1 Million Tweetshirts - How to Fail Fast and With Scrutiny

Posted by ChristopherFabian on Apr 28, 2010

Or: Why the 1 Million T-Shirts x Twitter is the most important thing happening in Tech4Dev on Wednesday, 28 April 2010.

This is how realtime information will inform the future of development work.

A guy came up with an idea: "Let's collect 1 million t-shirts from the US and send them to Africa."  Ok.  It's an obviously bad idea.  It's probably a viral promotion for his own company.  It was covered by Mashable on Tuesday the 27th of April. None of this is revolutionary.

The guy social-mediazed his "idea".  That's how you go viral. "Hey, twitter, facebook, THE INTERNETS...let's collect 1 million t-shirts...." This is what one does, these days.  Make it public, and put it out there.  It's an idea for "aid" to "Africa."  Why not. It's got a hokey website that said (as of Wednesday, 28 April) "625 shirts collected." Inflamatory. engaging. Also not revolutionary.

Then a lot of people started talking about it, and really talking about it on Wednesday morning.  That's when it crossed my Twhreshold, anyway.  By the time I'm writing this (the afternoon of Wednesday the 28th at 3.18PM NY local time) there have been over 1500 tweets on the topic.

People from Africa started tweeting.  Then commentators in development started tweeting. Then the guy made a video response telling people not to tweet but to call him. More trolling, perhaps.  Then more tweets.

Development professionals, charity-minded folks, those interested in social media all responded.  There were uniformly negative tweets from everyone with any sense of the "African" context.  Mixed comments from those without.  The obligatory blog posts followed (at least 7 that I've counted) filled with personal experience on the issue, reasons it wouldn't work, and sources for what had come before. Also not revolutionary.

But look what happened. Within a day a development concept has been aired.  It has been discussed. Literature has been created around it. Sources cited. Histories referenced. A community built.

Real-time input, from "the field" has just become an actor in "aid/charity/development."  Voices from places which otherwise would never be represented spoke.  People in "the place" ("Africa") where the "aid" was going got to weigh in.  Experts who had not met each other were able to share experience, synthesize and create new literature on giving, aid, and development theory.

And it happened in a few hours.

I don't know what the t-shirt guy will do. I don't know what his motivations are. It doesn't really matter, because I have just seen the avalanche start.

Imagine if a large organization could put out its project plans in a way that was as appealing to comment on as this.

Imagine if there was the same transparancy and accountability of ideas in development.

Imagine if there was the same involvement of donors and implementers - and (watch out!) the beneficiaries of projects.

Imagine if we could actually ask people in the developing world what they thought of projects before we started them.

And most importantly, perhaps, imagine if we could fail quickly enough at the beginning of a project to not pour in the resources, ego, and time that sometimes gives otherwise bad ideas an unstoppable, zombie-like momentum.

But wait.  We can.  And it just happened, right in front of you.

This was an easy one, because it was such an obviously bad idea, and it was so clearly stated in its badness (because that's how you go viral).  There were no long whitepapers to hide behind, no complicated acronyms that denote "divide" more clearly than any physical wall.

It was also easy because it was one guy, and he posted a provocative video as a response, so he got people emotional.

Mobile phones are (soon to be) everywhere.  Connectivity is growing. Barriers of communication are dropping.  If we can learn from this how to publicly lay our ideas on the ground and invite a square-dance on them, we can more correctly link development activity, delivery and effect - and that link can be the person at the very end of the last mile. Let me call this the first crack in the very large iceberg of "charity."

Christopher Fabian is the co-lead of the UNICEF Innovation Team. He tweets at @unickf. His opinions here are his personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF.

Photo courtesy One Million Shirts website

1 Million Tweetshirts - How to Fail Fast and With Scrutiny data sheet 9912 Views
Countries: United States

You've obviously heard/seen

You've obviously heard/seen my phone number plastered around some blog posts, I'll answer my phone if I'm available. We're trying to setup a public conf call tomorrow at 12pm EDT. Check with @Katrinskaya on twitter for details.

I appreciate your comment much more than the original blog post. Again, I don't understand why the first reaction is to attack and offend, as opposed to help and lead.

  So if you started


So if you started something you were passionate about that you've been working on for 6 months and people started beating you down you wouldn't take it personally? Criticism of an idea (bad or good) I can take. Blatant ignorance and lack of respect I can not. 
People in this industry may be passionate and deal with a lot of "crappy ideas" but that doesn't mean you unload on someone trying to do something. Again, I'm not down on myself and I'm not going to cry myself to sleep. I just wish there was more respect with the way people were responding and speaking of my idea.


If any business ever

If any business ever listened the the 10%, they wouldn't be in business. Non-profit or not, I saw it in my other company 10-fold. 50% of people told me I was wrong, I've since proved them wrong 2 years in a row.

I'm not looking to prove anything with this project, I just want to DO something. People have opinions and I'm doing my homework about all of them.

Jason, I am very pleased in

Jason, I am very pleased in the way you have engaged with your critics.  I hope that, as other commentators have said, you will be able to draw on the collected experience of the twitter community to turn what is undoubtedly a dumb idea into something really good.

And you know, I really think you can do it.  I really do, you've a lot of talent.

Bad aid

The purported 90% of people wanting to help have no clue how actual development in Africa works and what bad aid is.  They just figure that throwing X or Y or Z at Africa will somehow make it better depsite half a century showing that it has not.  If you live here for any length of time, you understand these things and see that nearly all aid, no matter what the intentions is DOA.

And if you have 10% of people saying that your idea is bad, you need to listen to them and work with them until they are only 3% of the total voices.

Hi Jason, I too have been

Hi Jason, I too have been following the fallout today very closely. I think it's a great testament to the power of social media and people's generosity and desire to do something helpful that you've got a lot of supporters to the project - as you mentioned above.

The fact that you said the final outcome is yet to be decided is REALLY encouraging to hear - and could be truly revolutionary (as Chris is pointing out in this post). I saw elsewhere that you've asked for alternative suggestions. Maybe put the pause on the project (before your office gets flooded with shirts) and have a strategic brainstorm and relaunch with a new strategy and outcome?

If a project which is misguided can be put re-imagined and restructured early enough in the process so that it is sustainable and can actually be successful in helping a community - thanks to the input from experts AND people in country - that would be an incredible feat and example. And, I think, would inspire more people to participate. 

Please just don't get frustrated and stop taking it personally. This isn't about your project alone. The reaction you're getting has to do with a groundswell of efforts in recent years where we are trying to figure out how to do SUSTAINABLE development and effectively (not patronizingly) aid people in need.

A lot of people do nothing because they don't know what to do so that their actions/efforts are actually helpful and not harmful. Thanks to this public flurry, you now actually have the expertise to draw on and find out what can actually work. That's a huge asset and opportunity.

i think your 1 million shirts is

I think that what has happened around this idea is awesome.  and I mean that totally without sarcasm.  I also think that you have kicked off something that is a true first, and that, also, is awesome.   

Collecting stuff in the "developed world" and sending it to the "developing world" is a bad idea for a lot of reasons - and (again, without sarcasm) I'm happy to talk about it with you - I think there's been a lot of good stuff posted on various blogs in response to the idea about specific "why's" - maybe we can start that conversation on this public discussion and continue offline.

You did put yourself out there - and you engaged people in a way that I haven't seen in a while.  And you're taking the punches.  All that is good.  And we all get punched a lot anyway.  The thing which you're doing *now* which is potentially quite revolutionary is starting a discussion with the people doing the punching.  This is the beginning of a serious change.  Please recognize this.

By an large the 10% of people who were like: "whoah! Bad idea! Look out!" have experience in development, have lived in the places development is done, or are actually from those places... and they're right.

The 90% of people who were all: "Hey dude, let's send some stuff that people don't need to places where people already have that stuff, without asking them, or anyone, what we could actually do to make a substantive difference" --- those 90%...well intentioned definitely, well informed - nope.  They're just wrong.   But that's ok.  Now it's your job to help them get a better understanding of things too.  Surprise...that's just the way it works.

The idea's not dead in the water.  It was dead out of the water.  But the opportunity that you have is very much alive.  Take this, and the attention that you'll get from it - engage in a dialog - be *really* humble - and let it take shape based on real needs and you will have helped shape development thinking in a pretty substantive way. 

Look forward to the discussion - and thanks for making for a really dynamic twitter day.


Charity vs Development

Irresposible charity is about blind giving to make you feel better.  It has nothing to do with the recipient and what they want or need.  The 90% of people you describe are probably excited because you present them with a way to instantaneously feel better about themselves.

Responsible charity is entrusting your investment - whether its your skills or your money - to others (established groups with development practicioners) who know what they are doing.

Development is working with the recipients hand in hand to determine what they need and using your expertise to work together to come up with and implement a solution that is sustainable, desirable, feasible, and no longer needs your input after a (prefereably short) amount of time.

I think your post is

I think your post is interesting and appreciate you taking the time to write about me. What I find curious is that you believe the idea is dead in the water because a handful of people had negative things to say, while 90% of people are excited and wanting to help?

1MillionShirts could quite possibly be a bad idea in sending the shirts to Africa as a final outcome. That's yet to be decided and will be publicly discussed soon (between the charities I'm represented by and various experienced bloggers). At the end of the day I've put myself out there to try to make a difference, the majority of people do nothing.