The New York Times recently profiled fashion designers who have turned to Kickstarter for funding. Not surprisingly, the article traced the same pattern as buzzy content about hardware Kickstarter projects. Explain how developers in a given field adopt the Kickstarter platform, profile a few such developers. Profit. It seems like just about everyone these days—food trucks, documentary filmmakers, comic book artists, dancers—is jumping on the Kickstarter bus to happytown, including media outlets glad for another plug-and-chug post. As usual, I have a different question though: what isn’t Kickstarter funding? I decided to investigate.
Kickstarter organizes its projects into the following categories: art, comics, dance, design, fashion, film & video, food, games, music, photography, publishing, technology, and theater. Kickstarter also lists the following guidelines: 1) “funding for projects only” (must have a “clear goal,” must be completable, must have a product, is not open-ended, 2) “projects must fit Kickstarter’s categories,” 3)”no charity or cause funding,” and 4) “no ‘fund my life’ projects. The following are prohibited—warning: this is a long list: alcohol (prohibited as a reward), automotive products, baby products, bath and beauty products, contests, cosmetics, coupons, discounts, and cash-value gift cards, drugs, drug-like substances, drug paraphernalia, tobacco, “etc,” electronic surveillance equipment, energy drinks, exercise and fitness products, financial incentives, firearms, weapons, and knives, health and personal care products, heating and cooling products, home improvement products, informercial or As-Seen-on-TV type products, items not directly produced by the project or its creator, medical and safety-related products, multilevel marketing and pyramid programs, nutritional supplements, offensive material, pet supplies, pornographic material, projects endorsing or opposing a political candidate, projects promoting or glorifying acts of violence, projects using Kickstarter simply to sell existing inventory, raffles, lotteries, and sweepstakes, real estate, self-help books, DVDs, CDs, “etc.”
Clearly, most of the prohibited projects are verboten for liability or legal reasons. Nevertheless, the combination of a long, long list of foreclosed possibilities and directive 2), bolded, the demand that projects fit within Kickstarter categories, create an interesting habitat for innovators. Kickstarter isn’t funding A LOT, but it’s also directing innovation into certain channels.
In effect, Kickstarter is a lab for technology, arts, and culture innovation. I don’t mean to rain on the Kickstarter parade, proverbially, but I do want to pressure the consequences of the Kickstarter innovation paradigm. What kind of people use Kickstarter…and who is functionally prevented from taking advantage of Kickstarter funding? What kinds of people are pouring money into Kickstarter projects, and in the process, selecting what kinds of projects are successful on Kickstarter? And what kind of aesthetic is promoted by the intersection of Kickstarter’s limiting factors? I definitely do not have answers to those questions—they would require extensive research, conducted to academic standards—but I do want their aggregate impact to be a suggestion: that Kickstarter is embedded in a peculiar and bounded socioeconomic demographic; that Kickstarter induces a convergence of innovation activity, not divergence, chaos, disruption, and novelty; that Kickstarter is aligned, implicitly, with a set of outmoded neoliberal political values; and that Kickstarter is a fundamentally hegemonic entity.
So please, do use Kickstarter for your artsy, hip, chic projects. But I think Kickstarter is ripe for disruption. If a rival is willing to assume certain liabilities and risk, they could easily outcompete the exclusive Kickstarter community.