Natural disasters create a surge of helplessness in those not directly affected. Many people want to do something concrete, something more than a quick donation or a Like on Facebook. Nowadays this desire to help can be harnessed by social media, but it’s easy to waste the time and goodwill of volunteers if this isn’t managed well.
On October 5th 2011, the cargo ship Rena ran aground on a reef near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, a couple of hour’s drive from Auckland, New Zealand. It leaked 350 tonnes of fuel oil, which blanketed nearby beaches and killed or injured dozens of seabirds and seals, among them Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor), the most common penguin species around New Zealand coasts. Thousands of volunteers went to Tauranga to help shovel oil-soaked sand, and veterinary specialists set up a facility for cleaning oil-soaked birds. The Rena spill was and is a national tragedy, and all around the country people wanted to know what they could do to help.
Back in 2000 a similar oil spill near Phillip Island, Australia, left many Blue Penguins oil-covered, and a bird rescue team through trial and error developed a little knitted sweater (or jumper, in Australian) that would keep penguins warm and stop them from preening oily feathers. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust organised a knitting drive, hoping volunteers could supply them with 100 or so. As often happens with unmanaged email requests, it was wildly over-successful: they ended up with 15,000. The Trust page now politely requests people stop sending them jumpers; they’re supposedly filling a small room somewhere waiting for a gigantic oil spill, but are actually being sold at the Phillip Island gift shop, adorning toy penguins.
(FUN FACT FOR JOURNALISTS: Tauranga is in New Zealand, Phillip Island is in Australia. NZ and Australia are different countries, 1300 miles apart—the same as the distance from Canada to Mexico. You would think there’d be no need to point this out, but…)
Six days after the Rena grounded, in a discussion forum on the knitting website Ravelry, one keen knitter posted the Australian penguin sweater pattern, and said a friend’s daughter was in contact with the bird rescue crew, and there were Blue Penguins in need of sweaters. A Napier wool shop, Skeinz, volunteered to receive completed sweaters and send them on to Tauranga. Having seen what happened in Australia, I created a Ravelry project page that anyone knitting could link to, partly to make a gallery of completed sweaters, but mostly so there was a single place that allowed control over the message and would let me notify knitters when enough had been received.
My concern from the start was that we had no direct link to actual rescue workers: our only contact was the coordinator’s friend’s daughter, who was “in touch with” the veterinarians (note the similarity to that classic “friend-of-a-friend” setup we see in urban legends), and all communication was by two-stage mail, channeled through Skeinz in Napier. The coordinator at Skeinz then went on holiday, and the fun began.
First the pattern was linked to by multiple different forums in Ravelry, and knitters from all over the world got busy. Then it started being emailed to knitters not on the network. Most critically, the call to action, full pattern, and mailing address were posted in the Skeinz online newsletter, where anyone could link to it, up to October 25th. And link to it they did: knitting blogs, conservation websites, the popular craft site Etsy, the Huffington Post, and the world’s most-read blog, BoingBoing.
Hundreds of sweaters started flooding in, far outnumbering the rescued penguins. Skeinz was contacted by local and international media wanting pictures of cute penguins in sweaters. The organiser’s holiday coincided with a long weekend, so there was another delay in shutting down the campaign. But by now the horse had bolted, as the online newsletter content remained unchanged and was easy enough to copy and paste into emails; the penguin sweaters had gone viral.
And by now it turned out that none—not one—of the sweaters was actually used. The rescued penguins were being kept in warm water and recovering under heat lamps, much less stressful for wild birds than dressing them in a cute knitted sweater. Nobody seems to have asked the vets and rescue workers if they in fact needed penguin sweaters, and those interviewed seemed a bit surprised by the international knitting effort.
The end result is that “hundreds, possibly thousands” of unneeded sweaters will continue arriving at Skeinz. The organiser claimed, “the sweaters were a way for people to help, even if they weren’t going to be used.” Apparently the sweaters will be sent to a conservation group in Australia, though with crates of penguin jumpers already in storage it’s hard to see when they’ll ever be needed; some might be sold for unspecified fund-raising purposes. It all seems like rather a poor use of thousands of hours of volunteer effort: the knitters would have made more of a difference supplying gloves and hats for the volunteer clean-up crew, or donating a few dollars to Greenpeace, or writing to their MP with their views on maritime safety or offshore oil drilling. Knitters didn’t sign up to make sweaters for sale; they made them for penguins.
So history repeats itself in the Great Penguin Sweater Call To Arms, and the result is once again squandered effort and goodwill. This is an example of how not to use social media to rally the troops; how should a similar effort be organised in the future? Enlisting the crafting skills of volunteers really can work: see for example the knitting drives of WWII, the Knitted Periodic Table project, or the campaign to knit a cosy for the shipping containers of Christchurch. Here’s what I’d do, if we had a chance to rerun the project:
- Set up a dedicated website: say, using a WordPress blog (these can be updated from any computer) or even a Facebook fan page. Registering a domain name would help its credibility and make for more concise links.
- Make sure all URLs in tweets, emails, and forum postings point to that top-level domain name (e.g. www.volunteerproject.org), not an individual page with a knitting pattern (www.volunteerproject.org/whattoknit.html).
- Get the visible support of the group being helped: say, a short message and photo from them on the home page. In this case, perhaps show a sweater actually being worn by an actual rescued Tauranga penguin. Most importantly, the group being helped should also have editing privileges for the site, so they can correct mistakes and add a news release as soon as any target is reached.
- Date-stamp everything, especially any page that might be linked to or emailed out of context. Add day-to-day updates on targets: the number of rescued birds, how many sweaters received, and so on, so volunteers can judge whether their effort is still needed.
- Keep any pattern or instructions from being emailed. Make the instructional text hard to copy and paste by embedding pictures and CSS styles, so it’s more convenient for a supporter to just pass on the page URL (write out the URL on the page itself and tell them to only mail this). Block search engine spiders so the pattern won’t be indexed (and cached) by Google, only the home page. The goal is to have the pattern existing in just one place, on that web page.
- Put the mailing instructions on a different page from the pattern, preferably the main page. Make sure this has a press kit link and instructions for media, in case the whole thing goes viral.
- And when the target is reached, put a big THANK YOU on the home page, post a gallery of the finished project (say, happy penguins in their sweaters), and… take the pattern down.
UPDATE, 7 March 2014: The Phillip Island Penguin Foundation have changed their tune, and put out a new call for more sweaters, with predictably huge amounts of media coverage. They strongly imply in their advertising that this will save oil-soaked penguins (although there’s been no oil spill since 2001). If you read the fine print, you find out the sweaters will actually be sold in the gift shop. I guess “knit sweaters for us to sell in our gift shop” is not the sort of thing that goes viral.
UPDATED UPDATE, 8 March 2014: The Penguin Foundation have added a paragraph (in a hurry, I presume, given it’s in a different font, with typos) to clarify they don’t need jumpers for actual penguins, and hey, isn’t this a great opportunity to work on your knitting skills! But all the media outlets and Facebook shares and retweets still seem convinced the jumpers are for saving oily penguins.