The homeless wireless debacle happening at South by Southwest has completed the Internet circle of life, reaching acceptance—the final stage of grief—a mere two days into the outrage it created.
All Internet huffing and puffing goes through the same cycle humans go through when dealing with life's weightiest issues: Elisabeth Kulber-Ross's five stages of grief. It happened with the racism surrounding New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, and now we see it with the controversial BBH Labs initiative to create "Homeless Hotspots."
For those who don't read blogs all day, the company paid homeless people to carry around mobile hotspot WiFi devices at this week's SXSW festival. The Homeless Hotspot then walked around the densest areas of the conference providing free Internet, in exchange for donations. Cue: Outrage. But not before our first stage.
Grief Stage: Denial "Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief."
"SXSW In A Nutshell: Homeless People as Hotspots" -- ReadWriteWeb's Jon Mitchell
One of the very first posts we found on this subject, Mitchell's Sunday night musing doesn't find anything too wrong with the set-up. MItchell addresses that some might find it a problem, but upon assessing the program, and talking with BBH Labs about the initiative comes out pretty cheery on the whole thing. "I appreciate the sentiment," he writes. "This campaign is well-meant, and I don't think anyone doubted that. The fact is, it was a minimum-viable-product approach." Nothing wrong here!
Grief Stage: Anger "There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits."
"The Damning Backstory Behind ‘Homeless Hotspots’ at SXSW" -- Wired's Tim Carmody
This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, 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. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.
Where the men involved aren’t even able to tell their own stories to the world, before they’re doubly used: first by the SXSWi attendees with their smartphones, and then by the marketing firm who will sell their story as a case study or TV show pitch, or to a company looking for a new advertising opportunity at next year’s SXSWi. Where people really are turned into platforms to be “optimized" and "validated."
Grief Stage: Bargaining "After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce."
"‘Homeless hotspots’ program at South by Southwest slammed by critics, but marketing firm BBH Labs defends idea" NY Daily News' Meena Hart Duerson
Not exactly a temporary truce, but for a moment, we stepped back and saw the other side of things. The program is a charitable experiment and an opportunity for the homeless participants, according to Duerson.
Grief Stage: Depression "If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way."
"Turning Homeless Guys into Wireless Hotspots Solves Important Problem" Gawker's Max Reed
This obviously sarcastic take hints at a commentator throwing up his hands. As in, how depressing is it that this is seen as a solution to a real world problem. "Is this program a sustainable way to solve an urgent problem?" he writes, speaking of the lack of Internet—not homelessness. He continues (tongue depressingly in cheek):
Wouldn't it be better to attack the systemic issues that create internetlessness in the first place — to address the decades' worth of cuts to infrastructure and aid, and the cultural biases that lead people to blame lack of internet on personal choices and moral failings? And isn't there a more compassionate and dignified way to treat those without internet than forcing them to stand next to homeless people wearing "I'm a 4G Hotspot" T-shirt?
Grief Stage: Acceptance "We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live."
"Critics of South by Southwest's Homeless Hotspots Haven't Met Jonathan Hill" GOOD's Tim Fernholz.
After talking with some of the participants and the company sponsoring the experiment, Fernholz thinks it's fine -- even if it's most definitely a marketing play. His main takeaway:
That's not to say BBH isn't benefitting from having their agency's name in front of the many attendees at the festival, although perhaps the critical press will leave them more tarnished than they had hoped. But whatever problems exist in their model, it seems strange to criticize one of the only companies in a sea of mindless self-promotion that is advertising itself while having a positive impact, however small, on people who need a helping hand.
The homeless hotspots created this controversy largely because of the idea that homeless people are somehow different from everyone else. But when you actually speak to people like Clarence, Jonathan, and their advocates, you realize they aren’t much different from the thousands of other folks trying to make a buck off the festival—except that in so doing they’re also publicizing an important social issue that makes many people uncomfortable. “Some of us are educated, some of us had jobs, we’ve fallen on hard times,” Hill says. “Everyone is a paycheck away.”
So there we have it, from a non-issue to outrage and back to a non-issue in about 48 hours.