There has been much discussion in the national media recently about whether Kickstarter is an appropriate forum for mega-buck seeking, celebrity-driven projects. There was much discussion about it last year as well, when the Veronica Mars campaign broke all records and was followed by one from Zach Braff.
So far, most of the discussion has centered around the use of Kickstarter (which was originally intended for smaller creative projects) as a fundraising tool by wealthy people who already have access to funding sources. Questions were also raised about the big campaigns dominating the feed to the detriment of smaller projects. The founders of Kickstarter countered that the big campaigns bring many new users to the site, and that these newbies then go on to donate to smaller projects. They posted an article to their blog pointing out that 63% of those who donated to the Veronica Mars and Zach Braff projects had never donated to Kickstarter before and stated that “thousands” of them went on to donate more than $400,000 to other projects, 43% of which went to smaller film and television campaigns.
However, we only have their word for this, and they do not provide a link to any studies to back up their statement. (I’m also automatically suspicious of statements that mix percentages with dollar amounts and whole numbers. It’s generally done for obfuscation.) It should also be pointed out that as Kickstarter receives 3% to 5% of all funds raised by campaigns on its site, these multi-million dollar campaigns must be like all their birthdays and Christmases rolled into one. The fact that they have so much to gain from the celebrity-driven campaigns naturally calls into question their defense of them.
These discussions race around the interwebs whenever a big campaign is launched, and fade away afterward. The subject has returned to the front pages again in the last few weeks as the result of the launch of a few more campaigns fronted by smiling celebrities, but will undoubtedly disappear until next time once the projects are funded.
Each time the discussions follow a similar path, raising the same issues. But a recent personal experience has made me realize that there other problems with these huge campaigns that are much more threatening to the whole concept of crowdfunding.
Campaigns that try to raise millions of dollars are usually run like businesses. There are a lot of people involved at all levels. There are frequently corporate backers. (Corporate backers beg the question of why they need to do a Kickstarter campaign at all, but we’ll let that one ride for the moment.) Once the number of people reach critical mass, you get to the point where the right hand is not necessarily aware of what the left hand is up to, and there are certain business practices in the corporate sector that employ hard ball tactics that, while they may be frowned upon, are nevertheless standard operating procedure.
I found this out the hard way recently, when I posted a brief comment on my Facebook page about the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of celebrity-driven Kickstarter campaigns. I have a little over 200 friends on Facebook, so my posts have a very small audience. But this time, someone projected my page to attendees of a large meeting. This was done without my knowledge or permission, but the meeting was about one of the very campaigns I had been writing about. Some of the attendees were corporate backers who were clients of my largest donor, who had (with the best will in the world) told them that he was supporting my campaign for The Gloaming.
It was at this point that something ugly happened. According to my donor, they phoned him and told him to rescind his donation or they would fire him and his company. As far as I am aware this threat was made without the knowledge of the people heading the campaign, who were appalled when I informed them of it. Happily, my donor did not comply.
The whole experience raises some serious concerns, however. Crowdfunding was initially founded as a way of helping people realize their creative dreams by “paying it forward.” The expectation was that you would raise money for your project, but also donate to others to help them realize their dreams. This social aspect was one of the best features about Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites. In the past year, I have donated to six other campaigns for projects as diverse as poetry books, comic books, and web series. It feels good to help other people. The idea that someone affiliated with one campaign might attempt to destroy another project simply because of an opinion that the creator expressed never occurred to me – or anyone else, I would imagine.
If hard-ball corporate practices become the norm in crowdfunding, it will quickly go the way of the dodo, because who would want to expose themselves to that kind of thing?. This would be a shame, because thus far it has enabled many people to produce wonderful products, artwork, books, and film, the vast majority of which might otherwise have never seen the light of day.
The ultimate answer to the question “Who is Kickstarter For?” is, of course, everyone. But both the big and small fish swimming in this particular pond should keep the words of the Church of Bill & Ted firmly in the forefront of their minds: “Be excellent to each other.”