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Worthy Cause, Meet Bad Taste

It may not be a good sign when your plan to be the next Mark Zuckerberg gets you compared to the creators of Bumfights.

Jin Pan, a student at MIT, finds himself in just such a situation after his new Web site, HoboJacket, was denounced on Reddit, Ycombinator, and across the Internet. The site, which he built himself, intends to capitalize on college rivalries by using students’ competitiveness to clothe the homeless with rival-branded gear.

“This idea originated as a prank,” writes Mr. Pan. “I would joke with friends that if I ever got rich, I would donate tons of Caltech jackets to the unfortunate because it’ll show the true value of a Caltech degree. As a good elicitor of laughs from many well-meaning friends, it was one of the more frequently recycled jokes in my arsenal.”

Just as any programmer might do, he decided to turn that bad joke into a Web site with a database server and a PayPal interface. Students or alumni can enter the name of their own college, the rival institution whose jackets they’d like to purchase and donate, and their credit-card information. The site even includes a leader board, for the ultracompetitive.

Mr. Pan’s site quickly became a target of indignation, as critics accused him of using the homeless as tools, sneering at the plight of the impoverished, and general immaturity. A user named bradleyland on Ycombinator said it most succinctly: “Clothing a homeless individual with a rival’s garb as a means to insult one’s rival reinforces the idea that it is ok to use a homeless person as an instrument of insult. It is not. It is dehumanizing.” Others mocked Mr. Pan for defending his site by citing Mark Zuckerberg’s “Hot or Not” Web site, his own sleep deprivation, and even theoretical physics:

Mr. Pan has also said that the idea came from “gamification,” a technique that turns everyday tasks into games in order to nudge users into performing certain behaviors. (Ever used a workout app that awarded you points for exercising? That’s gamification.) Mr. Pan writes,we are not giving the homeless jackets because we want to laugh at them. We are trying to put a spin on the gamification of charity to see if we can get people to do more than they would otherwise.

It’s possible that he might be right about that last part. His self-reported leader board claims that more than 800 jackets have been donated. At $10 a pop, that’s more than $8,000 that may not have been donated otherwise, and he says he’s considering offering the money to a nonprofit group, rather than buying the jackets as planned.

A late-breaking bout of conscience? Perhaps. A reaction to the blowback his project received? Maybe.

Either way, the real joke might be on his own institution: The university that’s most frequently chosen as a rival, as of Wednesday morning, is—you guessed it—MIT. According to the stats, none of the donations came from Caltech.

[Update, November 29, 11:20 am: Jin Pan took down HoboJacket, replacing the donation interface with a short apology. He said, "The site's so-called edgy manner was designed to spread quickly, but I realize now that it also allowed my insensitivity to go viral. I wish I could rewind time to Sunday and reverse the decision to take the site live." Boston Magazine reports that he is also contacting the donors and offering to refund their money, or direct it to an alternative charity.]

Image from lululemon athletica

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