I Am WiFi

Photo by Ben Sklar--New York Times

Did you hear the latest about the human WiFi connections???  Austin, TX hosts the annual South by Southwest Festival and it is a huge thing!!!  Our oldest son is a big fan of this huge music festival when he lived in Austin and still is.  It is one of the best things about Austin.   This year they are trying something that has proved to be a tad controversial as I discovered via The Today Show.

Austin, like any big city, has a pretty large homeless population.  Factor in the warm climate and the location and it probably boasts more than its fair share of those down on their luck and living without much means.  During SXSW there are thousands of people enjoying the bands and festivities.  Add to that that most of these people have a smart phone which sucks data down like a thirsty sailor sucks down a beer after a long deployment.  (I don’t know if that is true but I wanted to give you a little picture in your head and I didn’t have any Chrisism’s that fit).

BBH Labs thought they had a great marketing idea and found 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the hotspot wifi devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.  The volunteers were told to go to really densely packed places and “advertise” that they were there and that their “hotspot” could be accessed.  They are each being paid $20 a day and can keep any tips that customers give them. Here is a quick clip of Clarence:

So many reactions have been registered over this innovative idea and most of the ones I am reading about are not complimentary.  Seems most who are blogging and commenting believe that this is exploitive and demeaning to the individuals participating.  Some believe that it is a further indicator of the huge divide between the haves (those with cell phones) and the have nots (the homeless) and that it is just drawing attention to the big difference between the two.  Well…..in all honesty—would that be a horrible thing??? If we who “had” were made a little bit more aware??

I quite honestly was a little surprised at the reaction of those who are slamming BBH Labs with negative press.   Maybe I am in the minority here –I may well be—but no one forced these folks to do this.  They are “volunteers” who are being paid (albeit not a huge amount) for their services.  They can keep tips which I hope the generous SXSW attendees will shower upon them.  They are interacting with people.  That in itself is a great thing in my book. They have stories to tell.  I bet they have a lot of stories to tell and hopefully those around their little hotspot are listening and are somehow being touched by what they are hearing.

So what do you think?  Am I all wet here and not seeing the big picture???  I would really love to hear your reactions—check out the original story here and let me know in the comments what you think.

I just found this other article from The Atlantic which I respect as a publication—it will give you more insight on the subject and speaks far more eloquently than I can.  Click here to read more.


  1. This is a tough one…I really don’t know where on the spectrum I fall on this one. Sorry, probably not the response you were hoping for. I’m looking forward to hearing from other folks and see how they feel.

    • Hey TBM, that is okay! I just wondered if my initial reaction to it was crazy and if so I needed some valid points to help me understand the other side!! 🙂

  2. Beth Anne, I absolutely agree with you! I do not think it’s a bad thing for the volunteers to provide a hot spot—it is certainly supplying a “need”. And I think the interaction would be beneficial for everyone.

    I think political correctness has gone round the bend way beyond the influence of good sense.

  3. Virginia says:

    It makes sense to me too! What a great way to give some people a boost, I think. And who knows what may come of their interactions – maybe some positive change? I agree – awareness needs to be raised. It’s so easy to stay in a box and keep those in need in another box. So, I’m with you friend.

    • It seems to be a pretty hot topic and I thought it was a good one to find out what everyone else out there thought. I have one blogger friend who works with the homeless a lot so I am hoping she comments as I would like to hear her thoughts.

  4. I’ve seen some of the press about this, but I don’t feel like I know enough about it to have developed an informed perspective. I’ve not experienced homelessness, but I have encountered extreme povery when I was very ill. There is definitly a vulnerability that can be exploited. Whether this exploits or not, I’m not sure.

    Wish I knew more.


    • There are so many thoughts on it…I honestly thought it was not a horrible idea to have them interacting and doing something that put them in with others who may not experience that side of life often but I don’t know. I can see the protectiveness of not exploiting them but not sure if they actually were or not. They were not forced to do it, they were paid and from the things that I read and viewed the ones participating were happy to do so. And yes, you are so correct that there is a vulnerability that can be exploited and maybe those who are vulnerable don’t realize they are being exploited—-good point. I don’t know. I just kind of wanted to hear what my readers thought. Thanks for the comments!

  5. Very interesting post. I hadn’t heard about this before but I tend to agree with you. And like your friend Ann in the Up has said political correctness can be taken too far!!!

  6. I’m going to weigh in here and say I’m conflicted. It seems to me the company paying these human hot spots are getting practically free advertising. Yes, the homeless can use the money, but $20.00 a day if you count an 8 hour day works out to $2.50 an hour by my calculations…much less than minimum wage. Why can’t they let their own employees be the hot spots and make a donation to an Austin homeless shelter or other type organization or at the very least up the pay. Yes, it would be good to show the difference between the haves and have nots but at whose expense? Like you said I’m sure the homeless who volunteered to do this have many stories to share but I’m not sure people will take the time to hear their stories. Call me cynical. 😦

    • I agree with the total compensation and wondered why they set it at $20 though I am sure there was “reasoning” behind it. What that could be I have no clue!!! And you are most likely correct that most people won’t take the time to listen to anything these folks have to say but I would like to think that some one did. Maybe. Call me Miss Pollyanna. I know I am. I like your homeless shelter contribution idea…..I think they did not expect the backlash that they have gotten.

  7. The times we live in have made people cynical. But, I try to look at it from the point of view of the 15 homeless people who are not just making some money, but human contact with people who may make a difference in their lives. At the very least they can gain some self esteem and self confidence. It is an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Granted there is a risk that people they come in contact with would show distain of distrust, thus undermining the benefits. I don’t doubt that there are people out there like that, but I think there are a lot more people who would offer a hand of freindship as well as pay for thier service. It is worth the risk to each of them … just listen to their perception of the opportunity. I say go for it and hope for the best. Mankind isn’t so far gone that they can’t help those that are in need.

    Andrea @From The Sol

    • Thanks, Andrea! Love your last statement. I agree—i think there is still a lot of good left in mankind. That is my story and I am sticking to it!

  8. I’m also not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I think it may be a good thing – giving homeless people a reason to participate in life for a few days again. Sometimes when you are stuck in the rut of abject poverty, you isolate yourself due to your own feelings of poor self worth. Or maybe you’ve received too many negative reactions to your situation & so you build up walls to protect yourself.
    I would like to think encouraging the homeless people to interact with the rest of society would have a positive result. The have nots may meet someone who thinks they are worth taking a chance on & receive a helping hand in another way. I don’t know how could an example this is, but think back to the homeless man with the excellent radio voice who received a hand up after being heard. Whether it was a success in the end or not, this gentleman would not have received this helping hand without someone hearing him first.
    I agree with your other commenters about the amount of remuneration they are receiving. There has to be a reason for this particular amount we may not understand. Regardless, I think they could have paid at least as much as wait staff receives since they are providing a service.
    I hope this is followed up on & in the end there is some kind of conclusion about whether it was a good idea or not. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    • Yep–agree with your comments about the compensation. I am going to have to try to find out why it was the magical $20 . I hope that there is some conclusion also and that it is publicized—-I would love to know “the rest of the story”.

  9. As long as they are aware and willing participants, that’s the key for me.

    • Right—and from the word “volunteer” I would say that they were both aware and willing. Will be interesting to see if there is any follow up.

  10. I think that its genius! Its opening the eyes of the locals who are enjoying the festivities AND visitors! Why not supply a need? Is it not providing 2 needs? A need for the public to have their data and for the homeless to have, albeit small, some income. Too many time we walk past these individuals and don’t give them a second thought! Good for SXSW for allowing this!

    • Thanks for the comment, Robin!!! I think it is a creative idea and one that people have strong opinions about one way or the other. Thanks for the input!

  11. Helen Brown says:

    I think this gives the homeless a job for the day where they have been able to work and earn a little money. I feel that they would feel better about that than standing on the street begging for money?

  12. Alicia C. says:

    Argh — I just wrote a really great comment and it got erased!

    The jist of it was this: Many “charities” that help out homeless people do it based on a “you do this, we’ll give you that” kind of thing. Our local Salvation Army mandates that the homeless who stay at their shelter MUST attend all-afternoon Sunday church sessions, plus 2-hour bible studies on Wednesdays – or they are not allowed to stay at the shelter. How is that any different from “you wear this shirt and hand out these cards for a day and we’ll give you $20”?

    Anyone who has not even had a penny to their name knows that even a chance at getting their hands on $5 is like winning the lottery! These volunteers were given a wonderful opportunity. (Though, I think they could have paid a little more – how much would they have had to pay an employee to do this all day long?) Those who are criticizing the company need to realize that this is something that is needed. I don’t see the negative writers handing out $20 bills to their local homeless population!

  13. I agree with you, Beth. Make those who have, give. Hopefully once they find out the story of why these people are “hotspots”, they will tip them. Also the fact that they are trying whatever they can should matter too!

  14. I suspect many of those complaining have never spoken to a homeless person. I don’t know whether it was a good idea or not. I don’t really see how they are being any more exploited than other workers there who may also not own a smart phone.

    • Yea, I am still kind of thinking about it. I don’t see how it could hurt if they were willing but maybe there is more to the story than I am getting!

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