Civic Kickstarters

If you’ve ever wished for a trebuchet that could fire erasers at the cubicles across the aisle–or wished you had the capital to mass produce the one you made in your garage, crowdfunding wants to talk to you. The basic idea behind crowdsourcing, as coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 article for WIRED, is that a large task can be accomplished by parceling it out among a “network of people in the form of an open call.” Crowdfunding modifies this idea by making the “large task” the production budget of a project. People who answer the call for participation in crowdfunding, called backers, contribute small to large amounts of money so the crowd can collectively raise the needed sum. Yet, “crowds” are, ironically, probably the wrong way to think about what’s happening with crowdfunding in general and its most visible offspring, Kickstarter.com.  Rather, Daren Brabham, in his definitive book Crowdsourcing, links crowdfunding success to online communities, calling them “fertile sources of innovation and genius.”

To understand how all of this works, we need to meet Kickstarter.  Kickstarter.com hosts projects and campaigns by independent creators, organizing project pitches and facilitating payments. They also lay down rules for what kinds of things can be pitched. Backing typically takes place over a month, overt charities are not allowed, and projects must have a finite endpoint: producing an iSomething accessory, printing a comic book, or turning an abandoned house in New Orleans into a ball pit. Many types of goals and endeavors are therefore collapsed together as projects. Project backers are kept appraised of a project’s progress, consulted for key decisions, and get an exclusive channel to communicate with project creators through the Kickstarter site. Project creators become more committed to a project that they know has generated interest. This process is closer to co-creation, where  fans and producers come together with interest and enthusiasm around a shared culture.

Although a Kickstarter campaign invitation is open to anyone browsing the web, it takes a relatively small number of people to make a project successful: all funds donated (minus Kickstarter’s 5% fee) go to the project creator rather than being funneled through a foundation, production company, PayPal, or other edifice of red tape.  Kickstarter’s “crowd,” then, is more often an activation of a community or subculture than a random assortment of people on the virtual street. Once we re-frame Kickstarter as invoking community interests rather than those of a faceless crowd, we can start to more clearly think through how crowdfunding works.

Kickstarter.com argues strongly that they are not a store and designs their policies and site to avoid the appearance of being an online storefront. These are obviously muddy waters, particularly as one of Kickstarter’s most notable additions to the traditional investment funding model is a system of “backer rewards.”  These rewards vary tremendously from material to immaterial to symbolic to somewhere in-between, and are set up by project creators to thank backers who contribute different tiers of money.  Rewards can become an unexpected burden for project creators, who deliver them later than expected over 75% the time. The best rewards are intrinsically linked to the project at hand, rather than being unrelated additions that create unnecessary work rather than deepening the excitement among backers and commitment by creators.

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

The one particularly dedicated fan who found $10,000 to donate to Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars Movie campaign, for example, will get a small speaking role in the film.  The more modest $10 donation level (selected by a less modest 8,423 people) receive a smaller reward (a digital copy of the film’s shooting script), but one that is still tied to the making of the movie.  The Veronica Mars campaign raised the most money of any project, ever, on Kickstarter and ignited both controversy and a lot of useful debate about the crowdfunding model. Today’s hotspot* features Civic Paths members diving into the fray and continuing the crowdfunding conversation.

One theme across posts is to follow the money:  Where is it coming from?  Where is it going?  How does it get there?  Why does it go?  Kickstarter projects complicate a simple dichotomy of commercial goals vs. creative endeavors, which were previously compartmentalized and personalized by such terms as “fans” and “producers.” According to Samantha Close, Kickstarter lays bare tensions that were always there in the entertainment industry but hidden by layers of production and distribution. Liana Gamber Thompson unpacks the implications of the new Donald Trump-branded site, Fund Anything. In true Trump style, it’s an extreme caricature of crowdfunding where anything goes, from medical procedures to a party for kids displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Its emergence provokes difficult questions about what gets funded and why in the larger crowdfunding world. Despite the prominence of project hosting sites like Kickstarter, all crowdfunding also requires the backing of a payment system.  As Lana Swartz reveals, these systems can have politics of their own, resulting in funds being frozen, reducing trust in crowdfunding platforms, and frustrating all participants.

Spreadability, discussion, and debate that bridges communities is another theme of interest. Unlike Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, where the number of jellybeans in a bowl can be most accurately estimated by taking an average across a large number of observers, there isn’t necessarily a best solution to find in crowdfunding. Rather, projects spark conversations and debates that take place elsewhere, often necessarily as Kickstarter has a fairly strict moderation policy on the site’s discussion sections that, for example, frowns on negative comments. Kevin Driscoll connects projects focusing on saving media with the politics of preservation, noting how debates about stuff are also difficult conversations about what should be archived, how, and by whom. Mike Ananny questions how crowdfunding is being incorporated into news.  It troubles existing dynamics of journalism that evolved to promote the spread of meaningful information at the same time as some have taken the cue to openly and explicitly focus on underserved communities. Benjamin Stokes makes the point that feelings of community affiliation are imagined as well as geographically-proximate.  Thus, online projects can also directly impact offline civic well-being. However, both Stokes and Ananny point out that there remain significant participation gaps on Kickstarter that affect how networks of privilege are connected to isolated communities, exacerbating the politics of financial support. Andrew Schrock provides examples of success stories in the spread of Hacker and Maker Spaces (HMSs) that act as centers for informal learning and creativity in geographically-situated communities. These democratically-run collective organizations buck the stereotype of HMSs being confined to western male geeks more interested in picking locks than helping others.

Kickstarter’s popularity has brought with it significant controversies and legitimate questions of who gets to contribute, how, to what, and who really benefits in the end. We hope that with careful consideration crowdfunding can be viewed as and truly become a way to connect backers and creators more closely over tables (made of robotically sculpted Zen sand or not) that are meaningful to all parties involved. Crowdfunded projects can drive awareness and, even in their imperfection, spark conversations about what needs doing across various communities. These emergent debates are vital for us to have in this moment of economic transition and cultural shift.

Enjoy, and we welcome your comments.

–Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close

[1] Why All Kickstarters are Civic Kickstarters, by Samantha Close

[2] Donald Trump and Dollar Bills: Crowdfunding for the Masses, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[3] Getting the Funds from the Crowd: The Politics of Payment Infrastructure, by Lana Swartz

[4] Crowdfunding an Archive: What’s Worth Saving and Who’s Gonna Pay for It?, by Kevin Driscoll

[5] Crowd-Funded Journalism and Dynamics of Visibility, by Mike Ananny

[6] Crowdfunding as Neighborhood Storytelling, by Benjamin Stokes

[7] Kickstarting a Hackerspace, by Andrew Schrock

 

* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.  Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.

HOT.SPOT 2: Introduction: Election Season Revisited

Hotspot Philosophy

These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.

Election Season Revisited (Inauguration Edition!)

Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
On the Separation of Cable and State
Obama’s Back Problems
Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
#firsttimevoters
Nobody 2012
Crowns and Badges

I spent the bulk of Monday tuning in to President Obama’s inauguration and the coverage around it. I admit, no matter who is being sworn in, I’m a sucker for the pageantry, the tradition, and the ceremony of the inauguration. I love seeing the National Mall brimming with enthusiastic, if freezing, faces and studying the interactions of the political rivals, celebrities, and past presidents assembled on the stage. On that day, the campaign season that got President Obama here seemed but a distant memory, the blood, sweat and tears of staffers and volunteers receding into footnotes as the President took his oath over not one, but two historic bibles.

But as President Obama gets back to work, Michelle Obama ships her ruby red inaugural gown off to the National Archives, and the blogosphere descends into a tedious debate over Beyonce’s lip-syncing, the excitement of the inauguration fades. The significance of President Obama’s achievement, however, does not. That’s why, for our second Civic Paths hotspot*, we’ve decided to return our focus to election season and to the range of people and stories that made it such an interesting one.

Kevin [1] and Sam [2] consider the relationship between politics and entertainment during election season, while Raffi [3] dissects some of President Obama’s more perplexing campaign slogans. Neta [4] seeks to understand how the traditional civic act of voting is tied to more self-expressive acts of engagement. Kjerstin [5] also looks at voters, documenting the infectious joy behind many of the tweets of #firsttimevoters, while I [6] examine a group of young non-voters and some of their favorite memes. Lastly, Ben [7] brings us back to where we started—the inauguration—with his account of the symbols and spectacle surrounding it.

We hope these posts will bring some of the more compelling stories from election season back into relief. We also hope this hotspot inspires others to bring their own stories into the conversation because so much has yet to be explored from the 2012 Presidential election and the sometimes wild and woolly days that preceded it.

– Liana Gamber Thompson

*For more on the hotspot philosophy, see our first hotspot on DIY culture.

[1] — Kevin Driscoll, Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
[2] — Sam Close, On the Separation of Cable and State
[3] — Raffi Sarkissian, Obama’s Back Problems
[4] — Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
[5] — Kjerstin Thorson, #firsttimevoters
[6] — Liana Gamber Thompson, Nobody 2012
[7] — Ben Stokes, Crowns and Badges

HOT.SPOT: The Dark Side(s) of DIY

Hotspot Philosophy

Welcome to the first of what we hope will be a series of Civic Paths “hotspots.” These collections of mini-blog posts are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.

Kicking it off: The Dark Side(s) of DIY

Don’t get me wrong: I love DIY. I muddled through the acquisition of basic sewing skills (thanks, Internet) to make a much-loved, crooked crib skirt for my daughter. My now-husband and I navigated the complexities of his immigration to the U.S. without hiring a lawyer, relying entirely on a discussion board about fiancée visas. Last year, we even put a fountain in our backyard (it was crooked, too).

In fact, I venture to say we all love DIY—and are genuinely excited about the role of new media technologies for amplifying the possibilities to make stuff, share stuff, spread stuff and generally participate in public life in a million different ways. But we also believe that DIY (or at least the mythology of DIY) has some dark sides.

Liana [1] and Sam [2] remind us that just because you do it yourself doesn’t mean that what you make will find an audience, or even that what you make will be any good. Kevin [3] considers the often-fraught relationship some DIY practitioners have to potentially dubious funding streams, and Lana [4] points out that the business of DIY can often be the selling of awful. Andrew [5] looks at what happens when crowdfunding goes awry and DIY communities try to mete out justice online. Rhea [6] also examines online communities taking matters into their own hands, highlighting the misunderstandings and mishaps that get created in the process.

Neta [7] and I [8] share an interest in the ways that beliefs about DIY political knowledge—everyone should be a fact checker! Figure out everything for yourself!—may shut down possibilities for political engagement. Mike [9] takes on the contradictions behind the idea of DIY news, and Raffi [10] wonders whether the race to make and spread the pithiest, funniest political nuggets is taking away from other forms of online political talk.

With these posts, we hope to collectively shed light on some of the difficulties that arise from an otherwise celebrated mode of creation and engagement. And while we all love DIY and its range of possibilities for civic life, we think pulling back the curtain to show when it goes wrong is an important step in figuring out how DIY can take us even further in the future.

– Kjerstin Thorson (Assistant Professor of Journalism)

[1] On Finding an Audience, or Why I’m Not a Rock Star, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[2] Producing Poop, by Sam Close

[3] Makerspaces and the Long, Weird History of DIY Hobbyists & Military Funding, by Kevin Driscoll

[4] Blogging and Boycotting in the “Schadenfreude Economy”, by Lana Swartz

[5] Gatekeepers of DIY?, by Andrew Schrock

[6] The Role of Japanese & English-language Online Communities in the Mitsuhiro Ichiki Incident, by Rhea Vichot

[7] DIY Citizenship & Kony 2012 Memes, by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

[8] Figure It Out for Yourself, by Kjerstin Thorson

[9] Why “DIY News” Could Be a Contradiction in Terms, by Mike Ananny

[10] Memed, Tumbled, & Tweeted, by Raffi Sarkissian