1. What experiences or concerns did you bring to bear on your decision to launch Hobo Jacket? Do you have a background in homelessness issues, fundraising, programming, social networking, etc.? Do your specific life experiences connect meaningfully with your decision?
As a kid, I’ve seen the unfortunate struggle for donations, and I’ve always felt bad not having much disposable income of my own to distribute. There are many people on the streets due to sheer bad luck, and it pains me to see adults with disposable income turning the other way when they pass them on the street. Society seems happy to have them out of sight and out of mind, and I wanted to create something that would bring the spotlight to them, namely by creating viral content.
Part of the reason to launch Hobo Jacket was try to crowd source charity in an untested way. I realize that there are some tried and true formulas out there for fundraising, but it’s not my nature to repeat what’s been beaten to death. I wanted to try to put a spin on traditional methods with my skillset to see if I can make a unique impact.
And another part of the reason is that I see so much energy and so little value as a consequence of college rivalries. Having worked concessions where people paid us $5 per bottle of tap water, it’s painfully clear that this enthusiasm can be put to a much greater purpose than cheering the scoring of 4 touchdowns. I wanted to funnel this intensity towards charity rather than some commercial venture.
2. What was it like while Hobo Jacket was live? How did you react to donations, communication with you, tweets, other attention?
Hobo Jacket went live Monday midnight, and I posted the link to two mailing lists, on facebook, and told a few friends about it. And initially, it was received mostly by my immediate friends who were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and mostly ignore the negative aspects of the project. Some donations came and I thought that we were going to reduce the amount of lives lost to hypothermia and slept easily that night.
And then it blew up overnight and quickly expanded out of control, hitting over 72 countries in 72 hours. That’s when radio stations and tv shows requested to interview us. And that’s when the hatemail flooded my inbox and when I was no longer capable of focusing in class.
I responded to every coherent email in my inbox as kindly as I could, and everyone I responded to left the conversation not unhappy with my objectives. But at a certain point, for the sake of my own mental health, I stopped routing emails to the hobojacket mailing list to my personal inbox.
3. How does your experience at MIT (or in other relevant cultural contexts) connect with Hobo Jacket?
At MIT, there’s this get shit done attitude that’s contagious. The culture here is that if you have an idea and you’re not working on it, you’re doing something wrong. The understanding that many people possess is that the status quo can be much further optimized and we should be actively making those optimizations.
From a quantitative perspective, Hobo Jacket makes sense. We’re saving lives by reducing instances of hypothermia. We’re taking money that would mostly fall into the hands of a few very wealthy executives (those $5 bottles of water are nearly all profit) and repurposing that towards those that need it more.
4. How did controversy, humor, and/or school pride play into Hobo Jacket? How do you assess these considerations now?
The controversy was that we were objectifying the homeless and laughing at their expense. At the same time, we’re raising money to save their lives.
People argued that what we were doing was wrong and that it was immoral to associate these people with failures. That we were insensitive elitists that scoffed at war veterans. That we deliberately took the time to deliberately shame those that had bad luck.
People argued that what we were doing was right and that homeless people are used to ridicule and don’t care where their donations came from so long as they were warm.
Not a single person publically tried to balance these two concerns and figure out if what we were doing had a net positive contribution or a net negative contribution to society. Looking at these two arguments along, I don’t know which side the scale tips.
But the amount of money we actually raised was marginal compared to the amount of media coverage. People are used to the homeless being out of mind, out of sight. We directed the spotlight to this issue, brought the unsexy topic of the homeless to multiple headlines, and encouraged people who wouldn’t have otherwise donated to donate. And I think that fact tips the scale towards a positive net impact, despite what all the negative press would like the typical reader to think.
5. How, if at all, has your work/life/thought changed since your experience with Hobo Jacket?
I felt rotten internally as a direct result of some hurtful emails so to help my conscience a bit, I am currently helping a more traditional nonprofit rennovate their website by writing a few thousand lines of code.
I left the experience wiser and as a better rounded person. I discovered that I had a knack for writing concise emails that strongly conveyed a key point. I discovered that I had more self restraint than I thought I had when I wrote back level headed emails to hatemail after hatemail. Most of all, I learned many lessons about working under significant amounts of stress.
7. Where do you go from here? What are your immediate and long-term plans (both with respect to upcoming projects and to your life/career)?
I am going to lie down low for a while and focus mainly on my computational biology research that very few people can object to. I also have a number of other projects I am concurrently working on, none which will generate the amount of controversy that Hobo Jacket did. I have any long term plans at the moment, but perhaps one of those projects will morph into a long term plan.
8. What was your experience with the media–both traditional and social?
Yellow journalism sucks. They will rip you apart to create a sensationalist article that is extremely one-sided for advertising revenue. They will take each and every word you write out of context and make you feel like crap internally. They obviously do not care about you enough to reach out to you for your side of the story.