Is Kickstarter a Social Minefield?


[Originally published on, 7 Dec 2012]

Noreen Malone, a writer for The New Republic, doesn’t like what Kickstarter is doing. In her recent essay “The False Promise of Kickstarter,” she starts off by raising the case that donation crowdfunding is a “bright spot” in the current economic landscape and a more democratic way of supporting creative work. Then she attacks it by noting that crowdfunding favors projects that have strong online appeal, that some of the projects are silly, and that some projects fail to deliver. I don’t think Kickstarter fans disagree with any of these points. But should people be prevented from spending money on silly things, on Kickstarter or elsewhere?

Finally, Malone arrives at and develops what seems to be her deeper point: that the demand for donating to Kickstarter projects is not “real,” but is instead due to “peer pressure or idle boredom.” She problematizes the fact that Kickstarter “creates a relationship between consumer and merchant that is more like that of the one between donor and nonprofit.” And what’s worse, she concludes, other sites that resemble Kickstarter are sprouting up like weeds, not just for gadgets and films, but for things like funding local municipal improvements.

Initially, I had trouble discerning what her essay-worthy objection was to all of this. Are we not consenting adults who can make our own judgments, and who got the memo that Kickstarter is not a store? But then her “peer pressure” line kept echoing in my head, along with her representation of a would-be donor’s inner monologue: “Sure, I can spare $20 to support my pal’s noise-rock band, especially since he’s going to see a list of people who kicked in to fund his CD and know if I’m not on it.”

For what it’s worth, a possible explanation came to mind: Maybe the author has great difficulty telling people No. Maybe she is scared that people might not like her anymore if she doesn’t donate, and this article rationalizes that anxiety. Seen through this lens, Kickstarter must indeed be a minefield of obligation, resentment, and possibly also jealousy. Bless Noreen’s sweet, trembling soul for taking such pains not to offend, I thought — I used to be more like that myself, so I think I understand. If you can’t explain to a friend of yours, I’m sorry, I want to be supportive, but I really can’t afford $20 right now, is there anything else I can do? (or even, Honestly, noise-rock isn’t my cup of tea), then you are trapped. The consumer-merchant relationship is more comfortable because the obligations are clear and finite.

Tangentially, I remembered the film Shattered Glass, based on the true story of another writer at The New Republic. The film portrays him as so incredibly eager to please his co-workers that he commits to memory fine details of their party food and drink preferences — and then he starts writing fabricated news stories.

Of course, I may be completely off-base with this assessment. I don’t know Noreen Malone, maybe she’s not like that at all, and maybe my reading of her says more about my own buttons being pressed by her essay than about her buttons being pressed by Kickstarter. But either way, come to think of it, it might be nice for Kickstarter and other platforms to include a gracious and face-saving way for people to declare their support without donating– something there on the page, as opposed to a “Like” somewhere else, that promises possible future involvement, just like a donation does. Perhaps a button at the top of the Pledges that says, “No donation, but let me know if there’s another way I can help.”