirt that structure, creating social norms and practices around the technology all their own.