I’ve mentioned my fascination with crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo several times. It’s a great tool that allows people to support the production of projects they want to see, whether that entails movies, web series, books, software, or something else. There are some widely-discussed limitations to crowdfunding. Not all creative workers will be equally good at marketing themselves or their work, leaving many worthwhile projects unfunded. That said, I’m not terribly conflicted about seeing these tools become a means for people like Zach Braff or James Franco to raise money for projects that might not get funded by a studio. Sure, they’ll have an advantage over a relatively unknown artist, but I’m not convinced that the competition for crowdfunds (is that a word?) involves a zero sum game. People may discover other projects they want to support after giving to a more familiar figure.
But one issue that (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) hadn’t crossed my radar is the possibility that a Kickstarter campaign could be used to support a project that is not only offensive but also promotes sexual assault. This is what happened with a book project that was posted to Kickstarter a few weeks ago and which recently did achieve its fundraising goal (I’m not going to mention it directly by name to avoid giving it further publicity). Just before the project was funded, however, a group of activists called attention to the offending project and set in motion a campaign (1) to stop the project from being funded and (2) to strive to ensure that Kickstarter would be more vigilant about supporting this kind of project The blogger Casey Malone deserves a great deal of credit for writing a blog post that stirred people (including myself) to contact Kickstarter about this issue (Malone has a great rundown of why this particular project is so harmful).
To their credit, Kickstarter responded relatively quickly, apologizing for allowing such a project to appear on their site. The apology is pretty emphatic in acknowledging their error and the company has backed their apology by donating $25,000 to RAINN, an organization focused on stopping sexual violence. They have pulled the project page from their website to avoid giving it further publicity (although a cached page still exists for documentary purposes). But, claiming that they are unable to stop the funding process (which is managed by Amazon Payments), they stopped short of actually withdrawing funding for the project,claiming that it is beyond their control.
That’s probably not entirely inaccurate, but it is a little unsatisfying. It begs the question of whether Amazon would be able to stop payment, but barring that, the controversy raises a few questions about how crowdfunding functions and what possibilities are available for monitoring against harmful content. Kickstarter states that content that espouses violence against women has always been banned, but this project obviously slipped through. The reporting mechanism appeared to work only belatedly, once the project was nearly funded. So this raises some questions about how projects get approved, an issue that is extremely pertinent given the fact that crowds can’t always be trusted to be very smart, an issue that would become explicitly clear when looking at the comments section of just about any newspaper website in the country. Crowds can be manipulated through fear and other emotions to support positions or actions that are incredibly harmful.
That said, I’d also argue that there are also some blurry lines between content that is explicitly promoting physical or emotional harm and content that is disagreeable. This project clearly should be pulled, but I wonder about those gray areas (and I’m reluctant to give a specific example). At what point do you decide that something crosses the line between offensive and tasteless into something more genuinely harmful? It seems clear that Kickstarter is genuinely apologetic and that they have redoubled their efforts to prevent other projects that advocate sexual violence from showing up on their service, but other projects in the future may be a little more ambiguous.
There may not be an easy answer here, but like Kickstarter, I’d like to see crowdfunding services remain some of “the friendliest, most supportive places on the web.”