On Saturday morning, Evanston resident Alexandra Janelli awoke to a Google Alert notifying her that a newspaper in China had written an article about her website, WTFWiFi.com. As she checked the site, the scroll bar featured posts of unusual Wi-Fi network names that Chinese users submitted.
“I can’t read them, but there they are,” Janelli, 30, said.
In her native state of New York, this Wi-Fi “detective” began her project as a blog on Tumblr in 2009, featuring screenshots of unique Wi-Fi names she came across while walking through the city. Since then, the site has expanded to allow viewers to submit router names they spot, too.
After The Huffington Post took note of her idea in 2010, other media outlets pursued her story and drove up the popularity of her website. When she isn’t updating WTFWiFi, Janelli practices hypnotherapy in Evanston.
Janelli’s interest in Wi-Fi names began when she was at the Crocodile Lounge on the Lower East Side of New York three years ago. Following a break-up with her long-time boyfriend, she went to check her phone while sitting in the garden area of the bar and received an invitation to join the network “Alcoholics Shut In.”
“I kept thinking about it, and I wondered if people are really naming their Wi-Fi names weird stuff because for me it had never occurred to me that you can change your Wi-Fi network,” Janelli said. “Wherever I was going, I sort of would check the Wi-Fi networks, and more than not, I would find that people are naming them funny things.”
In Evanston, Janelli has found names such as “anti commie twins” and “Sis Seduced the Family.”
She currently strives to widen her website’s influence, working on an iPhone and Android app as well as redesigning her blog. Janelli is also communicating with a “big company” about the future of the website and working on creating a WTFWiFi Canada page.
“For me the personal success was following through on something,” Janelli said. “People said it’s stupid, it’s dumb. Even my parents said, ‘I don’t get it’ when I started.”
Janelli continued to pursue her Wi-Fi sleuthing and began noticing topics people wrote about for their Wi-Fi names, including religion, sports, politics, declarations, exclamations and puns.
“It’s like claiming your space but making such a short and brief declaration about it,” Janelli said. “It’s almost a funny parody on society.”
Mike Isler, 29, lives in Manhattan and helps Janelli find content submissions for her site.
“It’s really great to see her dig into a passion of hers and see it through to a fun website that’s been getting a lot of positive feedback from the people,” said Isler, who has known Janelli for more than three years.
Janelli’s fiance Etienne Demers-Martel is a second-year Kellogg student born in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He began researching Google Trends in relation to search terms about funny Wi-Fi names. He noted a distinct increase in similar terms since 2009, when the blog started.
“She’s so passionate about it that to the best of my knowledge, to the best of the time that is available despite being at Northwestern, I’ve just been helping her and supporting her through this,” Demers-Martel, 30, said. “It’s been my role so far helping with the coding, technical aspects, so she can focus on being the detective, and I’m the behind-the-scenes guy to make it come to life.”
Janelli said her main audience includes NU students and ranges from 18 to 34 year olds, although she admits New Yorkers have funnier Wi-Fi names than Evanston residents.
Weinberg sophomore Maggie Smith, who unexpectedly met Janelli on Saturday, said her brother introduced her to WTFWiFi in December.
“It’s great for when you’re procrastinating in the library and done reading Gawker,” Smith said. “It’s really funny and clever.”
Looking ahead, Janelli said she hopes her site is one day spotlighted on National Public Radio, but for now she will continue pursuing her “labor of love.”
“If it just becomes a website that people spend 10 minutes a day on, just to lighten their day and laugh, that’s exactly what I want,” she said.