Mobile Number, Identity and Social Class

I originally wrote this back in July 2009. It didn’t seem appropriate to post this at the time, because I was working for Wataniya. But, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Mobile Identity, and have a few posts lined up.

While trying to switch Dhiraagu mobile customers to Wataniya, we have always had to face this ultimate position – the potential customer would tell you that, however beneficial, and the number of rewards Wataniya would offer, he could not switch because he had used that number for some years, and that it was now part of his “identity”. It was puzzling for me then because it was so hard for me to understand how a mobile number could be a vital part of someone’s identity, and because people change their identities all the time. Retrospectively thinking about it, this could have been solved easily, as the fundamentals working behind it are seemingly so simple. Mind you, this is still a lot of speculation, but causality and correlation be damned.

Identity is hard to pin down. Identity cannot be defined by one particular attribute, but could be said to be constitutive of many things; a manifold or an emergent property. This identity then consists of our physical attributes (skin colour, hooked nose etc), our ideas (e.g. our level of education), the tangible things we use (motorcycle, wallet), and intangibles like the mobile number. Most of these attributes change a lot over time. We change our clothes, our haircuts, our home décor; we would even change our names, and online avatars as we as a person continue to change over time. These are all part of our identity. What puzzled me the most was that this particular part of a person’s identity (mobile number) was rigid, almost impossible to be redefined by the person? How was the mobile number such a vital part of a person’s identity, and what created this rigidity?

Until recently, Dhiraagu had differentiated their mobile numbers in to prepaid blocks and post-paid blocks. Numbers starting with certain digits (e.g. 777xxxx, 778xxxx) are post-paid blocks, while others are prepaid (e.g. 75xxxxx), and it was not possible to change an existing post-paid number in to a prepaid number or vice versa. The fact that post-paid numbers had a more appealing number range would’ve been a marketing decision, to increase the value of their post-paid packages. But the fact that customers were not able to move from prepaid to post-paid or vice versa, while using the same number seemed more of a limitation of their previous billing system. This then made it certain that only particular ranges could be post-paid numbers, and others were prepaid, and it made it easier to identify people who used prepaid numbers and those who used post-paid numbers. However, that is not the interesting part. The fact that people were able to identify these number ranges, apparently, gives rise to several social consequences that seem more interesting.

By being able to identify post-paid and prepaid numbers, people were able to classify others as to which social strata they belonged to; that is, since mobile minute rates remained high for a long time, they were able to judge who earned more and who earned less in society. This also created a condition of stigmatization of people who used a prepaid phone. I would claim that society still uses this as a measure, even though minute rates have dropped a lot in recent years, as part of cultural conditioning. The mobile number then becomes an indicator of the person’s social status or class – much like a Jaguar car shows that the owner is a rich person. Which is to say that, the number is no longer appealing because of a beautiful number (like 7777777), it is also appealing because it shows others of the persons social status and class and gives the owner of that mobile number a sense of achievement (of having reached that status).

Then, why was it hard to convince the customer to pick up a Wataniya number? Wataniya gives its customers plenty of flexibility, to move from post-paid to prepaid, and makes it easy for customers to get any number they want. But because, Wataniya numbers does not differ in this manner, it does not indicate whether the person is rich or poor, it’s just a number (although it could be a nice number like 9999999 and that would come with a price, but even so). The number does not give any indication of the person’s social status or class. But there’s hope for the future. Mobile minute rates and package prices have dropped so low in recent years that anybody could afford a post-paid package. It is no longer a privilege to have a post-paid package, it is just convenience. This does hint that eventually the value of these numbers would decline, and identification using those numbers would become less of a problem. Also, talks of mobile number portability does hint that these problems would eventually be resolved.