Reuters had an interesting story this week on a phenomenon known in Kenya as "flashing."
It's not what you think.
To the uninitiated, to "flash" someone is to dial their cell phone, let it ring for a split-second, then hang up before they can pick up. That way you don't get charged for the call, and it's an implicit message to the other person that they should call you. According to Andrew Heavens of Reuters, this practice happens all over Africa and goes by different names -- "missed call" in Sudan, "beeping" in Rwanda, etc.
The skyrocketing cellphone market in Africa now has 200 million users -- the vast majority of whom buy their airtime in small, prepaid increments. Unlike in the U.S., you don't get charged for receiving calls, only for making them. So flashing is an easy way to keep that last bit of credit going on your account by getting the other person to pick up the cost of the call.
When I first moved here two years ago, I found the practice more than a little annoying. In the U.S., both parties bear the cost of a call in spent minutes on their cellular plan. In Africa the system is to assign ownership: the person who needs the call more, needs to pick up the tab.
As with all tech phenomena, there are unwritten but deeply observed rules for flashing. When your mechanic wants to tell you your car is ready, for example, he can flash you -- it's your car, after all, and if you want it back, you'd better call him. (Never mind that he may have taken a week longer to fix it than he promised.) It's also hierarchical: an employee calling a superior, who makes more money, is justified in flashing -- unless he really needs a favor.
And of course, if you're trying to woo a lady, don't flash her. Ever.
My first few months here, I picked up a lot of calls that were meant to be flashes. (I often carry my cell phone in my hand, so I have a pretty quick trigger.) This embarrassed a few flashers and irritated others. "Why did you pick up? Why don't you let it ring?" a caller asked me once. "Because you called me" isn't a good answer.
The Reuters piece illustrates just how big flashing has become. An official with the cell phone giant MTC in Sudan says that there 130 million missed calls every day, and 355 million actual calls. That's an astonishing proportion, and it presents a dilemma for cellular operators, who don't make any money off the missed calls and yet find a big chunk of their technology devoted to putting them through the system.
In Kenya, Safaricom, the biggest cell phone company, allows customers to send a certain number of free text messages saying, "Please call me. Thank you." It's much nicer than flashing -- and it reduces traffic on the phone lines -- and apparently other companies are trying similar methods. Until then, flashing/beeping/miskin/bipage will remain the order of the day.
Which, I suppose, is fine. You always have the option of not calling back. Unless you've got a determined flasher, in which case you'd better be prepared for your phone to ring, briefly and repeatedly, sometimes over the course of several days -- until you get a new number.