I was getting new tires last week and sitting around the waiting room with a dozen or so other people. They were idly flipping through magazines or playing games on their phones or whatever, and then I heard a familiar sound. My thought process went something like, “Wait, was that..? Nah!” before I heard it a second time. “Oh, snap! It is!” It was someone’s ringtone that sounded like the Jetson’s doorbell. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d watched The Jetsons or heard those four notes, but I’d seen the show enough as a kid to recognize it decades later. I don’t think the owner of the phone saw me, but I smiled and nodded knowingly in his direction.

My phone’s ringtone is the hailing frequency from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’ve got most of the other alert noises set to match those heard on the show as well. Comm badges and the like. My phone buzzed once in my office as I was talking to a co-worker. He stopped mid-sentence to ask, “Was that you?” When I answered in the affirmative, he just smiled broadly and said, “Niiiiiice!”

Like so many other people, we customize our phone’s ringtones and alert noises to something other than the default to make it easier to audibly distinguish our phone from the next person’s. And like so many others, we set them to noises that are already familiar, if not comfortable. Noises we enjoy at some level. Instead of choosing a popular or favorite song, however, we elected to pick a series of bleeps that match the type of thing the phone was already designed to do. Anyone can hear them and understand they’re some sort of alert from our phones.

By choosing the particular noises we did, ones that were uniquely designed for specific television shows, we are audibly broadcasting an appreciation, if not a fannish devotion, to those shows. But, more interestingly, it’s a broadcast that is only really relevant to other fans. If you don’t already know what the Jetson’s doorbell or the Enterprise’s hailing frequency sound like, there’s no way you can connect the ringtones back to those shows. They remain just a series of bleeps. Distinctive, perhaps, but unrecognizable.

Which means that they act as a sort of secret handshake or password. Unlike wearing a shirt that says “The Jetsons” or “Star Trek”, it’s a code that is only understood by other fans. As a member of those fandoms, we’re often on the lookout for other members of our fannish tribe. But by using a coded signal (these ringtones, for example, or perhaps a seemingly innocuous gesture or phrase) we can actively continue looking for others that share our interests without intruding on our day-to-day activities. We’re continually asking everyone to see if they recognize the password to our club, but in a rather subtle way.

Naturally, this type of password can be radically different depending on which fandom you’re a member of and what source material is available to work with, but it’s an fascinating indicator of membership that remains hidden in plain sight!

Be seeing you!