When Alexandra Janelli approaches the corner of Barclay Street and Broadway in New York, she knows she's almost home.
But it has nothing to do with the world famous Woolworth building up ahead or the rare city park across the street. It's because her iPhone suddenly picks up on the fact that she's reached the part of cyberspace where the "attorneys at war" and "divorce filers" Wi-Fi hotspots exist side by side.
Over the past five months, the Manhattan native said she's uncovered a whole new way to navigate the city, and it doesn't rely on street signs or famous places but on wireless signals and network names.
All it takes is a Wi-Fi-enabled smart phone or computer to rout out the wacky names people choose for their personal networks.
"I'm under your bed," was spotted by Janelli in midtown. "Beforethevows" came from Brooklyn. "taco breath 2" appeared on the Upper West Side.
"It's like a whole other sublayer of the city," Janelli said. "People are really hiding behind their routers."
Wi-Fi Sleuthing Becomes 'Almost Addictive'
Though many Internet users choose the simplest names for their personal hot spots (or never even swap out the default name), the 28-year-old environmental consultant said she's become a collector of the names are funny, raunchy, poignant or just plain bizarre.
"I dubbed myself a Wi-Fi detective," she said. "Once you find a really funny Wi-Fi name, it becomes almost addictive." It started at a bar in New York's East Village, Janelli said. She went to check something on her phone's Web browser, and when the list of available Wi-Fi networks popped up, the ironic option "alcoholic shut-in" appeared among them.
"[It] was so funny," she said. "I wondered if it was the bar or someone else."
Since then, she's walked along New York's streets, iPhone in hand, watching as the threatening ("Nancy don't mess with this again"), religious ("Jesus is Coming"), political ("Obama please save us") and lustful ("Boobz") messages pop up.
"When I take cabs home now, I notice landmark Wi-Fi names. I know where I am," she said.
Sociologist: People Create Digital Identities
And she said that she's noticed that different neighborhoods represent themselves differently.
The younger the population, she said, the more outrageous, personal and cryptic the messages get.
Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California and editor of the Everyday Sociology Blog, said the phenomenon shows that people are staking out their digital space.
"It's like a really low-frequency radio station," she said. "In some ways, it's your electronic space and people are tuning into your electronic space, so it's a way of constructing your identity through that space."
Although it's similar to choosing screen names or Twitter account names online, she said that the added layer of anonymity gives people a bit more freedom of expression.
To see someone's Wi-Fi network, you need to be physically close to their home, she said, but it's very difficult for the average person to match the individual to the network.
Wi-Fi Names Like Gargoyles to Ward Off Potential Hackers
"It's another avenue for free speech in a way that people might be too embarrassed to express in another arena," she said, hence the sometimes violent or overtly sexual messages.
But she also pointed out that in some ways the threatening messages are like gargoyles, serving to warn people against hacking into their wireless network.
"It's also a way to shock someone who might be invading your digital space," she said. "It may be a way to scare off potential hackers or identity thieves."
Though people can exercise creativity over the networks anywhere in the world, she said it's more likely to occur in urban areas where people are congested enough to be aware of overlapping networks and digitally connected enough to be constantly searching for an available hotspot.
John Fischer, a 27-year-old who lives in New York's stereotypically hip Williamsburg section, said he's "guilty of it" himself.
"Especially in a dense urban area where your Wi-Fi name reads like your address, it's a clever way to be a little unexpected," he said. In a "little literary dig" at his neighborhood, his network is "Skinny Jeans and All" and he said his friends nearby go by "WEB and Da Boys" (as in W.E.B Du Bois).
Wi-Fi Names Send Messages to Others Close By
Technology writer and co-author of the "geek humor gone wild" site eSarcasm, Daniel Tynan, said someone once changed his own Wi-Fi name on him.
When he failed to secure his own Wi-Fi network or alter the default password, he said someone went in and changed it to "Wide Open Please Come Hack Me."
Tynan has penned a book on security and said, "I was mortified about that gaffe and immediately took steps to fix it."
Janelli said she learned of someone using her Wi-Fi name to disclose a crush on a neighbor. Another, she said, used it to passive-aggressively reveal that "fat man on 7fl is douche."
But regardless of the circumstances surrounding the messages' origins, Janelli said that once discovered, the unusual Wi-Fi names seem to provide a great deal of amusement.
Since she started collecting the names, she's posted one day on WTFwifi.tumbler.com, but as the site's popularity has grown, she is planning to migrate the content to a full-featured site in the coming weeks.
With a growing team of other "Wi-Fi detectives" and a graphic designer, she hopes the site shows people that the Wi-Fi names are like an entertaining "graffiti art."
"I hope what people get from my site is that it's just a break from the daily routine. It just makes you laugh," she said. "Everyone needs a little bit of funny in their life."