by Andrew Schrock
Kickstarter provides a platform for DIY artists, producers and manufacturers to finance creative and technical projects through “crowdfunding,” or receiving payments of varying size from a large number of individuals. It’s a meaningful way for fans to connect with producers, and is an increasingly viable route for projects that require money to get started. The story here is what happens when crowdfunding project met a community that disagreed with its existence and was bent on exacting their own version of DIY justice.
Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the blog and video series Feminist Frequency, started a Kickstarter project in May, 2012 to fund a video series called Tropes vs. Women which would examine female stereotypes in video game narratives. Gamers, likely mostly male, objected to Sarkeesian’s proposal and started harassing her repeatedly using social media. Her YouTube channels were flooded with misogynist responses, her picture on her Wikipedia paged was briefly replaced with pornography, and one gamer named Ben Spurr produced an app where you could physically beat up Sarkeesian’s face until it was bruised and bloodied.
The tactics this online community used to harass others were the same ones that others use to get their point across in a networked online environment: multiple media channels, remixed images, and discussion across online forums. This is the corollary of Ethan Zuckerman’s defense of LOLcats (aka the “cute cat theory”), which was that everyday uses of the Internet can help the rise of platforms that are ultimately useful to protesters for civic engagement. DIY is too diffuse a notion to have an inherently positive slant.
Much of the discussion revolved around evaluating who should is entitled to seek funding, which Kickstarter imagines to be primarily financial contributions. Only positive commentary is permitted in each project’s discussion area. Sarkeesian’s identity as a woman, feminist and outsider to the gaming community came under fire because gamers felt she would misunderstand or denigrate their favorite franchises. Restricting commentary on the crowdfunding site simply meant that rowdier discussion happened in the comments sections of news sites and YouTube videos. Crowd funding requires crowd discussion. As Henry Jenkins has pointed out, “do it ourselves” might be better described as “do it together,” within social networks and community contexts.
In response, Sarkeesian turned Kickstarter into a platform for extended discussions of pro-social issues of gender discrimination and online harassment. She made all the communications public, including anti-semetic/sexist comments on YouTube. Instead of trying to suppress her harassers, she left all their words up. This led to an outpouring of discussion and support; Jay Smooth offered this vlog critique of the gamers, stating that it was a “scorched earth” campaign before Anita had ever offered her critiques. Likely due to this publicity Anita’s Kickstarter received 6,967 donations for a total of $158,917.
It’s not fair to paint this as a typical Kickstarter or episode of harassment. Sarkeesian was in a unique position to field criticisms from the community she was critiquing and also allow her own work to be informed by the experience. In response to the harassment and higher-than-expected funding, she proposed creating materials for the classroom, and a new video on common defenses of sexist stereotypes. However it is difficult to call for all victims of harassment to leave comments public and confront harassers. Its pervasiveness comes at significant emotional, physical and even professional costs. The immediate response of people who are harassed may be to keep it a secret. These victims don’t tend to receive public support, financial or otherwise.
Moreover, the harassment snowballed to include those outside the immediate gaming community. Jay’s critique addressed how the few were not speaking for the whole, but “when [sexual harassment] happens on our corner of the Internet, we need to treat it like it matters.” Efforts such as Gamers Against Bigotry, which called on gamers to sign a pledge to speak up against harassment, The everyday conversations about and around games are perhaps more important at this stage. Men in a male-dominated industry can potentially have a big effect, as the case can be seen to reflect on the video game industry as a whole. The gaming community is perhaps best to talk about these issues in public and not sweep the issue under the rug.
The Sarkeesian case illustrates what happens when the slippery notion of online justice meets a crowdfunding website. The basics are quite old: what an individual feels is a worthy critique clashes with what another community sees as crossing a line. What is new is the way that the evaluation of DIY projects played out between individuals, communities and platforms. Debate and financial contribution cannot be neatly isolated and become intertwined, despite the intentions of Kickstarter to maintain a hermetically sealed, positive environment. Social media became increasingly necessary to access and link to the discussion, and communities retain a key role. Kickstarter, although it often sparks discussion, is a poor host to it.