Was it the Wrong Choice of Words that Created An International Controversy at SxSW?

For writers, word choice is critical. In fiction it can make the difference between your audience loving your heroine, loathing your villain and mourning them both when the story ends, or putting your book to one side and flicking the telly on to catch the last ten minutes of NCIS.

In the marketing world, word choice is even more important. Different words with exactly the same meaning can provoke completely different feelings within the reader, making a great product with infinite potential seem unattractive and unnecessary, or, indeed, vice versa.

The same principle is used in the media to manipulate the feelings and opinions of the general public. As the old adage goes, there are more than two ways to skin a cat, and judging by the content of certain factions of the press, myriad ways to sensationalise non-events.

I began thinking about this today after reading a BBC news story about an ‘inventive’ scheme to raise awareness of homelessness in Austin, TX. Or, if you prefer, the exploitation of homeless people in order to provide Wi-Fi at this year’s SXSW festival.
Here’s the opening paragraph:

“An “experiment” which involved using homeless people as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots has attracted criticism, forcing the advertising agency behind it to defend itself.”

If you reacted to that the same way I did, your face will have formed a kind of emotional zoetrope comprised of shock, bafflement and incredulity before some sort of reason took hold. You’d not be alone either. When the news initially broke, Twitter users took to arms (tweets), declaring the scheme to be everything from a publicity stunt to a disgraceful abuse of the underclasses.

On closer inspection, though, there’s little difference between homeless people selling Wi-Fi and homeless people selling The Big Issue – a scheme which is almost unanimously thought to be helpful. So why the outcry? Perhaps it’s the use of the word ‘using’ in the above sentence, perhaps it’s something more.

It’s partly the image the idea invokes. The thought of those who have nothing providing a service to those who demand constant use of their smartphones – most of which probably cost enough to keep someone fed for a month – highlights the massive disconnect between these two strands of society; as clear an illustration of the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ as you are likely to find.

There’s also no shortage of irony in the thought process that the best way to attract attention to the issues of the homeless is to have them sell access to the internet – something used by millions to provide a distraction from the problems and realities of the world around us.

The second reason, and one that draws us back to our opening contention, is the way in which the scheme was reported. Here’s an excerpt from the press release issued by the company behind the scheme, BBH:

“This year in Austin, as you wonder [sic] between locations murmuring to your co-worker about how your connection sucks and you can’t download/stream/Tweet/Instagram/check-in, you’ll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing “Homeless Hotspot” t-shirts.”

The way the paragraph is structured, focusing on a spoilt sounding yuppie made cantankerous by an inability to use the internet as he walks the streets of Austin, seems to demand empathy with entirely the wrong character, which in a context of such contrasts is inevitably shocking.

In a sense you could say this is a good thing, as it causes people to think about the issues at hand and the priorities of modern society. But as a press release, it’s probably not the greatest sales tack.

When something like this lands in the lap of a reporter, they inevitably experience the same reaction you and I did, but knowing they have to attract readers will sensationalise the headline to the point where it reads something like this, from FOX News:

“Homeless Hotspots – Selling Souls for a bit of Corporate Karma”

And just like that, a well-intentioned idea becomes an international point of controversy.
Imagine, however, if that paragraph from the press release had started by focusing on the problems of the homeless rather than the problems of the hipster struggling to send a tweet. It would have provided an entirely different slant on the story, and a headline along these lines would have caused far less of an uproar:

“Homeless People Provided Job Opportunities Selling Wi-Fi at SXSW”

Compare this to Wired’s take on the story:

“Homeless people at SxSW turned into 4G hotspots”

In the first sentence, the homeless person is not themself being turned into a Wi-Fi hotspot, a phrasing that subtly insinuates ownership, dehumanisation and subservience (and possibly some sort of metamorphosis), but is instead being given an opportunity.
One participant, Clarence Jones – who was made homeless after losing his house in Hurricane Katrina – saw it exactly this way:

“Everyone thinks I’m getting the tought end of thestick, but I don’t feel that,” he said. “I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.”

Ultimately, whether you find yourself agreeing with the scheme or not, you may find your opinion has been skewed one way or the other by the way in which it was explained to you; the choice of words that were used in the piece you read. Which explains why, as I write this, the debate is still raging on.

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