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
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1 Million Tweetshirts - How to Fail Fast and With Scrutiny data sheet 14269 Views
Countries: United States

Invite African t-shirt makers to the call!

Just a shout-out from one of the MANY t-shirt businesses in Africa saying we'd love an invite to the call. We can try to get Chid Liberty, who is starting a t-shirt factory in Monrovia, if I can track him down: this is right up his alley.

African businesses who have private sector knoweldge of local and regional economies that would be affected by a t-shirt dump should definitely be represented.

That would be great!

The call is wide open to whoever wants to join and we would love for Chid or others to call in and give his/her viewpoint/a local manufacturing angle.  We can supply local number for some places, and anyone can use skype to call in as well. Please let me know where you'd be calling from so we can help out in any way we can. Please spread the word, and thanks!

Katrin at mobileactive dot org

Maybe we need to focus on harmful ideas?

I agree with everyone that 1MS was a bad idea, and it's great that Jason is open to hear what people have to say. At the same time, I think we also need to acknowledge that many things we take for granted today - from airplanes to lightbulbs to the Web - were thought to be bad or stupid or impossible ideas by most people when they were first suggested. So while I am all for killing bad ideas early, the challenge is that people who have truly innovative ideas often need to keep going IN SPITE of what virtually everyone else may think about their project. I am not sure there is a solution to this, except maybe focusing on potentially harmful or wasteful ideas - such as 1MS - instead of simply "bad" ones, which may prove to be great later.

How soon should you put an idea out of its misery

Chris - congratulations on a great thought provoking post. I'm equally excited about the possibilities for real time technology to help improve the speed and inclusiveness of scrutiny of aid projects.

I suspect though that this example is a little exceptional in that for those of us who work in aid it is so obviously a bad idea that if was pretty easy for people to respond, and that the response was fairly unanimous.

One concern I have  with instant feedback is that some aid project innovations that have potential might get shouted down before they have a chance to get started. New ideas often seem foolish, and there is a fine line between getting inputs and killing an idea or changing it beyond recognition before it had a chance to be tested. (unless it is a really stupid idea of course ;-)

More encouraing for me is the ability to use social media to collect real time feedback on a pilot project as it is implemented, and to collect if from multiple sources, especially from beneficiaries. This has the potential to be able to monitor and adjust programmes much more quickly and transparently - and of course kill them more quickly if they are clearly not working. The one question this poses is how soon you should assess a new idea - the temptation with real-time feedback might be to declare failure too soon, when some good programmes can take a long time to get off the ground. This might well be preferable to zombie projects though which keep running even when they are going nowhere. Having realtime feedback can certainly make it harder to ignore things when they are going wrong.


I'm a bit confused by your statement:

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

Clearly we can do exactly that. It's called participatory development or consultation. I am well aware that it is practiced far too rarely (at least if you are mean anything more than tokenism), but the word "could" implies that it is hasn't been possible, which is a bit misleading really.

Nitpicking aside, I take your point that it is a very positive turn of events that these issues are actually being discussed outside the development field.

The key word here is "opportunity"

Reading through these comments (and the initial blog) I am honestly excited. The fact that folks are coming together to discuss how to produce an outcome that is actually helpful is extremely encouraging, and like the blog states, point to a huge opportunity for how we think about development, aid, charity, and so on.

Jason, like many have said, keep a thick skin, and really sieze this as the tremendous opportunity it is for you to help re-write the narrative that caused this backlash in the first place.

Open Round Table on Friday, April 30 on Aid, #1millionshirts

You are all cordially invited to participate in a round table call on Friday, April 30 at noon Eastern Time/US.  Log in online at http://readytalk.com / code 3979111. The call-in number is  866 740 1260 / 3979111. 

We will be talking with Jason Sadler of One Million Shirts, @talesfromthhood, @tmsruge, Christopher Fabian (@unickf) and Erica Kochi (@uniemk) of UNICEF, @penelopeinparis, Laura Seay (@texasinafrica), and anyone else who would like to join in about this project, sustainable and responsible aid work, and the questions that the #1millionshirt project has raised.  We excpect this to be a lively but respectful conversation in the spirit of this and other blog posts.  Please join us.

Suggested agenda for a 1-hour call:

  • Introductions of roundtable participants
  • Overview of 1 Million Shirts (Jason)/Goals and plan
  • Comments from the aid community and response
  • Discussion and questions/comments from the audience (submitted through Ready Talk online)
  • Closing remarks, Jason and Panelists

Moderator TBD but will be fair and straightforward. I have some people I am reaching out to. Suggestions welcome.

We thank Holly Ross at NTEN.org and ReadyTalk for making their system available for this call.

This is an example of an

This is an example of an incredibly bad idea failing fast, but I'm not sure there is any correlation to a moderately bad idea failing fast or a good idea being supported.  I think this is a just a case of an idea being so monumentally bad that people had to stop and take notice.  It's like a giant train wreck; I can't look away and just stop reading about it.

agreed in part

yes - but look at *how* fast it all happened... and how broadly.  That - to me - is the cool bit

and - it's tough because many "good ideas" seem more complicated...so it seems we couldn't possibly boil them down.  but maybe we can - because, usually, a complex good idea is just a lot of simple ideas squished together.

so - i agree  there is not necessarily a correlation between this (potently bad idea) and (the reaction today on twitter) and a (less clearly bad idea) and any (reaction that might come to it)...  but i bet there's a correlation between how clearly and publicly and openly one states one's "idea" and how much of a response one can get (and most importantly where that response can come from.) ...and that's something to look forward to.

i can't look away either...

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.

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