by Thursday Bram
Content warnings: Discussions about political messaging, harassment
The most common WiFi SSID in the world is ‘xfinitywifi,’ according to WiGLE (also known as the Wireless Geographic Logging Engine). But while most people don’t change their WiFi router’s name, some people use those 32 characters to get creative. They share a few words to tell a joke, make a statement, or make tech support easier.
Those messages are public, literally broadcast on a radio frequency. They can have the reach and impact of billboards when you consider the density of WiFi-enabled devices in some areas. Sure, a lot of people never consider changing the name pre-assigned to a router by its manufacturer, but some WiFi network names can even aspire to be art (depending a little on how you feel about puns).
SSID name limitations
All WiFi-enabled devices rely on a standard communication protocol set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE 802.11). That exceedingly detailed document describes a Service Set Identifier, or SSID, as a unique identifier a device can use to identify a wireless network of devices using the same networking parameters. An SSID is a name, used for a single wireless network. As such, it comes with certain requirements: there must be 32 alphanumeric characters. Since 2012, the specification optimistically suggests that one can assume that any given router should be able to handle a simplified variant of UTF-8, but every router must still be prepared to handle arbitrary values in an SSID. As a result, some WiFi routers will offer you all the characters of Unicode when you set out to craft the perfect network name, while others will give you a deprecated character set that will give you a chance to explore the backwards-compatibility of every WiFi-enabled device you encounter.
WiFi networks need fairly unique names. You don’t want multiple networks in a small area using the same name, but they can repeat in other areas. That’s why a hotel can use the same router name at every property in the chain to help you automatically connect, no matter what city you’re in. You also want a human-usable name, something that you can easily remember, say, or write down, often along with a password. Humor is a useful tool in these sorts of situations: a good joke is often easy to remember and easy to share, in a way that a truly unique identifier isn’t—random combinations of letters and numbers are hard to guess, but they aren’t user-friendly.
There are even people who choose WiFi SSIDs intended to improve usability further, at least for one or two users. More than a few folks have named a WiFi network “Dad Click Here” to help remind a parent which option to use. Sometimes you’ll even see WiFi SSIDs offering up free WiFi with names like “Open WiFi” or “Free WiFi,” although I don’t suggest connecting to them—bad actors are well aware that many of us will join wireless networks with minimal due diligence.
From these user instructions, it’s only a small stretch to considering your WiFi router as way to inform your neighbors of your opinions, Some can reference activism, like a network listed as #SayHerName, while others can reference shared interests, like the 71,929 WiFi SSIDs listed as Skynet at the time of writing this article. Some opinions can be a little more aggressive.
As I was writing this article, a Nextdoor post in Portland, Oregon about a local WiFi SSID made the local news, which I’ve reproduced below:
Upset with my neighbors WiFi name.
Hi all, now we all use devices to connect to the Internet and what not and my grandkids come over and use their phones and iPads too. Well the other day my grandson went to connect to the wifi and our neighbors router name is “ALL COPS ARE BUTTHOLES” now my wife and I are very upset because he started crying and we had to explain to him, that indeed all cops are not buttholes etc and it’s just a generally rude thing to broadcast. Is there anyway I could possibly block this signal or possibly call the non emergency police and have them go over and give them a stern warning. I bet they wouldn’t like to hear about a network named ALL COPS ARE BUTTHOLES.
Tempting though it may be to write the poster off as a crank, this post offers a pretty clear view of how many people may view communication tools. WiFi router names are broadcast, available for anyone within a certain distance. Walls don’t matter — a person can be sitting at home when a connected device helpfully pops up a new SSID, unable to react in a useful way. For most people, SSIDs are a hot medium: they demand minimal interaction from users and are only accessible in certain contexts.
The concept of hot and cool media comes from Marshall McLuhan’s analysis of how we interact with a particular medium and what impact we expect from that medium. In McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media, he divided media into ‘hot’ and ‘cool,’ based on the level of participation different media required: “Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue.” (pg.25) Participation isn’t just about responding to a video game or an article, though: cool media requires that the audience fill in details in order to understand the full story. McLuhan offered comic books as a prime example of cool media, because most comic books have less details than movies made of the same story. In comparison, a movie is hot, because it conveys huge levels of detail (at least for one sense).
For those with the patience to learn and follow a few technical steps, participating in the sort of media creation offered by SSIDs becomes easy. For anyone with this small technical edge, SSIDs immediately become cooler media, dependent on interaction to fill in gaps in content, often in a low-definition fashion (at least based on Marshall McLuhan’s definition), though still limited by contextual access. Similar to the increased access to publishing and broadcast platforms that have demonstrated that media can move along different ends of the hot / cool spectrum, WiFi SSIDs can be both easily ignorable and incredibly immediate. Rather than the technological determinism that McLuhan argued for, WiFi network names show that they have the flexibility of a media platform, albeit one that conveys short, semipermanent messages.
Cultural artifacts and how they impact us
From a legal perspective, WiFi SSIDs really are just another form of media, despite any hope Nextdoor users may have for taking down offensive network names. While there’s minimal U.S. case law discussing just WiFi SSIDs as a media for libel (also known as written or published defamatory statements), there’s enough case law that if, say, a WiFi router broadcast an SSID like “Person X is a thief” that “Person X” could probably pursue legal action against the owner of the WiFi router. Whether or not “Person X” would win probably depends a little on whether or not the judge assigned to the case even knows what a WiFi router is, but it’s still a legal liability.
But opinions are just fine under libel and slander laws: since the mystery owner of the “all cops are buttholes” router is stating an opinion, they’re probably safe from lawsuits — though they might be open to a casual conversation about shared spaces. In most cases, we can generally consider the question of WiFi SSIDs as a matter of free speech in the U.S, though your mileage certainly may vary in other jurisdictions. (Eugene Volokh’s analysis of a 2012 investigation has more information about the legal consequences of choosing a WiFi SSID for those who enjoy detailed legal analyses.)
But while I don’t advocate for asking people to limit their WiFi SSIDs to make other people comfortable, the reality of human interaction is that some folks use free speech as an excuse for saying hateful or harmful things, as well as making outsiders uncomfortable. Any medium runs the risk of being used for harassment and WiFi SSIDs are no different. During my research for this article, I did find examples of names that were inflammatory accusations and outright harassment, as well as any number of ‘jokes’ made about whether certain tenants in a given apartment building were some sort of sexual predator.
If we’re prepared to talk about WiFi router names as cultural artifacts, we also have to talk about the sort of impact a cultural artifact can have on us, both as consumers and critics. Yes, a funny name can provide a welcoming touch, but not all responses will be positive. People get mad (as well as have other emotional responses) when viewing a WiFi SSID they find offensive. Media, especially at its most artistic, is intended to share an idea or a feeling with an audience. No matter the limitations of a platform, it can be used to create messages that have a cultural impact, sometimes even outside the hyperlocal audience your WiFI SSID may reach right now.
Thursday Bram writes about technology for publications ranging from Bitch Magazine to Entrepreneur. She’s also the editor of The Responsible Communication Style Guide. You can find Thursday at her website, ThursdayBram.com.