Homelessness, wirelessness, and (in)visibility: Critical reflections on the Homeless Hotspots Project and the ensuing online discourse
First Monday

Homelessness, wirelessness, and (in)visibility: Critical reflections on the Homeless Hotspots Project and the ensuing online discourse by Jes A. Koepfler, Christopher Mascaro, and Paul T. Jaeger



Abstract
This paper provides a critical reflection on the Homeless Hotspots Project which was unveiled during the 2012 South by Southwest Festival held annually in Austin, Texas in the U.S. The corpus comprised 28 news articles and 1,896 tweets about Homeless Hotspots posted from the launch of the project on 6 March through the height of the debate which diminished by 31 March 2012. Using critical discourse analysis, this paper considers four perspectives that emerged from the data: the social innovator perspective, the technical digerati perspective, the social service organization perspective, and the participant perspective. The paper applies the critical lens of (in)visibility to these perspectives to examine the utopian and dystopian views of the dichotomous infrastructures of homelessness and wirelessness that were brought together and brought to public attention by the Homeless Hotspots Project.

Contents

Introduction
Background
Methods
Findings
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

In 2007, there were approximately one billion devices with wi–fi chipsets in existence. Now, more than one billion are produced every year [1]. The transition to an information environment driven by the ubiquity of wireless devices for a large portion of the United States (and global) population has led to the implementation of wi–fi networks in homes, libraries, airports, trains, cafes, bookstores, parks, and countless other locations. With the number of active wireless devices consistently increasing worldwide, the infrastructure to support these devices has become a major component of modern society, and one rarely noticed by most people reliant on this infrastructure.

Adrian Mackenzie has described this new state as wirelessness, which “designates an experience trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures and services ... [affecting] how people arrive, depart, and inhabit places, how they relate to others, and indeed, how they embody change” [2]. The dependence of many users on wireless devices for communicating with others, searching the World Wide Web, seeking directions, tracking personal health and wellness, playing games, and shopping, along with many other kinds of information behavior has made them a primary tool for communication and interaction. When the infrastructure to support these behaviors is not available, the experience for users can be frustrating and disorienting. Mobility and mobile access have become a habit and expectation for users and the supporting infrastructure fades into the background of awareness [3].

At the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference & Festival in 2012 (SXSW), the dependence on infrastructure for wirelessness unexpectedly intersected with a very different state of being: homelessness. During the interactive portion of the event in which technological innovations are unveiled, a project called Homeless Hotspots was released by BBH Labs, a division of the Bartle Bogle Hegarty marketing firm. This project attempted to support SXSW attendees’ expectations for a seamless state of wirelessness by providing homeless men from Front Steps Shelter with Mi–Fi devices (wireless routers that act as mobile Wi–Fi hotspots) that SXSW attendees could purchase air time on. A brief, but intense debate erupted over the ethics and values of this project through online news sources and social media.

This paper provides a critical reflection on the larger social issues evidenced by the Homeless Hotspots Project through the key perspectives that emerged in the online discourse surrounding the debate. Using qualitative critical discourse analysis, this paper addresses the following research questions:

  1. What were the key perspectives and issues raised in the debate through the online discourse surrounding Homeless Hotspots?
  2. What do the reactions to Homeless Hotspots indicate about social perceptions of technology, infrastructure, and the state of wirelessness in the United States?

The background section provides an overview of the contemporary literature on homelessness and information communication technologies (ICTs), describes recent Web–based projects dedicated to making the issue of homelessness more visible, and describes the Homeless Hotspots Project. The methods section includes the procedures used to build the corpus of data and to conduct qualitative analysis using a critical approach. The findings section details the four major perspectives that emerged from the online discourse and provides examples from the data to illuminate the social issues that each perspective raised. The discussion section provides more detail on the implications of these perspectives, connecting the findings to the relevant literature and associated research questions. The conclusions section summarizes the contribution of this research and proposes outstanding questions initiated by this study to be addressed in future work.

 

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Background

Public perceptions of homelessness & ICTs in the United States

The intersection of homelessness and wirelessness is charged by people’s perceptions of homelessness and the social values of deservedness, empowerment, and justice with regard to technology ownership and adoption [4]; [5]. ICTs have begun to play a bigger role in the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness due to increases in affordability of mobile technologies, ubiquity of Web–based services, and social norms to maintain such devices for access to information, and even for safety [6]. Contradicting common perceptions of the homeless experience, several studies have found that many (though certainly not all) homeless individuals have mobile phones they use to connect with family, friends, and social service providers. These studies included homeless individuals living on the streets as well as living in shelters. Eyrich–Garg’s work showed that 44 of the 100 unsheltered individuals in her study had mobile phones [7]; [8]. Woelfer, et al.’s work highlighted the importance that individuals experiencing homelessness placed on maintaining their mobile devices above other types of material possessions for safety and social norms [9]. Le Dantec and Edwards’ work in Atlanta identified mobile devices and Internet access as a basic human need among individuals experiencing homelessness on par with food and shelter [10].

ICTs facilitate access to online communities and social support for diverse users, including the homeless and other stakeholders in the social services sector. These ideas may feel new, particularly within the context of homelessness, but the potential has existed since the Internet itself was born. The Public Electronic Network (PEN) was an early online community platform in the United States, created in 1989 in Santa Monica, California. By the mid–1990s PEN had more than 85,000 Santa Monica residents registered, of which at least 200 were individuals experiencing homelessness [11]. Homelessness became a high profile topic on the PEN system. As a result, they developed the SHWASHLOCK program. The program provided a job bank as well as provided showers, washers, and lockers to homeless people in the area, so individuals could look presentable for job interviews and have a place to keep their belongings.

There are a number of Web–based projects related to homelessness in comparison to those early days of the Internet when PEN was first formed. Examples like Invisible People [12] and STREATS [13] have begun to harness the potential of video–based social media projects to shed light on the lived experiences of individuals going through homelessness as well as homeless advocacy efforts. In another example, when a 24–year old woman lost her marketing job and shortly thereafter her home, she decided to drive around the country, traveling to all 50 states in a 50–week time period in 2010, to shed light on homelessness in the United States. Through “Project 50/50” she chronicled her adventures online raising awareness through Facebook, media interviews, and food collection of more than 10,000 items [14].

A final example is a project called We Are Visible [15], which encourages individuals experiencing or who have experienced homelessness to use ICTs to self–advocate, find social support, and help others. The Web site provides tutorials on blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail to encourage the development of an online community of organizations, advocates, and individuals associated with homelessness. The project has an active Facebook page and Twitter handle with a growing community. The creator of We Are Visible is a formerly homeless man named Mark Horvath, who also developed the aforementioned Invisible People project, and is now moving on to his next project helping a group of developers create a mobile game for learning about homelessness in your own backyard [16]. At their core, all of these projects seek to increase awareness about the social issue of homelessness and provide voice and visibility to the individuals experiencing homelessness themselves through the power of the Internet and social media.

Along with this increase in the visibility of technology among the homeless and projects dedicated to homelessness awareness, however, there has been controversy and debate around the issue. In 2009, when an individual at a shelter took a photo of First Lady Michele Obama, who was visiting, using her mobile device, there was public outcry by some who thought it was inappropriate for a person who needed assistance from a shelter to even own a mobile device [17]. And in March 2012, when BBH Labs decided to turn homeless individuals into wireless network access points, the Homeless Hotspots Project became a topic of discussion with multiple stakeholder groups propagating their position on the issue via social media. The Project spurred a brief, but heated debate among key stakeholders (i.e., BBH Labs), technology users (i.e., SXSW conference attendees), the homeless community (i.e., the Front Steps Shelter residents who participated in the project, Mark Horvath, and others), and the social services sector more broadly (homeless support organizations around the United States and homeless advocates). Their perceptions shed light on the broader implications of the social issue of homelessness and the increasingly blurred line between humans and technology.

The Homeless Hotspots Project

Homelessness is an important social issue with increasing significance in social network discourse on sites such as Twitter [18]; [19]. Homeless Hotspots was brought to public attention through Twitter and other blogging tools like Tumblr and Blogger, when comments quickly escalated the Project from a simple “initiative” to a short but intense controversial debate from 6–31 March 2012. Homeless Hotspots was described as a “charitable innovation initiative” by BBH Labs [20]. During SXSW, BBH Labs partnered with a local social services organization called Front Steps Shelter [21] to equip clients (i.e., men experiencing homelessness) from the case management system with 4G Mi–Fi devices to serve as pay–per–use wireless hotspots for attendees at SXSW. Program participants from the shelter wore t–shirts provided by BBH that read: “I’M [FIRST NAME], A 4G HOTSPOT SMS HH [FIRST NAME] TO 25827 FOR ACCESS. www.homelesshotspots.org” (see Figure 1). Payment in physical cash or via PayPal for the service was optional; a donation of US$2 for 15 minutes of Wi–Fi was suggested.

 

Screen capture of Homeless Hotspots Project Web site
 
Figure 1: Screen capture of Homeless Hotspots Project Web site, captured 28 March 2012; http://www.homelesshotspots.org/about.

 

The interactive portion of the SXSW festival portion is known for bringing together the technologically savvy, who are likely to connect to the Internet through many wireless devices (mobile phone, tablet, and laptop). The conference itself has also become a primary venue to gain attention for new mobile applications [22]. The influx of Internet–hungry devices in recent years has led to complaints by attendees of the failing wireless infrastructure. The Homeless Hotspots Project attempted to address these expectations for wirelessness around the conference and the surrounding community spaces, while also trying to help the homeless men serving as the human hotspots. Media reaction in outlets as diverse as Wired [23], Huffington Post [24]; [25], Forbes [26], and The Daily Show [27] offered mediations on the implications of the Project.

Homeless Hotspots was not BBH’s first time collaborating with a shelter to innovate in the social services sector. In 2010, BBH Labs launched the Underheard in New York project [28]. In this project, BBH provided four men experiencing homelessness in New York City with prepaid cell phones with a month of unlimited texting and some brief training on how to use Twitter via short message service, or SMS [29]. The four men were selected through a partnership with the NYC Rescue Mission [30]. The goal of the project was to raise awareness and visibility about the daily experience of homelessness. As a result of the project, one of the men was reunited with his daughter. Although this result was positive and the general reactions to the project from the public were positive, Underheard in New York was not intended to last. It was billed as a pilot project and the long–term impacts of the experience on the men who participated are unknown. The Homeless Hotspots Project followed a similar model by acting as a pilot project that BBH did not intend to maintain beyond the SXSW event.

 

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Methods

Critical discourse analysis

This paper provides a case study of Homeless Hotspots as it unfolded online via blogs, Twitter, online news articles, video blogs, and more. Documenting the story of Homeless Hotspots through the struggle of the social media sphere to negotiate whether the Project was an act of oppression or empowerment or both, this paper critically examines the discourse from four key perspectives that emerged in the debate:

  1. The social innovator perspective: this perspective came from individuals who saw the project as an innovative solution towards the issues of homelessness
  2. The technical digerati perspective: this perspective came from individuals who saw the project as exploitative and was spurred by articles and posts from members of the technical elite, including those attending SXSW
  3. The social service organization perspective: this perspective came from the organizations and individuals who work on a daily basis to address issues of homelessness broadly and who support individuals experiencing homelessness
  4. The participant perspective: this perspective came from the men of the Front Steps Shelter case management program who participated as hotspots during SXSW

By deconstructing the language employed in a debate, critical discourse analysis can be used “to politically unmask the unequal structure embedded in society ... realized by its discourse” [31]. Through the very public Twitter discourse about the Homeless Hotspots Project, this research examines the language of the relevant online articles and social media discourse to explore the ways in which “everyday spoken and written texts are constituted in social structures and institutional power” [32].

Critical discourse analysis has been used widely in a range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities to examine contexts and issues of politics, race, gender, sexual orientation, economics, education, and literacy, among others [33]; [34]; [35]; [36]. Critical discourse analysis is an important tool to examine the usage of terms in the public sphere — the social realm that promotes the discussion of issues of common importance by members of the public [37]. While Habermas [38] envisioned the public sphere as based in traditional print media, Twitter and other social media have made the public sphere far more immediate and interactive than Habermas could have imagined decades ago. The Internet and social media allow members of divergent social groups to be exposed to information and opinions from groups that they would not likely otherwise have had access to, with particularly significant implications for the access to and exchange of information related to political perspectives like those found in Homeless Hotspots [39]; [40]; [41].

Data collection

Our qualitative analysis reviewed the Homeless Hotspots controversy once it became public knowledge online, shortly after it was unveiled at SXSW. We collected news articles and blog posts via Google Reader and tweets using a custom built script in the statistical programming language R the hashtags and Twitter handle (#homelesshotspots, @HHSXSW) were collected [42]. Twitter collection began shortly after the project was unveiled and continued for several months after the event to ensure we had collected all tweets relevant to the debate. We then manually searched and collected tweets from Twitter to ensure we had a comprehensive dataset of tweets from the date of the project unveiling on 6 March through the end of the debate, which diminished by 31 March 2012.

We read and analyzed 1,896 tweets from 65 unique individuals. More than half of the tweets (57 percent, n=1,076) contained links to news articles or blog posts reporting on the controversy, which mirrored the articles we collected using Google Reader. For this paper, we reviewed 28 news articles from online newspapers, blogs, and other major news outlets. Articles came from sources like the Homeless Hotpots Project Web site and BBH Labs blog; technical outlets such as Wired, Gizmodo, Technorati, and Read Write Web; online newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, and others; and sites like Forbes, National Public Radio (NPR), personal blogs, social service organization blogs, and more.

Analysis

We read and analyzed the articles and tweets to piece together the story of the Homeless Hotspots project, controversy, and online debate. We analyzed the qualitative data using thematic analysis [43]. Two researchers first read through all of online articles to identify the dominant perspectives in the debate. We then considered the Twitter discourse within these broader perspectives through Twitter users’ commentary as well as their links to the news articles about the project. Once the major perspectives were identified and analyzed, we were then able to relate them to existing theories and literature. Specifically, we considered these various points of view through the critical lens of (in)visibility raised by the two key social issues at the heart of the Project — wirelessness and homelessness. We describe and critically analyze each of these perspectives and their discourse in detail in the findings section [44].

 

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Findings

Key perspectives raised in the debate

The social innovator perspective

According to BBH Labs and its supporters, Homeless Hotspots extended the street newspaper model, which they felt was threatened with irrelevance by digital technology. Street newspapers are sold by individuals experiencing poverty or homelessness, most often in metropolitan areas in the United States. Often, the individuals selling the papers are also authors of articles about poverty and homelessness advocacy within the papers. This model seeks to provide an income opportunity, empowerment, and opportunities for connecting with mainstream society for the vendors. Like street newspapers, Homeless Hotspots offered homeless individuals an opportunity to earn money, while promoting interaction between homeless individuals and members of the local community — in this case, the SXSW attendees in Austin, Texas. This perspective was projected by BBH and initially appeared in the BBH blog post announcing the project on 6 March 2012 [45]:

... One particular aspect we find interesting 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.

This social innovator perspective emphasizing employment, empowerment, and connectedness remained a touchstone throughout the debate and were echoed by tweets like this:

“Why I like #homelesshotspots is same reason I support street papers. It creates a positive interaction between homeless people & public”

“Side note. I think homeless people used as wifi hotspots is a great idea. It can allow them to get money and meet new people. #dope”

“#Homelesshotspots are a good idea received horribly wrong. A good example of #hipsters having too much unlimited internet.”

Arguments from these stakeholders focused on ideas of innovation in the social services sector through the use of technology, and evoked ideas of empowerment for the individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as an opportunity to obtain new wealth through the small job opportunity that the project provided them.

This perspective was also taken up by the individuals from Front Steps Shelter and the well–known homeless advocate Mark Horvath, who were particularly interested in helping the participants of the project succeed regardless of the debate unfolding around them.

“so far my #sxsw highlight was meeting Clarence a @HHSXSW homeless hotspot vendor. PLEASE support #homelesshotspots”

“Working with @bbhlabs @hhsxsw #HomelessHotspots let you connect for a cause @sxsw. Proceeds directly help the homeless”

There was also healthy skepticism, however, as individuals remembered BBH Labs’ previous effort at connecting homelessness with wirelessness in the Underheard in NY project. Mark Horvath posted a long response in the comments section on the BBH Labs blog highlighting his concerns [46]:

I love this idea. I love anything that creates a positive interaction between the public and our homeless friends. Just like the street papers, a “homeless hotspot” is not going to provide the money needed to get someone off the streets into housing, but the paradigms changed and wrong stereotypes shattered help in creating favorable public policy.

My only concern is this a marketing gimmick or a cause campaign? Underheard in NY once gave credit on their site to my work teaching social media literacy to homeless people as birthing the idea. It was a great idea. But outside of providing a pre–paid cellphone to four homeless men for two months there was no other support. The guys were not even taught social media very well. This is understandable as Underheard in NY was a project by four young interns and nothing more. They were shocked, and so was BBH at the result. But what happened to the four homeless men when this was all said and done? ...

The technical digerati perspective

The perspective of the technical digerati seemed to emerge from some of the louder voices on the issue who attended the SXSW festival or from those who were otherwise known for their reporting on current events in the technology sector. The dominant argument from this perspective was that Homeless Hotspots reinforced a division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have–nots’. One argument along these lines was that participants in Homeless Hotspots did not have creative input like they do for street newspapers, and they had no opportunity for real entrepreneurship. A primary frustration was that the t–shirts that participants wore stating “I’m ... a 4G hotspot’ illustrated the objectification of humans, and comments from this perspective indicated that this marketing ploy was dehumanizing at best. This short article by David Gallagher on the New York Times SXSW Tumbler blog exemplified this line of thinking on 11 March 2012 [47]:

Getting a decent data connection at SXSW can be a challenge ... Homeless people have been enlisted to roam the streets wearing T–shirts that say, “I am a 4G hotspot.” Passersby can pay what they wish to get online via the 4G–to–Wi–Fi device that the person is carrying. It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us ... we turn human beings into infrastructure?

This was picked up and developed against the original Social Innovator perspective by Jon Mitchell at Read Write Web [48], then by Tim Carmody at Wired.com [49], and also in tweets like this:

“This #HomelessHotspots thing at #SXSW is so dehumanizing and offensive. Oy vey”

“#homelesshotspots was this weekend’s #kony2012. Well–intentioned but privileged people exploiting others”

“I’m going to stop speaking about #homelesshotspots program; point is that no industry model should make permanent class of working homeless”

The hallmark of this perspective aligned with the more critical, dystopian perspectives of the impacts of technology on society found in the social informatics literature [50]; [51]. This perspective described Homeless Hotspots as a project that objectified and exploited individuals experiencing homelessness, while de–emphasizing the empowerment ideals evoked by the social innovator’s perspective. One tweet in the corpus showcased exactly this form of objectification:

“Was emailing you back when my wifi hotspot had to go pee. At least the bathroom break is off the clock. #HomelessHotspots”

Although a tweet like this was likely meant with sarcasm, and there were only a small number of examples like this found in the data, it highlights the potential for dehumanization whether from the experience itself or from the rhetoric surrounding it.

The social service organization perspective

As the discourse evolved, there were requests for perspectives from outside of the technical sphere. Directors of homeless support organizations were asked to speak on the issue. These individuals deliberately elevated the discourse from the issue of Homeless Hotspots to concerns for homelessness in society more generally. From the perspective of social service organizations, society had systematically failed individuals experiencing homelessness by not providing adequate support for its most vulnerable members. Whether or not Homeless Hotspots raised awareness about the issue or empowered the homeless was a moot point; individuals from this perspective emphasized that Homeless Hotspots was relatively unimportant compared to the long–term work of ending homelessness.

A key example of this perspective is a blog post from the CEO of an organization called Healthcare for the Homeless on 14 March 2012 [52]:

Contemporary homelessness emerged over the past 30 years following specific public policy decisions, and despite recent acknowledgement at the highest levels of the federal government that supportive housing is in fact the solution to homelessness ... evidence mounts at overburdened shelters, soup kitchens, and health clinics that the problem is only getting worse. That’s what’s outrageous ... Current events at an Austin technology conference aren’t in the same book let alone on the same page.

Another example came from the National Coalition for Homelessness (NCH) “Bring America Home” blog representing the broader views of the organization’s homeless, formerly homeless, and homeless advocates constituency, also on 14 March 2012 [53]:

NCH believes it should focus its time and attention on the three primary causes and solutions to America’s homelessness: affordable housing, living wage jobs and accessible healthcare. So, we asked if [Homeless Hotspots] was a relevant issue for us to be discussing. The response was clearly a “yes”. No matter how you feel about the issue of “Homeless Hotspots”, it’s a conversation about jobs.

...

So, NCH’s comment is that we need a lot more affordable housing, many more jobs that pay a living wage, and improved access to healthcare. Unless and until then, we’re going to have homelessness in America. “Homeless Hotspots” isn’t the answer, but it’s not the problem either. If we want to get mad, and NCH thinks we all should, let’s get mad for the right reasons and at the right people. If we’re going to end homelessness, we’re going to need much more funding and lots more new and innovative ideas.

Tweets from other organizations and homeless advocates on Twitter propagated this perspective with tweets like these:

“From the (@[twitter name]) CEO: Outraged in Baltimore? << << Health Care for the Homeless [link] GREAT post about @HHSXSW”

“outraged over #homelesshotspots by @HHSXSW? donating is more effective than tweeting. don’t be a hyporcite. #sxsw”

“RT @StreetWise_CHI: @HHSXSW check out what our Exec Dir has to say in support of your efforts 2 find a new approach to ending homelessness. [link]”

Although there were some small benefits that a project like Homeless Hotspots could have for its participants, the Social Service Organization perspective highlighted that the Project itself would not solve the problem of homelessness. Solving homelessness in the United States, in their opinion, requires greater concern for values of human equality and social justice and an increase in funding and support for housing and employment projects.

The participant perspective

Although they did not show up in the dataset as individuals themselves tweeting on behalf of the Project, the participants, i.e., the individuals from Front Steps Shelter who participated as Homeless Hotspots vendors, represented an equally important perspective in the discussion of the Project. Their perspective emerged in the dataset from tweets and retweets by supporters of the individual participants (whether or not they supported the Project more broadly):

“RT @HHSXSW: Jonathan had a great day: ‘Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I’m hopeless.’ Help him at [link] #HomelessHotspots #SxSW”

“Critics of South by Southwest’s Homeless Hotspots Haven’t Met Jonathan Hill [link] a GOOD post on @HHSXSW madness”

“Meet Clarence, a 4G homeless man hot spot. #sxsw Genius BBH @HHSXSW [link]”

Mark Horvath conducted video interviews with one of the participants to help raise awareness about the homeless individuals in the Project and to increase support for their efforts [54]. In a video with Jonathan, we learn that the Project gave him the opportunity to connect with people and help change people’s perceptions of homelessness (see Figure 2):

 

Screen capture of Homeless Hotspots vendor Jonathan
 
Figure 2: Screen capture of Homeless Hotspots vendor Jonathan (video interview with Mark Horvath, 13 March 2012).

 

“[Homeless Hotspots has] been great. I got to meet a lot of people and I hope that this will help people understand that not everyone homeless [is on drugs] ... We’re trying to break that stereotype out here. We may be homeless but we’re not hopeless. You know, we want to do positive things, we’re trying to positive things. We want to get back into society ...”

The same sentiment was echoed by another vendor, named Mark, in a YouTube video posted on 12 March 2013 [55]:

“I think it’s awesome. I applaud BBH because there’s not many companies that’s physically and actively with the homeless personnel, who fell on their luck ... BBH, they provided the devices, they provided the website, and they are giving me an opportunity to do something meaningful, to do something better ...”

The individual perspectives of the participants help temper the debate by bringing us back to the experience of the individual, challenging our partial perspectives as onlookers [56].

 

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Discussion

Homelessness, wirelessness, and (in)visibility

The reactions to Homeless Hotspots through the online discourse highlight both positive and negative perceptions of technology, infrastructure, and the states of wirelessness and homelessness. It is not surprising that a project like Homeless Hotspots would be controversial, primarily because it unintentionally raises serious questions about dependence on wirelessness and the lengths that users are willing to go to preserve their own mobility. While many users, commentators, and politicians focus on the Internet and related technologies as an absolute good, they are inherently commodities. As a commodity, the infrastructure to support the networks and devices must exist. Through Homeless Hotspots we see what happens when the importance of sustaining a state of wirelessness leads to a dependence on using fellow human beings as the necessary infrastructure. Especially when the fellow human being is a person in the presumably vulnerable state of homelessness, it directly challenges the assumptions that many users have about mobile devices and wirelessness.

The intersection of these two different states of homelessness and wirelessness presents essential questions about the roles of mobility in society — not only technical mobility, but social mobility as well. The presence of social justice concerns and questions of ethical behavior were evident in the Homeless Hotspots discourse (particularly from the technical digerati perspective), but the reactions of many people on social media evidenced a lack of certainty on how to interpret these issues. The online discourse showed that it was hard to settle the question of whether the Homeless Hotspots Project was dehumanizing, either intentionally or accidentally, to a group deemed ‘vulnerable’ in the U.S., by having them serve as infrastructure, or whether it was in fact an act of empowerment through employment and visibility.

The incorporation of human beings into a wireless infrastructure further challenges ideas of infrastructure and visibility. Infrastructure is “a system of substrates ... It is by definition invisible, part of the background of other types of work ...” [57]. It is invisible, that is, until it is unexpectedly not present [58]. The Homeless Hotspots Project brought visibility to both of the infrastructures of homelessness and wirelessness as a result of infrastructure breakdown. A core ‘problem’ that the Homeless Hotspots Project was intended to resolve was the issue of the breakdown of wirelessness experienced when too many devices try to access the infrastructure at the same time at SXSW each year. Simultaneously, by using the social issue of homelessness as a platform to solve the issue of wirelessness, the project made visible individuals experiencing homelessness and society’s continued struggle with what the social condition of homelessness means and whether it can be addressed through the imposition of technical infrastructures.

The social construct of (in)visibility has two faces which complicate the debate (see Figure 3). Visibility can be empowering and at the same time disempowering [59]. For example, the same benefits of visibility that give celebrities and politicians their continued fame is what can lead to their downfall if a scandal arises. On the other end of the spectrum, increasing visibility of individuals experiencing homelessness, has the potential to empower as we saw in the quotes from the Homeless Hotspots vendors, but also disempower as negative discourse forms and is transmitted rapidly across the Web. This manifests itself as a form of “recognition visibility” [60] for a particular social group and has consequences on the relationship between individuals who are mainstream and those who are not. The social stigma of homelessness is one that is often said to result in invisibility or othering of those from the mainstream [61]. This is non–trivial as homeless individuals who perceive themselves as having access to their social support systems and other social connections have better health outcomes (mentally and physically) than those who do not [62]. This raises unanswered questions about whether increasing visibility of an individual person’s homelessness is in fact empowering or if it may have unintended negative consequences of stigmatization.

 

Finding Home by Josh Sarantitis and Katherine Penneckaker, 2010, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program
 
Figure 3: “Finding Home” by Josh Sarantitis and Katherine Penneckaker, 2010, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. The painting highlights the dichotomy of the (in)visibility of homelessness (photo taken by author).

 

Issues of (in)visibility and stigma related to homelessness can be counteracted by participation online, which affords pseudonimity and anonymity. A homeless resident in PEN’s online community reflected on the importance of the online platform for addressing this (in)visibility paradox [63]:

We without shelter are looked on with disdain, fear, loathing, pity, and hatred. This difference makes ‘normal’ contact with other humans almost impossible ... . This is why Santa Monica’s PEN system is so special to me. No one on PEN knew that I was homeless until I told them. After I told them, I was still treated like a human being. To me, the most remarkable thing about the PEN community is that a city councilmember and a pauper can coexist, albeit not always in perfect harmony, but on an equal basis ...

Drawing attention to homelessness and the privilege of wirelessness

By drawing attention concurrently to two social invisibles — homelessness and wireless network infrastructure — the Homeless Hotspots Project served to challenge the intellectual comfort of more privileged members of society in two ways. First, it reminded wireless users that, in spite of the freedoms they may feel as result of the infrastructure, they need a mostly ignored infrastructure to support their state of wirelessness. That infrastructure is a commodity that only exists because of the resources being put into that infrastructure instead of other goals, such as helping people who are disadvantaged. Second, the project served to remind the technical digerati — the attendees and fans of SXSW — that they are in fact privileged and the commodities they take for granted, such as wireless access, are not equally available. Some people are in a position that they must serve as wireless infrastructure to make money.

For those in the privileged state of wirelessness, it may be easy to forget that divides still exist. While a state of homelessness is a particularly extreme position of disadvantage, gaps in digital access and inclusion dramatically affect a variety of populations, including individuals with differing abilities. While persons with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, they are also the least likely to be online due to the barriers carelessly or intentionally built into technologies and content [64]. Many other people cannot afford Internet access or lack the digital literacy to use it successfully, yet politicians and policy–makers in the United States now assume that everyone is connected and comfortable online [65].

The four perspectives revealed through the online discourse associated with Homeless Hotspots reveal very different reactions to the project, from empowerment of the homeless to dehumanization of the homeless to the failure of society to better serve the homeless. These reactions, however, are unified by the fact that the people posting and reposting the tweets as well as the media outlets were actually thinking about the social issue of homelessness and specific homeless individuals. The very existence of this discussion demonstrated a spike, temporarily, of interest in homelessness. Twitter users summarized this point effectively in just 140 characters:

“Respect @saneel for taking on a difficult worthwhile task. People not seeing homeless was so clear in NYC yesterday. #homelesshotspots”

“A #homelesshotspots plus: People talked about the homeless exponentially more than they usually do. Now: talking *to* the homeless... #SXSW”

It seems unlikely that the issue of homelessness would have garnered such attention if the project had been conducted in a way that was not challenging to the social norms that the technologically privileged take for granted. By linking two opposite but normally invisible states together through the project, Homeless Hotspots was far more challenging to the complacency of privilege than it might otherwise have been. The Project forced people who assume technology to be an unquestioned good to instead question whether they were dehumanizing a group of people performing a function that is inherently infrastructure.

Social innovation in social services

The social innovators perspective, the most supportive perspective of the Project in the debate, also raised challenging questions about the relationship between homelessness and technology. Other perspectives in the debate were quick to attack or dismiss the potential positive aspects of the Project and what it could mean for future efforts to innovate within the social services sector. One of the few media follow–ups on the Homeless Hotspots Project revealed a year later that 11 of the 13 people who participated in the Project were able to use the money they made to help change their state from homeless to homed [66]. That is a phenomenal success rate and reinforces the pressing need for far more research related to the intersections of homelessness and wirelessness. It also serves to reinforce the importance of creative approaches to addressing social issues like homelessness. Not only can new technologies bring attention to these issues, but they can also offer new ways of addressing the issues.

Social innovation is an ongoing challenge in the social services sector. The health and human services sector struggles with finding funding and support for large–scale solutions, which require addressing much larger social inequities in economic and political models in the United States. Instead, efforts often result in band–aid solutions, which address symptoms of social issues, but often not the underlying causes [67]. It is important to engage individuals from vulnerable populations into the mainstream economical, social, and cultural institutions of which technology is an embedded component, not just as recipients of services but as active participants and contributors. And so, in some ways, the Homeless Hotspots can be seen as a successful attempt towards inclusion.

Utopian visions of technology give people hope and encourage a positive sense of direction [68]; they make visible the possibility of innovation. They become misleading when their obtainment is exaggerated and made to sound easily attainable (e.g., ‘solving’ homelessness — although BBH Labs never made this as a direct claim, it became a core element of the online discourse). The Homeless Hotspots Project worked in a similar vein to fight commonly held perceptions of the homeless experience and encouraged innovative thinking for new ways of supporting people through this life experience. Although the Homeless Hotspots Project fell short of utopia, perhaps it landed somewhere in the realm of “social realism” [69].

In spite of the ensuing controversy online, it is important that advocates, researchers, technology companies, and policy–makers not shy away from innovation in the social services sector. It is the one clear lesson from this controversial project, especially with the result that 11 of 13 people were able to do something with that money and move themselves out of homelessness. Society as a whole and the relevant interest groups in particular should consider partnership with social service organizations as a potential best practice for those who might consider going down this path. BBH did this correctly by partnering with Front Steps Shelter and this practice is likely what contributed to the positive results for the majority of participating individuals.

The inherently controversial and innovative nature of the project which brought greater attention to homelessness, even if briefly, showed another potential benefit of innovative approaches to social services. The Great Recession in the United States in the first decade of this century led to the creation of many social needs. The limited levels of funding available led to many local government agencies and nonprofits working together to meet community needs, often through creative uses of technology [70]; [71]; [72]. For example, “Baltimarket” is a collaboration among the Baltimore City Enoch Pratt Free Library System, Baltimore City Health Department, and Santoni’s Super Market, which provides Baltimore, Maryland, residents currently living in underserved “food deserts” with access to fresh and healthy foods [73]. Through Baltimarket, residents can order groceries online at their local library branch and then collect their food on a designated pick–up day. As another example, public libraries in San Francisco, California, have social workers to assist recovering drug addicts. The public libraries of the Pima County Public Library of Tuscon, Arizona, have public health nurses in libraries, who provide free basic health care, answer health questions that patrons have, and help them navigate the social services structures [74]. In all of these cases, ICTs are central to creating and providing unique collaborative community services that would not otherwise exist, supporting access to social services for the homeless and members of other disadvantaged groups in their communities.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

By asking people to pay money to turn their fellow human beings into infrastructure, the Homeless Hotspots Project brought to light uncomfortable but important underlying assumptions about the states of homelessness and wirelessness. The opportunity to further explore these issues and their intersections should not be lost. Even a year after the event, major questions raised by Homeless Hotspots linger and leave us with even deeper moral questions to address: What do the reactions to Homeless Hotspots indicate about the roles of social justice, ethics, values, and human rights in relation to technology? What are the unanticipated consequences of the increasingly hybrid relationship between humans and machines?

It is imperative that we, as a society, continue to employ new technologies that shed light on otherwise invisible social issues, use new technologies creatively to address and ameliorate them, and engage in dialogues about these difficult social challenges. However, these projects also require critical thought about the ways in which these experiments and innovations reflect the values we want our institutions to emphasize in terms of human rights, information ethics, and personal morals.

The increasingly blurred line between humans and machines will continue to offer new opportunities and new challenges. Some of them will cause people to question the technologies themselves and perhaps serve to bring attention to issues that would otherwise be ignored. Regardless of which of the main perspectives your initial reactions to the Homeless Hotspots Project reflected, or whether your later reaction reflects a different perspective, the Homeless Hotspots Project embodies all of these challenges and opportunities.

The importance of continuing to think critically about digital disparities, social (in)visibilities, and other sociotechnical juxtapositions can perhaps best be summarized by revisiting the PEN project and the homeless resident who explained [75]:

On PEN, I have been helped, rebuffed, scorned, criticized, considered, and in most cases, respected — as a human. PEN is a great equalizer. There are no homeless or homed unless we say we are. We are not one happy family; like most families, we squabble. On any topic, no one can accuse PENners of agreeing fully. But we are communicating, and that is a start.

From this perspective, being present at the stakeholder table and being a part of the conversation is what matters most. End of article

 

About the authors

Jes A. Koepfler is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include values and design; sociotechnical ecosystems; human–centered information interaction; user experience research; applied research and evaluation; homelessness; cultural heritage; and, non–profits.
Direct comments to: koepfler [at] umd [dot] edu

Christopher Mascaro is a Ph.D. candidate in the iSchool at Drexel University. His research interests include small group formation and information exchange using technology as applied to a variety of contexts including business, politics, and purely social interaction.
E–mail: cmm478 [at] drexel [dot] edu

Paul T. Jaeger is an Associate Professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland and Co–Director of the Information Policy and Access Center. His research interests include information law and policy, access for underserved populations, disability and accessibility, information and human rights, e–government, and social theory of information.
E–mail: pjaeger [at] umd [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank T. Clay Templeton for his help with early thematic analysis of the news articles and Katie Shilton for her assistance reviewing early drafts of this work.

 

Notes

1. Mackenzie, 2011.

2. Mackenzie, 2011, p. 5.

3. Mackenzie, 2011.

4. Saltzman and Curtis, 1994.

5. Will, 1993.

6. Woelfer, et al., 2011.

7. Eyrich–Garg, 2010.

8. Eyrich–Garg, 2011.

9. Woelfer, et al., 2011.

10. Le Dantec and Edwards, 2008.

11. Van Tassel, 1996.

12. Invisible People, www.invisiblepeople.tv.

13. STREATS, www.streats.tv.

14. Project 50/50, http://www.project-5050.com/main/.

15. We Are Visible, www.wearevisible.com.

16. 16. @home, http://www.athomedocumentary.org/index.html.

17. Malcolm, 2009.

18. Koepfler and Fleischmann, 2012.

19. Koepfler, et al., 2013.

20. Homeless Hotspots, http://homelesshotspots.org.

21. Front Steps Shelter, http://frontsteps.org.

22. Churchill, 2010.

23. Carmody, 2012.

24. Coyle, 2012.

25. Anonymous, Huffington Post, 2012.

26. Pinchefsky, 2012.

27. Hession, 2012.

28. Underheard in New York, www.underheardinny.com.

29. Sniderman, 2011.

30. NYC Rescue Mission, http://nycrescue.org.

31. Shibata, 2009, p. 252.

32. Lewis, 2006, p. 374.

33. Blommaert and Bulcaen, 2000.

34. Luke, 1995/1996.

35. Price, 1999.

36. Rogers, et al., 2005.

37. Thomas, 2004.

38. Habermas, 1989.

39. Burnett and Jaeger, 2008.

40. Burnett, et al., 2008.

41. Jaeger and Burnett, 2010.

42. Black, et al., 2012.

43. Braun and Clark, 2006.

44. Links have been removed from direct quotations in the findings section because shortened links commonly found in Twitter discourse do not remain active on Twitter for long and will likely be broken by time of publication.

45. Radia, 2012.

46. Quoted in Carmody, 2012.

47. Gallagher, 2012.

48. Mitchell, 2012.

49. Carmody, 2012.

50. Fisher and Wright, 2011.

51. Kling, 1996.

52. Lindamood and Kalyanaraman, 2012.

53. National Coalition for Homelessness, 2012.

54. Horvath, 2012.

55. Dickinson, 2013.

56. Haraway, 1988.

57. Star, 1999, p. 380.

58. Star, 1999.

59. Mubi Brighenti, 2010.

60. Mubi Brighenti, 2010, p. 329.

61. Phelan, et al., 1997.

62. Merton and Bateman, 2007.

63. Quoted in Van Tassel, 1996, p. 549.

64. Jaeger, 2012.

65. Jaeger, Bertot, Thompson, Katz, and DeCoster, 2012.

66. Reid, 2013.

67. Westley and Antadze, 2010.

68. Kumar, 1991.

69. Kling, 1996, p. 55.

70. Bertot, et al., 2013.

71. Jaeger, Taylor, Bertot, Perkins, and Wahl, 2012.

72. Taylor, et al., in press.

73. 73. Baltimarket, www.baltimarket.org.

74. Kim, 2013.

75. Van Tassel, 1996.

 

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Editorial history

Received 28 August 2013; accepted 17 February 2014.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Homelessness, wirelessness, and (in)visibility: Critical reflections on the Homeless Hotspots Project and the ensuing online discourse
by Jes A. Koepfler, Christopher Mascaro, and Paul T. Jaeger.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 3 - 3 March 2014
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4846/3842
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i3.4846.





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