Last month, Alexandra Janelli took interest in a shocking but relatively minor news story. A 28-year-old woman in Teaneck, New Jersey, was on her iPhone when she was invited to join a Wi-Fi network with a racist moniker. The hatefully named signal was being broadcast from a router at the recreation center where her three-year-old daughter was enrolled in dance classes. “I was shocked, hurt,” the woman said. “I felt harassed.” Police launched an investigation into the incident as a possible bias crime.
To Janelli, the item validated her belief that a wireless network’s name probably says a lot about the person who named it. The 31-year-old first entertained that idea in fall 2009. While at a bar in New York City, where Janelli lived at the time, the network “Alcoholics Shut In” popped up on her iPhone. She quickly got in the habit of making screen grabs of unusual available networks and posting them on Tumblr. The self-styled “Wi-Fi detective” later moved to Evanston with her fiancé, a student at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management; she changed careers from environmental consultant to licensed hypnotist and launched her labor of love, WTFWiFi.com.
The site’s an addictive collection of clever and crazy wireless network tags: “Great Chicago Firewall,” “An Angry Morman with a Boner,” “International house of Panflakes,” “Password Is Taco,” “The Scared Dog Korean BBQ,” “PUFF THE MAGIC JOHNSON,” “Besties with testes,” “University of Chicago Hustler,” “illegal products cartel,” “Funyuns4Jojo,” “I am a fucking moron 2.” The site serves as a cache of the virtual minutiae of urban life.
“It’s sort of like air graffiti—people claiming their space, making a statement,” she said last week as we strolled the streets of Wicker Park. Spilling over with the young and over-networked, the ’hood offers just the right conditions for spotting perverted network names. “Over there is ‘There’s no I in gangbang,’ ” she noted at North and Milwaukee Avenues, gazing intently at the screen of her investigative instrument of choice: an old, shattered iPhone loaded with the Wi-Fi–scanning app WiFiFoFum. “The craziest thing I’ve learned about Wi-Fi hunting is how often you’ll step in dog poop,” she said, chuckling. “You’re busy looking at your phone and then, ‘Dammit!’ ”
The phone surveyed the atmosphere as we walked down Milwaukee, revealing a trove of networks: the Saved by the Bell homage “Zack Attack” near Honore Street; “Electric Avenue,” a nod at Eddy Grant’s hit song, around Wood Street; at Paulina Street, “Elvis Is Alive,” “ShittyKitty,” “PimpCity” and “Shy Monkey.”
“You see a lot of monkey stuff,” Janelli said. “And moose, too.” Flip through WTFWiFi.com’s thousands of names long enough, and several themes emerge. Besides animals, there are preoccupations with porn (“Free Pron!”), scat (“BC salad w a side of Poop Soup”), Star Wars (“Pocket Wookie”), law enforcement (“F.B.I. Van 951753”) and celebrities. “I found ‘Angelina Jolie’s office’ in the Loop,” Janelli boasted. Some are meta bon mots: “Trying To Steal Internet?,” “Move along, nothing to see here,” “Pay4ThisShitBitches.” Others are obviously using their choice of Wi-Fi name as a form of passive-aggressive communication with their neighbors: “i can see you masturbate,” “STOPTHELOUDSEX,” “wecanhearyouthruthewalls.”
“The ones that still blow my mind are, like, ‘Titties in your face’ or ‘Cunt muffin,’ ” Janelli says. “Because inevitably, you’re going to have a relative in from out of town and they’re going to ask, ‘What’s your Wi-Fi network?’ ”