Advertising Firm Using Homeless People to Provide Wireless Internet at South by Southwest

 South by Southwest, the annual convergence of thousands of music fans, film geeks, and tech nerds that happens each year in Austin, Texas, is full of people trying to sell you things. 

But this year, there's something different: some of them are homeless. 

For South by Southwest Interactive, the technology portion of the conference, an advertising/strategy/communications company (there are lots of those here) has sponsored several homeless men to act as portable wi-fi hotspots around the city, asking for donations for the privilege of accessing 4G wireless internet. 

First broken by the New York Times, the story rocketed around the Internet, and criticism forced BBH, the company in question, to defend itself on its website. While in Austin for the conference, I (along with graphic journalists Susie Cagle and Matt Bors) sought out one of the homeless men providing wireless access, and talked to him about his experience. 

Mark West was standing outside the convention center in a white T-shirt, with a lanyard around his neck not unlike the ones conferencegoers wear--but holding what looked like a cell phone instead. He was happy to talk to reporters, and wanted to stress that he didn't feel taken advantage of by the "big advertising company." 

Mark told us that he was not getting paid by the hour by the company, but that he had "the chance to own my own business for four days." No cash is exchanged--instead, when you log in to the hotspot, you are directed to a link that will let you PayPal money to the proprietor of the spot. They suggest $2 for every 15 minutes. 

On the company's website, it describes Mark as "an avid chess player" who "considers homelessness a temporary situation related to bad choices he made in his life, but doesn’t let it define him." 

The story he told us was quite different. He'd lost his job as an electrician because of the economy, and lost his home when he could no longer afford the rent. Originally from Houston, he had been living with family in North Carolina and when he moved to Austin, he found it hard to stay on his feet.

Mark told us that they found him through a homeless shelter in Austin, where he has a case manager helping him look for employment. He doesn't have an option while he's out providing internet to check and see how much money he's earned, but he had cards to hand out to passersby as well with his name on them (he was writing his name on the cards with a Sharpie) so that they could find and donate to him directly.

“The weather and the holidays were kind of sketchy,” he said, “I'm very confident that I'll have something before summer. I took this opportunity to work now.”

“It's your company,” he stressed, “What you bring in is what you bring in. They bought the devices, they're allowing us to use the devices to bring in our own revenue.” But as my colleague Matt Bors noted, when you actually own your own business, no one takes away your supplies after four days. You don't work for a suggested donation. You work for a salary, for an hourly rate, when you work for a company.

BBH compared the work to the street newspapers that homeless people in many cities use to raise money, but the key difference there is that in those cases, the newspapers are written by the homeless, and contain content that has political views. In this case, Mark cannot use the service he is providing, nor are the users of his service getting his story or his political views.

Just a few minutes before we met Mark, my colleagues and I had been sitting in a panel moderated by AlterNet friend Deanna Zandt on using social media technology in a dictatorship. Sabrina Hersi Issa had said to the audience, “People should be telling their own stories and we should be building tools to help them do that.” In the case of the homeless hotspot, the providers aren't being helped to tell their own stories—unless busy conferencegoers decide on their own to stop and strike up a conversation. They're simply being encouraged to use the Internet service a stranger is providing, an act no more communicative than the use of the free convention wireless by means of which I wrote this blog post. 

Wired has more on the last venture involving the homeless from BBH--one that involved much more opportunity for the homeless to tell their stories, though still left them high and dry at the end.  

Susie Cagle has asketch of Mark and the full audio of our conversation. 

You can visit Mark's page at Homeless Hotspots here. 

AlterNet / By Sarah Jaffe

Posted at March 12, 2012, 7:35am

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