Homeless Hotspots: The SXSW Stunt that Went Totally Wrong

homeless hotspots controversy sxsw interactive clarence

Clarence, one of the homeless men in Austin working with Homeless Hotspots, hadn't had any customers yet when I met him Sunday, but was enthusiastic about the project. He lost his home to Hurricane Katrina.

The news coming out of SXSW Interactive this year was overwhelmed by one topic: Homeless Hotspots. The concept was for homeless people to provide wi-fi access to anyone who needed it outside the Austin Convention Center in exchange for donations via PayPal ($2 per 15 minutes was the suggested amount). Partnering with the local homeless shelter Front Steps, ad agency BBH New York was behind the initiative, which they described as a modern update to the street newspaper model of creating income for homeless people.

Comments on Twitter were initially incredulous. (The most common reaction was, “Is this an Onion story?”) But because it’d been raining heavily in Austin most of the weekend, many of the men working with Homeless Hotspots didn’t get on the streets until Saturday and few people had actually seen them. So rumors were flying around of payments actually going to BBH, the men being paid less than minimum wage or the program ending early.

Wired called it dystopian, many called it exploitative, and lots of people on Twitter objected to the wording “I am a Homeless Hotspot.” (Something like “I sell Hotspot Access” definitely would’ve eased claims of objectification.) The Next Web was especially outraged, but also offered ideas for making it better.

I found that few people who were outraged about the project had actually talked to any of the men working with Homeless Hotspots. I think the project succeeded in fostering communication—not in a high-level “let’s talk about homelessness” way, but in creating actual interaction between SXSW attendees and the homeless. American Public Media’s Marketplace did a great story that included a chat with Dusty White, one of the homeless men. GOOD talked to Front Steps and some of the men and took a positive angle on the experiment. The Atlantic’s piece by Megan Garber has a great analysis of the backlash:

It’s easy to mock Homeless Hotspots; it’s easy to disdain it; but, really, what would we prefer, the typical combination of ignoring and ignorance that we reserve for most of our dealings with the hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless in the U.S.? … Yes, it’s gimmicky; yes, it’s weird; yes, it’s initially kind of offensive. It’s right that our gut reaction to Homeless Hotspots is disbelief and disgust; it’s right that we’re alarmed at the idea of turning people into platforms. It’s also right, though, that we take the next step to ask ourselves: What’s the alternative? That we go on ignoring homelessness? It’s nice to be reminded that Austin, even in March, is about more than serendipity apps and rooftop pool parties.

As NPR reported, a lot of people felt an “ick factor” about the idea but couldn’t really explain why. Jenna Wortham of the New York Times said in the interview the ick factor was:

… the sense that when the actual technical infrastructure … of the cellular networks …  fell apart, we turned to humans and used humans as infrastructure. And I think people felt that that sort of was incredibly dehumanizing and … reductive in a way that was just very unsettling. 

The Homeless Hotspots project certainly isn’t a solution to the problem of homelessness—it’s not something you can fix in four days. But while the tactic might’ve been icky or gimmicky to some, is it worse than being a mobile power supply or a giant blue piece of bread for the weekend? 

What do you think? Did you interact with any of the homeless men at SXSW Interactive? Post your thoughts in the comments.