Homeless hot spots at SXSW: A manufactured controversy

A few high-profile blog posts have gotten a lot of people upset about a program that might very well be helping people who really need the assistance. CNET's Daniel Terdiman weighs in.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
A member of the homeless hotspots program talks about the SXSW effort in this screenshot from a YouTube video. Screenshot by CNET

commentary AUSTIN, Texas--If you've been reading South by Southwest-centered blogs over the last 24 hours, you've probably gotten a sense of the outrage over what's being called the "homeless hot spots" program.

If you don't know what that's about, let me catch you up. A marketing agency sent some Austin homeless folks out on the streets, wireless hot spots in tote, with the idea that SXSW attendees in desperate search of Wi-Fi would pay a few bucks for the connectivity and for the chance to help out someone in need.

Some of the commentary on this initiative indicates that the effort is nothing less than full-scale cynicism cloaked in an effort to help the homeless. And in the process, a few high-profile stories have ramped up the wrath of, well, each other.

Let me weigh in here. This is a manufactured controversy, pure and simple.

It's not that I'm a defender of the marketer or of oddball marketing stunts. Not at all. I'm always happy to call out stupid stunts. And when I first saw some of the headlines about this issue, I girded myself to get angry about the exploitation homeless people by well-funded PR operations eager to cash in on the thousands upon thousands of people in town this week for SXSW.

But I don't see a problem with the hot-spot program.

Let's recap. In its original blog post about the initiative, BBH Labs, the marketing outfit that got seemingly well-deserved praise for its Unheard in New York project, which gave four homeless New Yorkers "prepaid cell phones and Twitter accounts in order to include them in our global community," noted that it was interested in updating the traditional street newspapers programs so common in cities around the U.S. that let homeless citizens raise a little money by selling a paper with articles about and by the dispossessed.

"This year in Austin, as you wander between locations, murmuring to your co-worker about how your connection sucks, and you can't download/stream/tweet/instagram/check in, you'll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing "Homeless Hotspot" T-shirts," BBH Labs wrote on March 6. "These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter. They're carrying MiFi devices. Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access. We're believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity."

In its diatribe against the effort, Wired called it a "darkly satirical science fiction dystopia" and railed against BBH's turning the homeless participants in the program into not just "walking, talking hot spots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn't care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms."

Here's the thing. First, I've been in Austin for six days, and I haven't seen a single one of the homeless hot spots--including during a full walking search for them around the downtown area dominated by thousands of geeks presumably in need of Wi-Fi. Second, I'm not really sure what's wrong with a program that will put a few extra bucks in someone's pocket who really needs it. Sure, when SXSW rolls up its tent, the opportunity goes away, but that's still a few more dollars than they probably would have earned otherwise.

In response to the controversy, BBH updated its blog post with some additional information that perhaps might have helped people stay relaxed in the first place.

On the one hand, the agency wrote, it isn't selling anything, and the homeless folks with the hot spots are not wearing any kind of branding. "There is no commercial benefit whatsoever," BBH claims. On the other, the "Hotspot Managers" get to keep all they earn, and don't have to share it with anyone. Even better, it doesn't matter, if they're successful getting donations: They were guaranteed a minimum of $50 a day for no more than six hours of work--a rate that exceeds Texas' minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Yet BBH also claims that the hot-spot managers have generally been earning in excess of that minimum $50, thanks to the generosity of Wi-Fi-seeking SXSW attendees.

More to the point, no one at SXSW seems to be talking about this at all, and those who have commented on the various blogs seem to be generally supportive of the effort.

And why not? The effort helps people, and it doesn't claim any branding benefit for BBH. Although it's certainly unlikely that the initiative would have gone unnoticed by the press, it's obvious that more people have heard of the program--and therefore sought out a homeless hot spot--because of the negative attention from a few blogs.

Ultimately, this does point to a couple things. First, for all the excitement that surrounds SXSW--and that brings hundreds of competitive tech reporters to town--there's a serious shortage of hard news to feed the beast. And that means that stirring up debate is good for page views. Second, because of that dynamic, there's a real temptation to jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts.

Everyone's guilty of that, and I'm no exception. But in the specific case of the homeless hot spots, I just don't see any harm--and the level of outrage that seems to be emanating from a few bloggers far outweighs the angst on the ground here.