Monday, October 1, 2012

The ethics of missed calls

ThoughtWorks is a crazy place. You're walking on thin rope all the time and there's super opiniated crowds on both sides who will eat you alive if you take one wrong step. Most of these arguments are paradoxical as described by Jim Highsmith, and get boring and repetitive very soon... "growth", "specialization", etc. Then there are arguments that are totally futile and endless. Like the lunch served in the India offices. People can go on arguing about how they like OR don't like the "current" caterer and obviously never get anywhere because people have different tastes in food and there's no caterer in the world that will be able to make everyone happy.

But every once in a while a really nice juicy argument comes along and makes it all worth the while :)

Missed calls

Missed Calls were (are?) a big part of the Indian (youth) culture when I was going through college. Cellphones were getting cheap enough for college kids to carry one, but call rates were not cheap in any sense of the word. In that situation missed calls were a legitimate form of communication.
  1. Giving missed calls to the "wealthy" party so they could call back and bear the cost of the call. This worked well with parents :D and sometimes with wealthy / generous friends.
  2. Giving missed calls to indicate yes / no (one ring = yes, two = no). Useful in all manners of covert transactions including flirting with guys / girls from orthodox families that WOULD NOT allow calls from friends of the opposite sex. err... yes this is true.
  3. Giving missed calls to indicate "I'm here". When you were meeting a friend and expected him/her to come down / out of the house so you can get going, you don't go to the house. That's weird; a waste of time; a thing to avoid at all costs (exchanging pleasantaries with the friend's family, having a bit of snack / tea offered to you, sharing awkward silence with your friend's super cute sibling, etc). So you give a missed call meaning "Waiting downstairs. Let's go."
There are several other examples of using missed calls to communicate important stuff. If you picked up your friends call before three rings it was considered treason. It meant you were out to get your friend and in complete violation of the "code"!

A question of ethics!?

Apparently the US is new to all this. No one in the US gives missed calls. People just talk. How boring. But when this subject came up couple of weeks back in the TW NY Office, one of the arguments presented was around ethics!! The argument was something like this...
Although the missed call is free to you, the telecom company incurs cost to connect the call and so it is unethical to use missed calls to communicate because you are not paying the telephone company!!
My very first reaction was, of course, "That's a ridiculous argument!!". After thinking about it long and hard I my reaction changed to "It really is a ridiculous argument!!". I vehemently believe that missed calls are legitimate and you are a fool not to use them. You are totally within your rights & not doing anything illegal. Its the contract that the phone company signed up for and so if you can legitimately use the exploit in the system. I consider is "Fair Use". (listen to that regardless; its a masterpiece)

Its not like the phone companies don't know about this. They can't do anything because of a deadlock in a competitive market. If one of them starts monetizing missed calls the others will eat it alive and gain significant market shares.

The catch

There is however a roadblock I faced while making this argument. I was looking for other examples of this behavior (using the free part of a service to gain benefit) and I couldn't find a single one! I know its impossible but you have to help me out here. Missed calls are at stake! Is this really the last legitimate exploit that we have on out hands? Are we so boring? Say its not true...

UPDATE: A friend pointed me to this episode of "This American Life" that explores the question of loopholes and ethics at a much deeper level than missed calls.


  1. Ha! I'm from São Paulo, where missed calls are a pretty legitimate way of saying either "I'm here, come down", "call me back when you get a chance" or "I'm thinking about you – I don't have anything to say, just wanted to let you know that".

    Doing it to the wealthier party doesn't really happen much, since collect calls are just a matter of prepending 9 to the number (but may be done as a way to avoid the annoying chime + message at the beginning of the call).

    About using the free part of a service to gain benefit: I know a lot of people who don't bother buying their own ketchup or mustard, but keep a ton of fast-food chain sachets by the fridge. Probably not the best example around, but the first one that came to mind.

  2. When I was growing up in England we used to use missed calls (although we did not call them that). Typical use was to call home from a public phone box and give "two rings" to indicate that some event had finished,, or that someone had arrived at the train or bus station and needed collecting.

    To a large degree the usefulness of this technique depends on the technology as well as the culture. The "trick" largely died out when the UK phone system switched over to digital communication and it was no longer so easy to tell how many times the remote phone had rung.

    In theory it might have had a resurgence when caller ID became available, so you could distinguish the caller before picking up the phone, but on land-lines this feature often costs extra and is hardly universal. Mobile phone call provide more information, but most plans already include some number of free SMS messages, so there's little obvious benefit in using the missed call loophole.

    As for other examples, the web is full of "freemium" offerings where a lot of people stick with using the features of a free service rather than pay for an upgrade. It's such a common practice that you probably never even thought of it. Do you pay for LinkedIn? GitHub? Blogspot?

  3. @Frank: the point is not free services. GitHub, LinkedIn, BlogSpot, etc, are advertised as free services and so of course you don't pay for them. Communication through a missed call is a loophole and I'm trying to find other examples of such loopholes.

    The closest example that I could think of was using the 30 return policy to evaluate competitive products. Lets say you wanted to purchase a camera lens and there were 2 good options. Instead of buying only one, you buy both of them, compare them side by side for 30 days and then return the one that you don't like.

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