SXSW Convention Enlists Homeless As Wi-Fi Hotspots

March 14, 2012


In case you haven't heard, marketing agency BBH Labs hired 13 roaming (and possibly scavenging) homeless people and strapped them with belt-bombs Wi-Fi hotspots to help serve the internet needs of South by Southwest (SXSW) convention goers. It's drawing a lot of controversy BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE F***ING SHEEP. *eyeballing 'KONY 2012' poster*

BBH Labs, a unit of the global marketing agency BBH, gave 13 people from Austin's Front Steps Shelter mobile Wi-Fi devices and T-shirts that announced "I am a 4G Hotspot." The company paid them $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York.

She called the experiment a modernized version of homeless selling street newspapers. All of the money paid for Wi-Fi - an often difficult thing to find at SXSW - went to the participants, who were selected in partnership with Front Steps. ($2 was the recommended donation for 15 minutes of use.)

But many have called the program exploitive. wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall

You want me to tell you how I feel about it? However the homeless do. If they're happy about it and making some cash, then good for them. If not, stab a couple convention goers and call it a day. "Jesus, GW!" Sorry, I was thinking about Geekologie-Con's mobile serial killer hotspots.

Hit the jump for a brief video of Clarence, a mobile hotspot who yes, I want to give a hug.

Homeless Hotspots (where you can read the hotspots' stories and donate via Paypal)
South By Southwest: 'Homeless Hotspot' Stunt Stirs Debate At SXSW [huffingtonpost]
Homeless hot spots at SXSW: A manufactured controversy [cnet]

Thanks to dash and Melissa, who heard their first concept was to tie Wi-Fi enabled dogs to light poles.

  • captaindash

    Gee Dubs, I used to think you were hilarious, but about as deep as sidewalk rain puddle.  With that "You want me to tell you how I feel about it? However the homeless do" stuff, you just got bumped up from dehumanized funnyasaur to actual person whose opinion may be able to induce credible insight.  The world needs more a$$&oles who actually have some perspective.  Good on ya.  Now if you'd just send me a lock of your hair, I could complete the doll in my closet...

  • oh, shit, I meant to add that it looks like there were a lot of benefits which came out of this little experiment. I'll admit that they probably outweighed the (small) harm of the marketing scheme.

  • Eric Stodolnik

    work? what work?
    to just stand there like they would normally?
    its giving them 50 bucks a day to just do what theyd be doing any other day.
    But now they can buy like fifteen 40's  unlike the day before.
    theyre not exploited. Maybe theyre being UTILIZED. cause theyd be there hanging around the festival trying to make some change anyway. Now maybe instead of hassle festival-goers, theyll probobly just stand there and have some interesting conversations with hipsters.
    Im sure they are happy to take the money. And they probobly feel a little appreciated for once.

    Leave it to the press and retarded people to make a good thing into a bad thing.
    No theyre not empoyees.
    They do nothing... just stand there.
    People are stupid.
    thats like 10 bucks an hour anyway to just do nothing.

  • Don't be obtuse. Of course they're employees. They're being hired to provide a service, a service at least to the people using the wi-fi.

    Imagine the exact same scenario, but without the homeless people in it. What happens to the hotspots in that case? The homeless are doing the job of preventing that occuring. It's minimal work, and it's certainly not at all demanding, but it's not "nothing".

  • porridgegeorge

    The only problem I see is that they are called hotspots, rather than employees or managers, or something. This encourages the public to see them as little pieces of technology, rather than as people. It encourages treating them as sub-human, which is already a big problem for the homeless. It's degrading. I suspect that BBH Labs knows this (and knows it's an issue for the homeless) and that it's the whole point of this marketing. If you actually "hired" these homeless people and gave them the *exact* same jobs and pay, then I doubt there would be much issue.

    Quite a few homeless will say that being ignored and treated as subhuman is a big problem for them. It was a big issue for me when I worked retail. Customers will treat you as a lesser being. You'll stay for the pay, but you'll go postal from the degradation by customers and employers.

  • FuneralHomme

    i dont like it...i aint sure why but i just dont...a hotspot wit legs dont even sound like a good idea...

  • Cuz anyone else would refuse once they figure out how un-harmless powerful wi-fi signals are, especially used by everyone else coming from a device strapped to you isn't the least but healthy.

  • Silvermidnight

    Seriously? People are offended by this? It gives some needy people easy cash... what the heck is wrong with that?

  • So... let me get this straight, if they were not homeless and in need it would be fine to strap a Wi-Fi repeater to there back and pay them $50 per day? I bet ya they don't mind.

  • Shermdawg

    Aren't they inside? How come I can still see his breath?

  • jerodast

    I'd rather they start a job training program to allow people without professional experience to obtain permanent employment, but whatever. There's just something instinctively icky and stunt-like to using human beings as roving technology platforms, even if nobody's being harmed and nobody's unfairly profiting off it.

  • People are mad because the homeless are being given work? Lol wut?

  • porridgegeorge

    Not because they're being given work, but because of how they're being treated. The way this is phrased, they aren't "employees", they're "hot spots". They aren't being seen as people, they are being seen as objects. Give them the exact same work, but just call them "employees" or managers, and there's no problem (as far as I can see).

  • Jawrsche

    Um, people refer to me as a "server," or a "waiter," and I have absolutely no problem with it because it is an accurate description of what I do.  The homeless people are called "hot spots" because it is an accurate description of what they are doing.

    I would understand people getting upset if they were called "transient internet bums," (which would have been perfectly accurate, really) but that isn't the case.

  • You want me to tell you how I feel about it? However the homeless do. Agreed, GW!

  • It's amazing to me that out of all the posts I've seen about this, nobody had asked the homeless if they feel exploited (let's be clear, I don't expect this of GW). These guys walked away with money in the pockets and no one twisted their arms. All in all, it did them more good than any of the articles whining about exploitation.

  • porridgegeorge

    The problem isn't that they're being exploited, it's how they're being treated or perceived. Why call them "hotspots" instead of "employees"? They're people, not objects.

  • I appreciate that we're having a polite discussion on Geekologie of all places, but while I appreciate your point, I must definitely disagree. If anyone else were wearing that shirt, people would have no issue. Making an exception for the homeless dehumanizes them way more than any marketing scheme. It telling them that they aren't allowed to make decisions for themselves, take a label that would be fine for anyone else, or provide an actual service to people in exchange for donation because it offends the sensibilities of "normal" people. I volunteered at a coffeehouse for the homeless for a while and the mst important thing I could do for them was treat them like normal people and respect the choices they make. I believe the same inception should apply here.

    Sorry about typos... I can't seem to get the cursor to land on them and I don't feel like retyping it all.

  • I don't see any exceptions being made for anyone. No one should be treated or described in a degrading way. 
       Ok, perhaps you're right about some of the other objections being made in articles, and I'm not interested in defending those. But I'm not objecting to homeless people making decisions for themselves or providing services. I'm only concerned with how other people (including the marketers employing them) treat them while they do this, just as I would be with any other employee. Working in the service "industry", I certainly had my share of degrading experiences, and would have been happy if there had been some way of discouraging it.

    The coffeehouse volunteering is laudable. I haven't done anything like that in a long time.

    Don't worry about typos. Life's too short and everybody does it.

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