On the second day of sociology class, Emily Choi was interrupted from her mid-class social media scroll by an unexpected buzz. It was an AirDrop request that froze her phone’s entire screen. Somebody close by – within 30 feet and almost certainly in the same classroom – was trying to send her a photo.
It was a hilariously random image – a clown’s face imprinted onto a slab of beef. Choi’s thumb hovered over her two options: accept or decline. She had no idea who had sent it. But it was “a very funny meme,” the undergraduate at Toronto’s Ryerson University student recalled. So, she accepted.
Choi was apparently one of the few people receptive to her mystery classmate’s diligent AirDrops. Over the semester, he filled her phone with innocuous memes. One day, instead of a photo, her correspondent sent a message via the Notes app. Choi likened it to a more cumbersome version of texting – but without the need to exchange phone numbers.
AirDrop, which allows rapid file transfer between Apple devices, was created for convenience: Users can quickly share photos or videos with friends in the same room. Yet the feature allows interactions that can be fleetingly anonymous. You only need to have your settings switched on to receive files; you can change your device name to hide your identity. The unregulated technology can be surprisingly intrusive, and women have been harassed by AirDroppers who send obscene photos in public spaces.
But in recent years, AirDrop has evolved into an established connective tool for Generation Z, as teenagers and young adults delight in using the feature to exchange funny images, videos or other information with individual strangers or large crowds. At colleges, high schools or even concerts, AirDrop builds a short-lived sense of community among strangers who share similar interests or simply the same space.
The technology is more in-your-face than social media; it confronts an iPhone user with an immediate request. It’s simpler than texting, at least within a 30-foot range. Who needs phone numbers when you have a direct wireless connection? Think of AirDrop as anonymous note-passing for the digital era, with the extra capacity for unanticipated mayhem. It’s a free-for-all, battled out on Bluetooth and WiFi airwaves.
Serial AirDroppers select densely populated areas, such as airports or train stations, to revel in the anonymity that a crowd can offer. Erin Ferguson received her first random AirDrop at her May 2017 college graduation and found it ingenious. It inspired her to spend the rest of the ceremony sending her classmates various memes she had saved on her phone. It was a hugely entertaining way to pass the time, Ferguson admits.
Since then, the 24-year-old from Framingham, Massachusetts., has spent two years perfecting the craft of rogue AirDropping. She has only once been caught in the act: While seated in an airport terminal, Ferguson took out her phone and scrolled through her collection of memes. That day, she settled on an image of Kermit the Frog. A list popped up of all the AirDrop-available phones in the vicinity; Ferguson selected them all and tap! The images were sent … and denied, except by one device.
Ferguson glanced up from her phone to try to figure out who had accepted her AirDrop – only to see a preteen boy waving at her.
“At airports, it’s typically one out of 15 to 20 people” who will accept a random Airdrop request, Ferguson said. But at an Ariana Grande concert, when she sent around a vintage photo of the pop star from her red-haired Nickelodeon days, almost everyone accepted it.
Concerts or other events teeming with superfans generate a lot of AirDrop activity: It’s easy to blast a hilarious meme of the artist to the masses, spreading a shared inside joke among fans. The night before a concert by South Korean boy band BTS, Shanicka Anderson was sitting on the bed of her New Jersey hotel room when her phone pinged. It was a photo of one of the seven band members, sent by an unknown person.
Anderson, 27, had never used AirDrop before. Throughout the weekend, she kept getting notifications whenever fans had downtime – during the morning of the show, or while standing in line at the venue – of various funny images of the band or related memes, traded back and forth among nearby strangers.
“It felt like a summer camp with fans,” Anderson said. “People would name their phones something BTS-related, so you could tell who was there for the concert.”
Some fans delight in sharing images of their favourite artists with “locals,” slang for common people unaware or disinterested in the star. They will pose Twitter challenges, promising to send a music video or photo of their favorite artist if a tweet receives a certain number of likes or retweets.
At a BTS concert film screening in Minnesota, Palmer Haasch’s iPhone was flooded with an influx of AirDrops. As she filtered through each one, Haasch, 21, was surprised to see that a number of Notes messages contained warnings.
“Y’all better not start doing chants during the movie,” read one note. Others reminded fellow fans not to disturb others by dancing in the theater or turning on glow sticks.
“That was the first time I had seen AirDrop used as a method of group self-policing rather than just meme drops,” Haasch said.
At Coachella this year, Donald Glover used the feature to give away sneakers to lucky fans. College students are AirDropping digital fliers to promote events or parties. “Did I really just walk into an African American studies class of 150-plus students and AirDrop our rush flyers? Yup,” tweeted one Arizona State University student.
And in high schools, AirDrop has become a tool for teenage mischief – with memes as weapons of rebellion.
On the first week of school, every freshman at Lily Parker’s high school in Knoxville, Tennessee, received a pristine iPad. That was when the AirDrop wars started. “Everyone thinks they’re hilarious when they’re 14,” groaned Parker, now 18. She got a deluge of Spongebob memes before she switched her AirDrop off, but she did get a kick out of an image with a teacher’s face edited onto a giraffe.
Teachers knew what was going on, Parker said, but there were few visible class disruptions, so little was done to stop it. Teachers used computers with identifiable names, so that teens – who had “dumb iPad names” – could easily distinguish adults’ devices and avoid looping them in on the memes, she explained.
It’s easy to evade unsuspecting administrators who might not fully understand the technology, said 16-year-old Eleanor Nickel of Madison, Wisconsin (who speaks about her peers’ antics with a tired sigh, eager to clarify that not all high-schoolers are AirDrop enthusiasts). AirDrop is a more direct way to share irreverent memes that might offend school officials, rather than risk posting publicly on Instagram. “If it’s sent right to people’s phones, teachers don’t really know what’s happening,” Nickel said.
Choi, the Ryerson student, admits that she shouldn’t be on her phone during lectures. But so what? AirDrop brings an element of surprise and mystery to age-old classroom interactions.
As the semester wound to an end, Choi and her AirDrop acquaintance started to guess at each other’s identities, which they promised to disclose at the last day of class. The big reveal came in the form of an AirDropped note. “You look like a young John Mayer,” Choi wrote to her newfound friend.
Yet the two never spoke face to face. Their singular real-life interaction resembled their digital exchanges: brief and simple. Choi left early on that final class, swiftly waving at him on her way out.
It was a modern-day friendship, built upon random memes sent to the masses; she expected no more of it. Did they stay in touch? “We still follow each other on Instagram,” she said.
© The Washington Post 2019