Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spanging and street-selling in a smartphone world

Catchy idea via @wearevisible: a digital street paper. Homeless people would sell coupons for it, the same way they now sell printed newspapers. The Chicago paper StreetWise and the UK's Big Issue in the North are going in on a Kickstarter for a pilot project.

I think the idea has bugs but it's starting along a good and important path.

The coupon thing specifically? I don't know. It asks passers-by for more trust and effort than a simple printed newspaper does. The buyer has to accept that the code on the coupon is, as promised, (1) unique and not, for example, color-photocopied, and (2) really connected to the street magazine's Web site, not to some virus- or pr0n-ridden boondoggle. That, and the buyer has to make the effort to enter the code from the coupon to get the magazine.

I'm sure folks will keep working on the idea, though. The specifics aren't the interesting part.

What's interesting is, we're starting to see thought and variety put into discussion of things homeless people can do involving the digital-world dimensions of urban sidewalks.

Another creative idea, also with its problems, was the much-panned "Homeless Hotspots" promotion at SXSW in Austin. There, it's interesting to see that some people with actual outdoor-experience cred have been less irritated at the idea than armchair commentators like, um, me.

I'm one of the people who found the "Homeless Hotspots" dehumanizing at first glance. It reminded me of the painful T.H. White story about ants feeding from the gullets of walking "dumb-waiters." It seemed disgusting.

But then, as a neighbor here said later, the problem wasn't really with the deal involved, where an otherwise unemployed person walked around offering wireless service in exchange for tips. The problem was with the T-shirts that said, "I Am A Homeless Hotspot" -- as though the person inside the T-Shirt wasn't eligible for, or interested in, other labels than "homeless," or other functions than being at laptop-users' disposal.

An anonymous writer in the San Francisco Street Sheet wrote a good angry article defending the "Homeless Hotspots." The writer said they were a good idea, a way to help homeless people offer a service honorably for money instead of having to beg, and that critics were just being self-righteous on behalf of others who they didn't have a right to represent. I would have liked to link to that article online but the Street Sheet unfortunately doesn't have much of a Web presence. Which is too bad because there's good stuff in there that should get to rise above the hyperlocal level of a small-run local printed paper.

There's another online defense of the Homeless Hotspots over here at the Web site of "TheHomelessGirl." She's a good writer, housed since starting her blog, and now unfortunately tiring of blogging. She wrote recently, "...I sold my soul, my personality, who I am, to the internet and right now, the cost does not seem worth it." That part I definitely get.

TheHomelessGirl thinks the Homeless Hotspots were unpopular for reasons that reflect badly on the critics: she says the idea made homeless people too visible for disapproving middle-class people's comfort. She guesses the critics were basically either thinking, "get a job" or objecting that the "hotspot" idea didn't fit the established formulas for telling poor people how to live and restarting them on conventional paths. She writes that, while she herself was homeless, she "would have welcomed the chance" to work for the hotspot service.

In fact my own reaction and our neighbor's were on fairly different grounds. But, again, that's not the interesting part.

The interesting part is, good brains everywhere from doorways to boardrooms are thinking hard about opportunities for people living in extreme poverty that involve digital connectedness in public urban spaces.

I guess another example is that cell-phone shelter referral idea, which could seem cruelly absurd at first glance but really isn't, not at all, because lots of homeless people have cell phones if not smartphones. TheHomelessGirl also says that lots of homeless people she knows keep their valuable papers on thumb drives because paperwork is so hard to hang onto otherwise. Her blog even recommends a thumb drive collection site, ThumbsUpForHomelessPeople.

It will fascinating to see where this digital-inclusiveness idea is going. The Twitterers who are, a bit oleaginously, anxious to be good neighbors to the poor in downtown San Francisco -- will they take the digital connections further? (Will they maybe even help the Street Sheet get properly up to date online?)

Hoping anyway that it works out to a good deal at sidewalk level.

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