Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tweets from the Streets: An Exercise in Awareness?


These days it seems that everyone is using social media—and thanks to the efforts of three interns at BBH, a TriBeCa-based advertising agency, everyone now includes four homeless men.

Underheard in New York is an amazing project aimed at connecting the public with the stories and lives of the homeless. BBH asked three of its interns to do "do something good—famously," and the trio came up with the idea to purchase prepaid cell phones and set up Twitter accounts for four homeless men—Danny, Derrick, Albert, and Carlos—who tweet their daily activities from waking up in a shelter to finding warmth on the subway to attending HRA interviews. The idea behind the project is to raise awareness about homelessness, and to encourage the general public to see homeless individuals as people, which is an issue that AiP has explored in terms of invisibility and homeless strategies for dealing with this response.

I think this is a really, really important project. And a lot of good has apparently come from it:
Instead of these four men being individuals we actively avoid in public, Twitter has become a space where we can interact "safely." The digital space gives these men a voice, but it also let's us gauge from afar whether they are people we would want to help by giving us a small sense of what they're daily lives are like. In a sense, Twitter helps validate them as potentially socially acceptable individuals. It may help that we aren't physically confronted with symbols of their homelessness in this space: for example, we don't have to smell them, or feel manipulated as they make rounds on the subway asking for change, or deal with their general dishevelment. These sorts of symbols send a terrifying message about the nature of homelessness to many. However, online, we can look past these immediate signs and deal with the challenges that they're facing, such as "Am I getting a bed tonight?", or  "I'm standing in the cold rain waiting for a storage facility to open at 7 in the morning because where else would I put my stuff?"

Underheard is somewhat similar to We Are Visible, another project aimed at creating an online community for the homeless that increases awareness about the spectrum of individuals who can be and are living on the streets. I think these sorts of projects can help in shifting perspectives about homeless people, and it makes it clear that it's easier to help individuals rather than organizations. It remains to be seen what will come of Steve Smith's intentions to help raise funds for NYC Rescue Mission, and it may indeed help mobilize support for these organizations, but I'm left wondering how far individual support can really go. Ultimately, the shelters remain the best means of accessing support for many homeless people. Are there ways they can incorporate campaigns like Underheard to help bolster support? Part of the issue is transparency regarding how funds are used, and who has access to support—often homeless women have a harder time accessing resources and support from shelters because they fear abuse and/or rape in these settings. (Interesting aside, all of the present Underheard participants are male—was that intentional?) 

I also have concerns about the novelty of this exercise. While it's certainly true that in the 21st-century, the homeless have a means of accessing digital technology through public services, at what point would these online voices become a part of the "digital noise"? As with any social media, a lot of the success depends on tapping people who are interested in what is being said. While these sorts of projects put people like Derrick in touch with folks who want to help, it also attracts as many people who are just following along for the sake of following along. I don't mean this in any way to diminish the successes of Underheard—and I want to reiterate that I think this is an important means of mobilizing both the homeless and the people who can offer support—but the homeless number more than just these four. How can we help those people too?

2 comments:

  1. Past a certain threshold, such efforts will just be noise.

    However, there certainly needs to be more awareness of homeless people. I believe that people generally don't understand what homeless people are doing, or how they got in their situation.

    Increasing public awareness would hopefully yield more support for programs to help the homeless - and a better understanding of the situation should yield more effective programs as well.

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  2. Hi Hasufin! Good to hear from you. I agree that in general, people don't truly understand the nuances of homelessness and the variety of stories that exist. So this is a fantastic way to help increase awareness in that regard, but I'm having a hard time seeing how programs that support the homeless might benefit. I think the issue for me is that social media helps connect individuals, and you have a better sense of that you're actually helping a person. There are issues of transparency surrounding these support organizations that may be hard to overcome on social media—even though, arguably, that is in fact why so many org's are turning to social channels.

    Recently in New York, the United Homeless Organization was revealed to be a fraud (http://gothamist.com/2010/06/25/united_homeless_organization_perman.php), and I think it really makes it harder for smaller shelters to gain public support. Hopefully, these sorts of exercises will ultimately change public perception and encourage more support, but this may need to happen relatively quickly or it will be lost to the digital noise.

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