One of the biggest news stories of the last week revolved around a company using homeless people as wireless hotspots. It occurred during the popular South by Southwest technology conference in Austin, TX, and was implemented by marketing company BBH Labs. News of the campaign rapidly went viral, and many made haste to criticize BBH. Tim Carmody, who blogs for Wired Magazine, described the problem as “completely problematic” and “sounding like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio said it “crossed a line.” Influential blogger XO Jane blasted the campaign as “exactly the kind of thing hipsters would come up with.”
In fact, it was hipsters that originally drew critical attention to the BHH initiative. The campaign was waged at one of the biggest tech conferences in the country, and those in attendance were quick to utilize social media platforms to voice their disdain. The story spread like wildfire, and so too did the negative feedback. The problem, however, was that very few of those who were lamenting the campaign actually knew the facts. Instead, they just saw what appeared to be exploitation and reacted.
As it turns out, BBH had partnered with a local homeless shelter to recruit members of the campaign. They equipped the homeless people with t-shirts and business cards, paid them $20 a day, and gave them buckets to collect donations (which they got to keep). While most of the digerati were lambasting BBH, the actual homeless people involved were just thankful to have a gig. As one participant told the New York Times, “I love talking to people, and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.” Another homeless person, Kevin Tucker of New York City, said that he would “do it in a second,” if given the opportunity. He said that he saw it as a “business opportunity.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Tucker, he likely won’t be getting that opportunity anytime soon. BBH had originally planned to launch their campaign in New York City, but they have since put it on hold due to the outpouring of criticism. Bloggers and concerned citizens can claim a victory for stopping the program, but it comes at the expense of the homeless themselves, the very group whose interest they claim to be concerned for.
The Problem with Social Media and Rapid Response
This outpouring of criticism from the uniformed underlies a greater problem in the digital age: The rapid rate at which information is disseminated. On one hand, the great ease at which data can be accessed is a good thing; it strengthens our democracy and gives a voice to the common citizen. On the other hand, however, it often comes so fast that crucial components of the truth are ignored. The result is that people can hear about something that “sounds bad,” and react emotionally to it before they’ve had a chance to fully examine the facts. The subsequent outpour can be very damaging, almost instantly harming the reputation of a well-intentioned company.
All of the above is not to say that BBH did not make a mistake. Primarily, they erred in their presentation of the project. The shirts that they gave the homeless to wear bared their names, along with the phrase, “I’m a 4G Hotspot.” It was perhaps this poor choice of words that first elicited much of the negative feedback. People felt that the slogan, and by association, the campaign, objectified the homeless and minimized their plight. It appeared that the homeless people were operating as the means to ends of a much wealthier “tech crowd,” and this evoked their (the “their” is technically unclear here) moral disgust.
The truth of the matter is that the homeless who participated in BBH’s projects were not being used specifically as means. They were treated as ends in their own right, as can be evidenced by the financial compensation, and the stated goal of the project to help raise awareness for the plight of the disadvantaged. The marketing company definitely did err in their judgment, but they were not acting in a morally reprehensible manner.
Why Rapid Response Social Media Can Hurt Our Society
Only time will tell what the future holds for BBH. One thing is certain though; they will have to think very carefully before attempting another charity campaign. What is sad is that events like this will ultimately have a negative consequence on our society. When companies thinking about doing good decide not to because the risk of being crucified via social media is too great, Americans lose. We lose because we are stifling innovation, one of the benchmarks of our own society. We lose because our propensities to make judgments without facts will continue to lead us away from rationalism and towards sensationalism. And we lose because this tendency towards sensationalism encourages us to point out “problems,” in society without actually offering any solutions.
This last trend is perhaps the most concerning because it encourages people to look at the homeless as part of the problem. Those who see a street-person with a wireless router, and then tweet about it, are not really contributing anything substantial to the conversation. In fact, they themselves are objectifying the homeless, by using them as a tool to sound witty, or to gripe about the societal issues with which they are vaguely concerned. They seem oblivious to the fact that complaining is easy while doing something is much more challenging. And at the end of the day it is the homeless people – the very citizens whose plight they are lamenting – who suffer the most from those hollow words.