To see how the highly decentralized world of social media could disrupt the hegemony of established taste-makers in music, design, or fashion, look no further than Kickstarter. Just like Wikipedia redefined the process of creating an encyclopedia, this poster child of the crowdfunding revolution could redefine how dreamers raise funds for their next gadget or film—and perhaps even beget a cultural renaissance.
All of this sounds beautiful in theory. Have a great idea for a new project? Simply sign up for Kickstarter and post a description (don't forget to make a glitzy video in support), set your fundraising target and the deadline, create a panoply of rewards tied to various contributions (for instance, $5 might get you the new CD, but $5,000 would also get you a dinner with the musician), and spread the word about the campaign. If you meet the fundraising target, Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut and the project goes ahead—if you don’t, no money changes hands. The platform is enjoying tremendous success: Earlier this year, one of its founders proclaimed—to some controversy—that in 2012 Kickstarter might distribute more money ($150 million) than the National Endowment for the Arts (its budget for the year is $146 million).
Such phenomenal success has attracted its fair share of criticisms. Some, like NPR, have bashed Kickstarter for being rather opaque about how it deals with projects that, once funded, provide few (or questionable) updates on their progress, face significant delays, or never deliver at all. Those aren't few: A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania looked at 47,000 Kickstarter projects and found that more than 75 percent deliver with delays. It's hard to say how many projects never deliver, as for Kickstarter “never” is a rather flexible term: Instead of acknowledging failure, many doomed projects simply drag on indefinitely, providing no updates and constantly postponing the launch date.
Delays are particularly common among projects that go viral and raise far more money than originally planned. Kickstarter has few incentives to safeguard such projects from their own viral success: The organization takes a cut from all money raised. And while Kickstarter expects that projects that don't deliver will eventually compensate their backers, it has no way to enforce such a policy.
As the projects advertised on Kickstarter move beyond entertainment and start tackling problems like urbanism and designing more livable cities, it's no longer enough to evaluate them solely in aesthetic and functional terms. For example, architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange has taken issue with the narrow, gadget-driven approach to solving complex urban problems that Kickstarer encourages. “You wouldn’t Kickstart a replacement bus line for Brooklyn, but you might Kickstart an app to tell you when the bus on another, less convenient line might come. You can’t Kickstart affordable housing, but the really cool tent for the discussion thereof,” wrote Lange in Design Observer. A community that is channeling its energy into crowdfunding a new urban park might be less prone to participate in the boring but consequential urban planning meetings at the local town hall.
All of these are substantial, potent criticisms, and the company has addressed at least some of them. But one of the assumptions that has mostly gone untested is that Kickstarter, with its great emancipatory potential to free creative artists from the shackles of the entertainment industry, would revitalize our culture, make it more diverse and less dependent on the conservative or greedy gatekeepers.
A new article in the latest issue of Media, Culture, and Society by the Danish academic Inge Ejbye Sørensen challenges this assumption and tells a more complex story about the impact of sites like Kickstarter on the culture industry. Sørensen studied how crowdfunding has affected documentary filmmaking in the United Kingdom. Britain stands out from other countries in that most of its documentaries are produced and fully funded by one of its four main broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5) that dictate the terms to the filmmaker. In this context, crowdfunding seems liberating, even revolutionary.
But, as Sørensen points out, this revolution has a few mitigating circumstances. First, Kickstarter might produce many new documentaries, but the odds are that those documentaries will be of a very particular kind (this critique also applies to other sites in this field like indiegogo.com, sponsume.com, crowdfunder.co.uk, pledgie.com). They are likely to be campaign and issue-driven films in the tradition of Super Size Me or An Inconvenient Truth. Their directors seek social change and tap into an online public that shares the documentary's activist agenda. A documentary exploring the causes of World War I probably stands to receive less—if any—online funding than a documentary exploring the causes of climate change.
Second, some films require significant startup costs (think drama-documentaries or history movies) or involve considerable legal risks that may be hard to price and account for. Say you are making a film that includes an undercover investigation of the oil industry. When you have the BBC's lawyers backing you up, you'll probably take many more risks than when you are relying on crowdfunding. But if Kickstarter is your platform of choice, you'll probably forgo venturing into the thorny legal issues altogether.
Both of these arguments show the danger of viewing the nimble and crowd-powered Kickstarter as an alternative (rather than a supplement!) to the behemoth that is the BBC. This might fit quite nicely with David Cameron's rhetoric of the “Big Society”—whereby individuals take on the roles formerly performed by public institutions—but it would be a mistake to treat the two approaches as producing the same content only through different means. Some content is just unlikely to get crowdfunded.
Most interestingly, Sørensen argues that there are few reasons to believe that Kickstarter and its brethren would weaken the dominance of TV broadcasters or film festivals—the cultural gatekeepers that crowdfunding seeks to circumvent. Those behind the documentaries that make it big online know how to leverage—rather than renounce—their status in the industry. They play up the fact that their director might have won an Oscar or that their producer has a solid track-record or that some TV broadcasters have already expressed interest in the film. This makes perfect sense: To assess a film's odds of success (because even crowdfunders don’t want to back a loser), a prospective funder would want to know what people in the know—who are part of the “industry” in one way or another—make of it. This is the point often missed by those hailing Kickstarter as a revolutionary project that could emancipate the artists: What defines potential “success” for their film is still very much defined by the industry heavyweights.
A recent Kickstarter initiative to raise funds for an indie film called Hotel Noir is a case in point. The project has successfully raised its target of $50,000. But what do they need the money for? To get the film distributed the old way—via cinemas. Here is how the film's director put it: “We need to put the movie in a theater in New York and LA because ideally, we want this movie not just on VOD and digital platforms but ALSO on good old-fashioned, popcorn-serving movie theaters. ... [W]e believe that a run in New York and LA—while FANTASTIC—could be the start of something bigger.” Obviously, the assumption here is that this “something bigger” would not just naturally happen on iTunes or YouTube.
As Sørensen notes, “although crowdfunding and crowd investment ventures ... are often perceived as level playing fields with no or low entry barriers, it is not only the material capital, but very much also the cultural capital that a project is able to accumulate which determines whether a film receives funding in the first place and, subsequently, reaches a significant audience.”
From this perspective, the power of the cultural gatekeepers might only get entrenched—albeit now it would function in a much more invisible and decentralized manner. The industry would still get the filmmakers to do what it wants—only now everyone would believe in self-empowerment, Oprah-style. Not a reason to oppose crowdfunding as such—only a reminder that we need to embrace it with a critical, perhaps even skeptical, mind.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.