You’ve probably heard about this by now.
If you’re looking for WiFi at the South by Southwest tech conference this week, instead of heading to a cafe or bumming off of a neighbor, you might just ask a homeless person.
That’s right. New York-based advertising agency BBH Labs introduced a trial run of its new project, called “Homeless Hotspots,” at the tech startup conference in Austin, which started Friday. While potentially practical, the pilot program isn’t exactly getting rave reviews from everyone.
Wired magazine reports that the homeless individuals hawking the service were recruited from a local shelter and are walking around carrying MiFi devices (techspeak for mobile WiFi hotpots) and wearing t-shirts with this:
I’M [FIRST NAME],
A 4G HOTSPOT
SMS HH [FIRST NAME]
TO 25827 FOR ACCESS
Those who wish to connect to the 4G network offer a donation that goes directly to the homeless person. BBH Labs recommends a $2 donation per 15 minutes of use—which can be paid through PayPal—but leaves the ultimate payment up to each Internet user.
Okay, I can see what they’re going for here. Jeff Balke raises some objections.
On one hand, I really admire the effort. This company is finding a way to help struggling people by filling a need for those clearly not struggling. Let’s be honest, if your biggest problem is a poor wi-fi signal for your phone on the streets of Austin, you’re doing better than about 80 percent of the world’s population.
I suppose it gives people an excuse to give money to someone on the street who needs it more than that person giving it does and it provides a service in return. In a way, it turns homeless men and women into street vendors. It doesn’t pay much but it is work.
Still, I just can’t get behind the notion that people on the street should walk up to a homeless guy wearing a “HOMELESS HOTSPOT” billboard and ask for access to his network. If they were paying college kids to stand out on the streets, fine. But, homeless people?
It also underscores the tremendous divide in our country and not the digital one. We’re talking about people with every opportunity and every advantage paying a poor person a couple bucks to use technology a company has strapped to his back the homeless man could never come close to affording. For a couple bucks, some guy gets to keep from bumping up against his cell phone’s bandwidth limit while the guy he paid for the service is living in a shelter. Weird.
Then there’s the term: homeless hotspot. First off, the hotspot isn’t homeless, the person carrying the technology is. It’s the equivalent of calling a disabled person selling cookies “crippled cookies.” That alliteration isn’t clever. It’s stupid. Also, he’s not a hotspot, he’s a person carrying a hotspot. That ridiculous name doesn’t do anything but dehumanize this person who likely gets that kind of treatment virtually every day.
That’s all very compelling, but here’s Matt Yglesias with a different perspective.
Now the general idea of PR stunts is to generate positive publicity, which this massively failed to do. However, the negative reaction to this sort of thing always drives the more literal-minded of us slightly crazy. Think about all the companies involved in one way or another in SXSW who did absolutely nothing at all for Austin’s homeless population. How much condemnation did they get? None. BBH’s stunt here offends our sense of human dignity, but the real offense is that people were languishing in such poor conditions that they would find this to be an attractive job offer. The sin they’re being punished for is less any harm they’ve done to homeless people than the way they broke decorum by shoving the reality of human misery amid material plenty into the faces of convention-goers. The polite thing to do is to let suffering take place offstage and unremarked-upon.
Speaking as someone with a Catholic sense of guilt, all I can say is “ouch”. Jason Cohen at Texas Monthly provides the best overview, and some support for the Yglesias position:
Now that the program’s over, the Austin homeless services organization Front Steps, which connected BBH with its clients, has pronounced it a success.
“We are all so grateful we had this opportunity,” says Front Steps director of development and communications Mitchell Gibbs. “Overall our community is hearing a whole lot more about homelessness then maybe (it) would have otherwise, and we’re having the conversation on a national scale that we didn’t anticipate being fortunate enough to have a few days ago.”
[As] KXAN, NBC’s affiliate in Austin, reported, homeless people are also out during SXSW selling Blue Bell Ice Cream, a program run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Each treat is $1, and the vendors keep all proceeds (Blue Bell also donated the ice cream). It’s just a lot easier to be cynical about Internet marketing than ice cream.
Of course, the “Street Treats” vendors don’t have to wear a t-shirt that says “I am an ice cream sandwich.” As Erin Kissane tweeted, “the difference between ‘I’m running a hotspot’ and ‘I am a hotspot’ is a difference that matters.”
But the truth is that without the brazen—and potent, given that at SXSW, the whole world lives online, and the homeless want to get back in the world—metaphor, it’s not as good a marketing campaign.
UPDATE: Jon Stewart weighs in.