Creating Technology for Social Change

Kickstopper: When crowdfunding pipes money to projects you abhor

Like Facebook and other corporate social platforms, Kickstarter has been asked to further refine its policies governing which speech it will and will not accept on its platform.


The catalyst for the conversation is a petition with over 50,068 signatures (in just over a day) against Ken Hoinsky‘s successfully completed Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Hoinsky’s initial $2,000 goal was surpassed, reaching $16,639 before the campaign ended.

(The reason people have taken issue with Hoinsky’s Above the Game is that it advises men to be more physically aggressive and dominant in their pursuit of sex with women. There are many people who feel that men are already plenty physical and plenty dominant in heterosexual dating. Hoinsky has responded here.) petition against Above the Game crowdfunding

Regardless of how you feel about pick-up artists and amateur authors who wish to spread that gospel, this campaign raises interesting questions for a wide range of social sites, and crowdfunding in general.

This isn’t actually the first campaign to attempt to prevent a Kickstarter project. Several campaigns have sought to shut down feminist Kickstarter projects that intersect with games, such as Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and 9 Year Old Builds Her First RPG (thanks Philip Tan of MIT Game Lab for the tip).

What are the rules governing speech, and who interprets the rules?
Speech on Kickstarter is regulated, legally and culturally, through a combination of US speech laws (which will be applied if a suit is brought), and the site’s own community guidelines and everyday decisions. These guidelines, the company has signalled, are open to adaptation, but the campaigners have also pointed out that the existing rules “prohibit content that is “threatening, abusive” or “offensive.” It also “reserves the right to suspend a campaign at any time and for any reason.”” Clearly a concept like “offensive” is subject to multiple interpretations.

Yancey Strickler, a co-founder of Kickstarter, came to visit the Media Lab recently. In that talk, he shared that he was initially the sole approver of Kickstarter projects. Their sole rule in the beginning, informal and unstated though it was, was “No bummers.” By that they meant no projects that employ guilt as a motivating force (e.g. dying children). They sought projects that were positive, and excluded cause-based fundraising. The company’s policy has clearly shifted from these early days, because even the company has agreed that Above The Game is a bummer. Maintaining a culture of positive projects is increasingly difficult as more projects are submitted, but crucial to the company’s brand identity.

Campaign Strategy
My initial reaction to this petition campaign was: why don’t the organizers send people upset about this to flag the project through Kickstarter’s internal reporting mechanism? That’s why it’s there, and this style of user-generated censorship has proven an effective way to silence offensive speech in other instances.

Well, it turns out, the organizers HAD used Kickstarter’s internal flagging mechanism to bring the case to the company’s attention, and it is still sending people that route, but Kickstarter itself had already released a statement declaring the book safely within their “current guidelines.”

The #FBrape campaign went after Facebook’s advertisers, quite successfully, operating on the assumption that the company is more sensitive to the ire of its advertisers than its users. Kickstarter lives and dies by its users, as the company collects a 5% fee on all successfully-funded projects. The power and perception of its brand, then, drives its revenues, and so the campaign targets the public’s relationship with that brand. (This isn’t to say that the company will react or not react because of the revenues attached to a decline in brand value).

Kickstarter’s Incentives
Kickstarter has made an endless number of awesome things possible, and they’ve directly stated that they find the content to be published in this book “abhorrent.” But they also don’t want to cancel pre-approved, successfully-funded projects too often. This is the only rationale I can think of to explain why the company won’t cancel this project. And it’s not in line with my previous understanding of the company’s relatively high standards:

My main takeaway from Yancey’s Media Lab talk was, “Wow. They really go to great lengths to maintain the integrity of the projects on the site. They even forgo opportunities that their clones will pursue to maintain their brand.” Kickstarter only funds creative projects, based in the arts, with clear start and end dates. There are a few hundred Kickstarter clones seeking to serve foreign markets and other categories of projects Kickstarter doesn’t attempt to fund, and the company is comfortable with that. One of Kickstarter’s differentiators is the due diligence they perform prior to collecting money from people (vs. Indiegogo), and its failure here is something they might want to investigate.

What do you do when the crowd funds something you abhor?
There’s plenty of speech in our society that is legally protected, but still abhorrent. Collectively, we impose other social penalties on speech we abhor, like developing a commonly-held negative reputation of that speaker, limiting the reach of their voice. We battle for attention in society, as Westboro Baptist Church shows up to protest and mar unrelated funerals, and as Hoinsky looks to leverage the controversy around the book into additional attention. This is just a limited-run book of advice for guys who can’t get laid. These questions will only grow more relevant as civic crowdfunding and crowdfunded business investment take off.