BBM Decoder: What Does BlackBerry Messenger really tell you about your friends?

Indonesians also fall under the BlackBerry spell (click the photo to read Bobby Fernando's blog piece)

Whether you are on the Skytrain or sitting in Starbucks, everywhere you go in Bangkok you see folks hunched over their BlackBerries, thumbing away. As popular as they are (I actually composed most of this column on my BB while stuck in traffic) the news lately has been focused on about how RIM’s Blackberry devices are running into trouble in India, UAE, and Indonesia for violating security laws, allowing access to forbidden media, or potentially being used by insurgents and terrorists. So far Thailand is not facing any such bans, but in our current knee-jerk political climate, you never know.

If my BlackBerry were taken away from me, I would feel it acutely, as it is also a great way to tell what kind of people your friends are.

Specifically I am referring to the BlackBerry’s Messaging service (or BBM). This innocuous chat feature is one reason why the device has become such a hit in Thailand, though there are unintended drawbacks that go with the benefits.

I’m not talking about my pet peeve of people using hieroglyphics and photos of dogs or children as avatars. I really do hate that, but some of the nicest people I know fall into this category, so I don’t want to humiliate anyone. (But please,if you happen to be guilty of this: please, at least start your profile name with regular letters instead of flags, stars, and beer mugs, so we can conveniently search for and contact you. Pretty please.)

I am referring more to behavioral cues than the content of what they say, to which this deceptively powerful tool can be used to gain insight into what your friends and colleagues are really like behind the mask (or golden retriever photo).  Of course, I am not a trained psychotherapist and prefer Encyclopedia Brown to Sherlock Holmes, but these conclusions are based on my own observations, and do not apply to everyone.  Just my friends.  And probably yours.

Unchained Felony

Back in the day, I remember my mom used to get chain letters in the mail and I was fascinated by the hot potato of bad luck (which she would usually glance at before throwing it away). Then the biggest boon for chain mail came along: e-mail. You could barely open your inbox in the mid-90’s without getting a mass chain mail warning you of horrific death or dismemberment if you didn’t send it to 10 of your closest friends. Nowadays, people seemed to have become more sophisticated, so you hardly see these emails anymore (though the Nigerian email scam is still alive and well).

But along came BBM. Now we get Broadcast to All messages from people saying you need to forward this or your BBM service will be cut off or your BlackBerry will lose all its contacts. (A particularly insidious variant says to ignore these fraudulent chain messages…and to please pass it along to all your contacts.)

What does this mean?

Your friend who sent you this mass message, while undoubtedly good-intentioned, is quite gullible. In real life, if they pass along a juicy rumor or hot news item, know that it most likely comes to you unverified and in dire need of proverbial grains of salt.

Add My BB One More Time

I have one friend who keeps losing her BlackBerry and thus constantly asking to re-add friends to her contact list, twice in one week even. Every now and then, someone may simply be upgrading to the latest model, but repeat offenders have usually had their phones stolen or it fell out of their pocket in a taxi or accidentally left it in their pockets before going swimming (Ed: sigh…guilty). Granted, these small devices fall into the same class of Easily Lost Items as wallets, sunglasses, umbrellas, and virginities, but you would hope someone would pay closer attention to something that costs double what most people earn in one month.

What does this mean?

Maybe they are a deep-pocketed first adopter, but asking for someone’s BBM PIN more than three times in a calendar year means this person is either a bit absentminded, or just plain careless, so think twice before letting them borrow your grandma’s heirloom necklace. However, as these smartphones are not cheap, if they do borrow something precious from you and lose it (or accidentally drop it in the toilet), they are probably well off enough to replace it…if you do not mind the hassle.

I Know What You Read Last BB

One immensely helpful feature of BBM that distinguishes it from SMS text is that both parties of a conversation know when someone has read your message in a manner similar to a “Receipt on Read” feature of email. In the message box, a check mark with a superscript D indicates a message has been successfully delivered to your contact and is waiting to be read, and the D changes to an R as soon as the conversation has been opened.

What does this mean?

It’s one thing if you send someone a random “Hey” or broadcast a Happy New Year message, as maybe they are too busy for small talk. But if you send a message like, “Are we still on for dinner tonight?” or “HELP! I’m trapped under a boulder!” and see that your friend has read it without bothering to reply, then you probably have a fair gauge of where you stand in their hierarchy of relationships. 

I Don’t Wanna Ping in Vain For Your Love

Ping is a throwback to the days of submarines and IRC/ICQ chat, to verify a message has been received. Depending on what profile someone has set their BlackBerry, it could be a vibration or a tone, but because of the aforementioned D and R message status indicators, the ping function has been rendered somewhat superfluous.

What does this mean?

If someone has their phone sent to silent, then sending a ping is no different from a regular “Hey, are you there?” message. However, a string of angry red PING! reveals someone with an acutely impatient nature. (Or perhaps they are trapped under a boulder.) Don’t be surprised if this is a person prone to road rage, rage against the machine, or any other garden variety rages.  If someone rings your doorbell by pressing it ten times in succession, it is probably this guy.

Say You, Say Me

Another useful and fun feature of BBM is the ability to send sound files and short voice notes of up to one minute in length. I actually love this feature; for colleagues or friends visiting Thailand, I have them play for the taxi driver a voicenote with detailed driving directions in Thai.  Sometimes my wife sends me precious voicenotes of my boys saying “DADDY! DADDY!” when I’m out of town and missing them terribly. You can even use it as an ad-hoc means of long distance conversation, though the effect is similar to using a walkie talkie.

What does it mean?

Used sparingly, it can be a great convenience. But if someone sends voice notes almost exclusively, they might be extremely busy, hate typing, or are perhaps functionally illiterate.

File (Over) Sharing

Once, a friend received a photo via BBM of someone she considered like an uncle. It was of him semi-nude in a very provocative pose. Horrified, she immediately deleted it, instead of showing her friends who all agreed it was likely a mistake.  Since that incident, he cannot even bear to make eye contact with her. I blamed the aforementioned use of cryptic profile names and photos that confuses some deviant associates.

What does this mean?

That this someone you know is careless. And a closet freak.  Or seeing if you are ready to take your relationship in a different direction.  What it says more about is you, because  they can tell on their end if you decided to save the file or decline it.

Note:  Some of these points can apply to iPhone users as well, with cross-platform chat applications like WhatsApp.  Because iPhone users can behave just as badly in their ivory towers of cool.


2 Responses to “BBM Decoder: What Does BlackBerry Messenger really tell you about your friends?”

  1. July 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Very good info. Lucky me I discovered your site by chance (stumbleupon).
    I’ve book-marked it for later!

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