The Soapbox: On SXSW’s “Homeless Hotspots” And Trolling For Charity

BBH, the same ad agency behind Axe body spray’s noxiously viral campaigns, have hit the streets of massive internet partyapocalypse South by Southwest this week – well, actually, they haven’t hit any such streets. But they have outfitted 10 homeless men with 4G wireless devices and T-shirts stating “I Am a Homeless Hotspot.” Internerds struggling for web connectivity are prompted to tip the men $2 for each 15 minutes of access. That’s just enough time to refresh your own Twitter mentions and stew in your own complicity in what now passes for charity.

Surprise: a lot of people did not see anything at all charitable about a global branding agency turning homeless people into poorly-paid ISP’s. They complained online, and inevitably, as if it were part of the project’s “digital strategy” from the start, BBH took to Twitter to defend themselves, claiming the project was meant to raise awareness or foster engagement or some other nonsense that for-profits call what they’re doing when they launch social good ventures without fully considering the impact of said venture on the people they are claiming to help.

Here’s the thing: I love tech people. Mostly, I am one of them. I have ambled along Austin’s streets in equal if not greater states of intoxication than many of the thousands of people occupying them this week. But where once SXSW’s Interactive festival was a pretty humble celebration of creativity and community on the internet, like the internet itself it was quickly colonized by ad people, marketing people, and their attendant social media snake oil salesmen.

Usually those people who come to Austin to push their brand have to pay for the privilege. So, too, do the people who pose on all those branded couches and beanbags, drink the free branded booze, and tweet photos of the same. For the most part, there is no pretense that the commercial spectacle that stands in annually as “our scene” is serious business, even as it affects an out-of-the-office Spring Break vibe.

Which gets us to the other thing: at least those brands have the decency not to make like their presence at SXSW has anything to do with anything but making themselves more money.

BBH may have thought it was great timing, to launch such a buzzy project in the middle of a massive gathering of media people, including just the kind of people who make a career out of celebrating the potential of internet technology to make every social ill better – oh, and make a profit, too. But some of the year’s most high-profile stories of causes online haven’t been to celebrate them: it’s been to call them to account. Whether it was slamming the Susan G. Komen Foundation for bowing to conservatives and bailing on their grants to Planned Parenthood, or digging into the real story behind Invisible Children’s sketchy #stopkony campaign, lots of people who don’t normally consider themselves activists have stepped up to call bullshit on all manner of do-goodery, and they are right to.

BBH and other aspiring “causes” would do well to learn this: if your charity can’t take the heat, stay off the internet. If your good work is more than a flimsy PR ploy, you won’t need interns to defend you. Your work – and ideally, the people it is supposed to benefit – will speak for itself.