The New Republic for some reason features an extended but thin sour sneer at Kickstarter in its December 6 issue. That reason might be that magazine's founding dedication to elite power and control, nicely unwound by former Reason editor Virginia Postrel in these pages back in 1997.
Kickstarter is the web site that allows people trying to do interesting things to fundraise via the Web. Specific financial goals are set, and premiums often offered for certain pledge levels. The pledges only go into effect if the total amount needed to actually make the thing happen are raised.
Greg Beato noted Kickstarter's wonders in Reason's July issue, and back in February Katherine Mangu-Ward noted that in its decentralized, people-power, no-one-forced-to-contribute way, Kickstarter was funding creativity more than the federal government's National Endowment for the Arts. (And going on nearly twice as much.)
Alas, that very decentralized, people-power, no-one-forced-to-contribute thing seems to be griping the gut of Noreen Malone of the New Republic.
Her piece is "The False Promise of Kickstarter," which might lead one to think that it was a fraud, that it did not in fact provide a means for creators to find and raise money. Since it most assuredly does, with an impressive success rate of fully funded projects, that can't be her complaint. What is?
It's a little hard to make sense of, but it seems to go something like this: a service that works by spreading ideas though the web (the more widely linked your plea is, the better the chances it will raise the money, other things being equal) is too undiverse and too tech-nerdy. Unlike, say, taking the time to write and publish a long feature article complaining about Kickstarter. As I'm sure has been pointed out, number one on any Stuff White People Like comedy list should be Stuff White People Like.
In the closest thing to an actual complaint, she notes that especially when the project raises so much money that the creators of the thing have to deliver at a quantity larger than they anticipated, many projects deliver late.
Then, the kicker, the heart of a heartless article, the meat of a meatless complaint:
But the problem isn't only on the supply side. How much of the demand is real, and how much is peer pressure or idle boredom, can be tough to sort out. For the vast majority of Kickstarter campaigns, much of the money comes from friends and friends of friends of friends. There is an enormous amount of social pressure applied: Entreaties are often made via personal e-mails….
Backing a small-scale Kickstarter campaign triggers the same emotional response that giving does: You have opened your pocket with little expectation of personal benefit. You have imagined yourself as a two-bit modern Medici, furthering the cause of Art or Innovation in society….
Sure, yes, yep, and "feature not bug" for anyone who isn't just inclined to frown pettily at the Golden Age of Mendicity that the web and crowdsourcing have allowed. (Not a week goes by that some, generally successful, rent party-type call doesn't go out from my extended circle of pals and acquaintances about helping with some sudden financial problem, and great!). Yes, there are a lot of different motives one might have to give to a Kickstarter project, and so what? Value is subjective, and why not celebrate motives beyond the purely pecuniary?
But it's a problem! (Without a problem, Ms. Malone would have a problem selling her stupid article.)
Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler told Reuters, this market ambivalence is woven into the very fabric of the service. "Of all the products launched on Kickstarter, very, very few would be a good investment. … However, if the bar is lower—to simply, do I want this to exist?—suddenly over half the things have a life." The problem with posing the question that way—do I want this to exist?—is that it creates a relationship between consumer and merchant that is more like that of the one between donor and nonprofit.
Are you alarmed yet? "The problem with posing the question that way"? Problem?
Kickstarter has spawned a number of copycats in arenas where the model becomes a whole lot more ethically complicated. There are now Kickstarter-esque platforms for equity investing, scientific research, and even local municipal improvements. Take, for instance,Citizinvestor, a new service that allows municipalities (big ones, like Philadelphia, Chicago, Tampa) to put forth public works languishing at the back of the queue so interested parties can donate a few dollars that might get them over the financial hump….
What in the flying hell is "ethically complicated" about allowing people to more easily express and finance their preference, in governance or markets?
Finally, her one sentence attempt to establish something like a point of public interest in attacking Kickstarter:
These are spheres in which a certain amount of oversight and accountability—and attention to equitable distribution of resources—are rather important.
Yeah, maybe. Oversight, accountability, the love song of the gatekeeper rings loudly here. But nothing about Kickstarter as it exists, or even "Citizeninvestor" which presumably is not completely replacing all municipal decisionmaking about spending (though something like it probably should), touches on that point at all, at all.
The sphere of artmaking and art financing is the ideal realm for something like Kickstarter, and it's a great thing for all involved it came along. (Except I guess for bitter folk who feel compelled by social-network pressure to pledge to things they don't really want to. But demonstrated preference, friends.)
The subtitle of Malone's piece is more telling: "Fund me, I'm useless." Yup, except for the people choosing to try to do it, and to try to finance it. That's the kind of use that only matters to individuals and the cause of making the world a wilder, richer, and more interesting place, and of no use to the House that Herbert Croly Built.
(By the by, I've been tangentially part of two projects that sought very big Kickstarter pledges, and neither raised enough. I've given to probably a dozen Kickstarter projects, most of which as I recall did raise enough.)
I have in the past enjoyed writing about people who just love gatekeeping wailing and gnashing their teeth over the development of new techniques to get around them in the previous decade, when it was editors for big NY publishers bitching about XLibris, essentially an electronic vanity press. (This was written under my pseudonym of "Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk" for the late and yes lamented humor/commentary site "Suck.com"). I concluded, and this applies as well to Malone without even the excuse of protecting her own phoney-baloney job:
As a service sought out, gatekeeping is noble enough. As an impermeable barrier, it's a cultural crime. Only those afraid of what's out there, or convinced they can't defend themselves, crave impregnable gatekeepers. The rest of us won't begrudge authors a cheap bound copy of their work, and will occasionally enjoy dipping into postmodernity's dizzying bounty.
Xlibris multiplies options, in a way that those who don't care can easily ignore. Xlibris and its ilk destroy nothing. They just give us more, more than we could have hoped for or feared. Ever since Gutenberg, technology has made it too easy for pikers to aspire to literary status in the eyes of old world snobs. Better to stand with that great American Huey Long: Every Man an Author.
Substitute filmmaker, artist, maker, showman, whatever of the gajillion things Kickstarter facilitates financing for, and the lesson still holds, and always will.