The False Promise of Kickstarter
ONE OF THE few bright spots on the blighted economic landscape of the past few years has been the emergence of a new, efficient method for the procurement of capital. Crowdfunding, as it’s called, allows would-be artists or entrepreneurs to put out a plea for seed money; only if their goal amount is raised do they actually get the cash in hand. The pinup girl for the movement—adored by the tech community, starving artists in Bushwick, and cubicle-dwellers with spare cash who want to be part of something more interesting than pushing endless Excel files—is Kickstarter, the three-year-old website that has done crowdfunding better than anyone else.
Kickstarter is now on track to funnel out nearly twice as much money as the National Endowment for the Arts; almost $1 million is pledged on the site each day, according to a spokesman. Its successes include the $10 million raised for the Pebble watch, which connects owners’ smartphones with a wristwatch; $8.5 million raised for Ouya, a video-game console; and nearly $300,000 raised for Flint and Tinder, American-made men’s underwear. This year, the filmmaker Charlie Kaufman and TV auteur Dan Harmon, frustrated with the creative constrictions inherent to working with studios, turned to Kickstarter to fund their latest project. It felt like a cultural arrival of sorts. For the site’s fans, it was a moment to crow: That was the old, bureaucratic system of patronage. This is the new, populist one.
Those Kickstarter fans are legion. This year, Fast Company named the site on its list of the 50 Most Innovative Companies. It has succeeded, wrote Rob Walker in The New York Times, because “[t]hey champion the underdog—but in particular the underdog who self-markets with aplomb.” Chris Anderson, outgoing editor of Wired, told me, “Kickstarter is the financial engine for the entrepreneurship that’s driving the maker movement”—the term he uses for innovative DIY culture. “It builds community around the project that turns people from [just] customers into evangelists for the project.” And into evangelists for the new economy, as embodied by the site. Take a closer look at Kickstarter, though, and the showcase for the new economy turns out to be a pretty good argument for the old economy.