Homeless Hotspots set off a nationwide media outcry—but was it legitimate?

Almost two months ago at SXSW, a marketing company decided to outfit some willing members of the homeless community with WiFi devices, which would allow festival attendees to access the Internet in exchange for a suggested donation. Each hotspot holder kept all the money he/she earned.

When the media learned of this “experiment,” called Homeless Hotspots, many thought it was a dark, sci-fi-esque prank. But as the fact-finding arms of each publication groped further, they found it wasn’t a joke. And several bloggers verbally throttled the company, BBH Labs, for their exploitation of these people.

I agree with the initial assessment of the project, made by David Gallagher at the NY Times when he broke the story. On a few practical levels, it made sense. It allowed the homeless people who participated to earn money. It probably increased their sense of dignity and their confidence. It gave them an atypical venue in which to practice analytical thinking and interpersonal skills and develop perseverance. And it allowed SXSW goers to access the Internet.

The outcry focused on the T-shirts the men were given to wear and the language the company chose for them. The shirts began with, “I’m [name], a 4G Hotspot.” I value clarity and exactitude in communication, so I cannot ignore their choice of words. “I am a 4G Hotspot.” Translation: “I am an inanimate object.” BBH Labs could easily have reworded the T-shirts to say, “I’m [name]. I have a 4G Hotspot.” Or, “Need Internet access? I’m [name], and I can help you.” But it’s more important to be concise than respectful, right? And there’s only so much space on T-shirt. People can’t be bothered to read three or so more words.

However if someone were to argue that this critique was missing the point, I’d agree with her. The fundamental question we should ask here is, Was BBH Labs exploiting these men,* or was this a mutually beneficial relationship?

It’s clearly the latter. Yes, the company received local and national exposure, but the participants had an opportunity to earn money and exercise skills that employers look for. People viewed this from a singular perspective: Big Marketing Company Uses Homeless People for Increased Exposure and Blatantly Advertises How They Feel about Their Worth by Terming Them “Hotspots” Right on the Shirts They’re Wearing. Sure, I was swayed by that logic at first. But the more you dig—and, most important, the more you listen to the voices of the people who carried the hotspots—the more you realize this project was a step in the right direction, bull-headed word choices aside.


*Only men participated in the project, did they not? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t see or hear of a single woman participant.


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