South By Southwest 2012 can be summarized thusly: An impossibly-named marketing company called Bartle Bogle Hegarty is doing a little human science experiment called Homeless Hotspots. It gives out 4G hotspots to homeless people along with a promotional t-shirt. The shirt doesn't say, "I have a 4G hotspot." It says, "I am a 4G hotspot."

You can guess what happens next. You pay these homeless, human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.

Is This For Real?

This story took a while to break because many Internet residents didn't believe it was true.

An understandable reaction. Pitch-perfect satire often strikes the exact same agonizing chord as the real, terrible truth.

It most assuredly is real, though. Here's a sample of BBH's blog post announcing the "experiment:"

"One particular aspect we find intriguing is Street Newspapers, which are print publications created and sold by homeless populations as a form of entrepreneurial employment. The model has proven successful enough to be adopted in cities spanning 30 countries. The issue however, is that like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media. How often do you see someone "buy" a paper, only to let the homeless individual keep it? This not only prevents the paper from serving as a tool for the individual to avoid begging, but it proves how little value people actually place on the publication itself. Yet the model isn't inherently broken. It's simply the output that's archaic in the smartphone age.

So we decided to modernize it."

The Problem

The Homeless Hotspots website frames this as an attempt "to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations." There's a wee little difference, though. Those newspapers are written by homeless people, and they cover issues that affect the homeless population.

By contrast, Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure. It's like it never occurred to the people behind this campaign that people might read street newspapers. They probably just buy them to be nice and throw them in the garbage.

When I asked Tim Nolan and Saneel Radia from BBH Labs about this difference, Radia interpreted my question this way: "I think your point was, street newspapers are content-driven and the hotspots idea is not content driven. Is that correct?"

Well, that's a little more SXSW-sounding than what I said, but, "Basically, yes," I told him.

"I'll be honest," he said. "My preconceived notions about street newspapers was that they weren't an effective model, because I have a visual in my head, living in New York City, watching thousands of people walk by street newspaper vendors ignoring them."

"The few times that I've done it, I give a dollar and let them keep the paper."

That's what I had figured. Radia agreed that worker-created content is important for a direct campaign to help the homeless, but he insisted that it was priority number three.

Priorities

Priority number one is "social engagement," surely a worthy one. This campaign, like traditional street newspaper campaigns, makes homeless people visible by creating an opportunity for a conversation. I look forward to talking to some of these mobile hotspot workers now that I know they're out there.

Priority number two is the daily income provided by the service. I never suspected otherwise, but "just to be 100% clear," Radia said, "everything they sell, they keep. We're underwriting all the costs of this. This is utterly not for profit. The goal is for these people to make their own money."

"These guys think of this in a very entrepreneurial way," Radia said.

Then why do their t-shirts say "I am a hotspot?"

The Next Version

"The point about content creation I think is an important one, but on the priority list, I think it's pretty clearly number three." But Radia seemed open to some kind of creative component to the campaign in the future.

"The idea of self-expression through the newspaper I think is actually something we hope to build into the idea in the future. There's no reason that the content when you log into these things is not something that can be created by these guys."

That sounds pretty cool. If there was a log-in tour full of original content produced by the workers, then we'd be on to something.

"But they'd have to own that media channel in order to have content. So we see this as a stepping stone. Unfortunately, maybe it wasn't clear enough that we're not ruling out content and self-expression, but on a limited amount of finances, doing custom builds of content creation for these guys for South By wasn't an option. But [it's] definitely on our radar."

"Somehow, our intent has been lost in here," Radia said. "What we're trying to do is say the street newspaper model works. It's the output of it that... we fear for its future, and there's no one working on solving this problem."

Minimum Viable(?) Product

Well, I'm not sure the We Are Visible campaign or Street Roots in my adoptive hometown of Portland would say no one is working on it. But I appreciate the sentiment. This campaign is well-meant, and I don't think anyone doubted that. The fact is, it was a minimum-viable-product approach. It was an honest attempt to help, but the chosen priorities left it with all model and no substance.

If the New York Times hadn't posted this on its SXSW Tumblr, I would have had no idea it was happening. It was only when I came out of my interview-hole to write that I saw this lovely piece of SXSW news - while everybody else was pounding brewskis at the Cheezburger party.

So no, I haven't seen a human hotspot. I certainly plan to visit one tomorrow and talk to its manager. Honestly, anyone worried enough about connectivity at SXSW enough to pay someone on the street for it has a longer list of problems than first-world guilt. But this conference is so hugely, expensively over the top as a monument to the privilege of Internet access that I didn't think it could top itself. It just did.

UPDATE 3/12 11:44 a.m.:

Mark The Hotspot Operator

I just spoke with Mark the hotspot operator outside of the 4th street entrance to the conference center, right across from the Capital Metro train stop. He was putting on a great show, selling his wares loudly and proudly, so I heard him before I saw him. He was more than ready to talk to me about how much he likes the program. He wanted to make sure I gave BBH credit for creating this opportunity for him to run an enterprise, as well as to talk to people and break down stereotypes.

Here's the audio of our conversation.

Mark is well-educated and has good professional experience, it's just the economy and a hard transition to Austin that's got him down. But he's really enjoying meeting people at South By Southwest. You can support his hotspot on the website, or if you're in Austin, you can find him by the 4th Street entrance to the convention center.

I hope Mark's customers are getting something out of this, too. Beyond Wi-Fi.