ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Kickstarter in Autumn —

So I told you how great Kickstarter is, as well as my experiences running various Kickstarters, and now I’ll close this out with a tale of despair and decay – just the kind of story arc I love.

Let’s run through the allegiances and connections one more time, in case people are seeking some easy excuse not to read this text waterfall. I have met the founders of Kickstarter, Yancey Strickler and Perry Chen, on multiple occasions but mostly in the context of them doing meet and greets and so I’m hardly to be considered a buddy. I’ve been to the Kickstarter offices a couple times, once for a party and twice for an event around a kickstarter campaign that went well. I’ve run three kickstarters – all were successful, which has bought me a lot of attention and occasional “heeeeeellllp” style letters that ask me to sprinkle magic knowledge dust on an attempt to raise crazy bucks. Because of those letters, I’ve been an adviser of some capacity to probably two dozen other campaigns, although in no situation have I taken money or compensation for doing so – I just like talking a lot.

I’m also into computer history, and computer history often ends up morphing into Corporate History, since so much of the computer experience has been forming companies great and small to get these industrial items into as many hands as possible. So the historical arc of Kickstarter interests me as much as the things that come from its campaigns. All of what I’m saying here is the typical pseudo-prescient blather that issues forth from the likes of Dave Winer or Robert Scoble or Doc Searls on one of his wistful days, and should be taken that way.


Nothing lasts forever. Everything decays and changes and morphs, and when you take this inevitable situation as something that can be subdued with makeup and surgery, ugliness results. Telling yourself you’re different and maybe even staking your existence on that impossible claim leads to downfall and suicide.

What Kickstarter did was something new with something basic. Through an intense twee design and verbiage that was inclusive and distinct, they re-engineered human kindness and artistic patronage into a combination of a casual game and a “best-of” weblog. Initially they did it with an invite-only party, where only friends of friends made the campaigns, but that understandable trial period has long given way to a cascade of projects, intentions and products that you can browse quickly and cleanly, and receive well-geared come-ons that go to a general audience and not to, say, your kitchen and your brother shaking his fists at the sky about how everyone is going to eat lamb pops in three months and just $50,000 would get him at the top of that heap. For that, they have made something very special, something very well created indeed, and the cargo cult sites have popped up like mushrooms, and Kickstarter has received the ultimate linguistic honors – it is a verb, an adjective, a placeholder noun.

Let us pause, as people so often forget to do, to acknowledge how well that has gone.

Let us consider, in point of fact, how compulsive and alluring the Narrative is now. The Narrative is that if you cogently describe your dream, use the skills of your descriptive writing and your well-honed pitch to fill out some blank forms at Kickstarter, and if the smiling 20-somethings in a building in the NY area hit “Approve”, you could find yourself with the needed funds to make that dream happen.

I remember, like it wasn’t over a decade ago, a documentary I saw that interviewed 4 old men about their history, but one died during the multi-year fundraising campaign, so all we saw was a shot of the other three men holding a photo of their lost comrade. I was angry at the filmmaker for not doing something, anything to get the man’s story down, but I was also ambiently angry at a situation where years had to pass between dream and funding. With things like Kickstarter, that period goes down to weeks.

So let us remember what there was before, and how much good has come out of this company and this dream.

…and now, the darkness to come.

Deep underneath Kickstarter, flowing as surely as blood flows in a heart, is money. Maybe that’s not exactly an obscure or unexpected observation, but life and success sometimes misdirects the forces at work. Kickstarter is Money. Requests for money, offers for money, counting of money, a goal of money with progression towards that money goal in increments of money. It’s right there, everywhere. There’s not a page on there that doesn’t mention cash.

There’s no path where this is going to change, nor is it really sensical to. But making that sort of bargain, to rest a business of loans and contribution in the warm clothes of friendship, art, and hope – it has brought great joy but it can’t last. You will not recognize Kickstarter within two years and you will absolutely not recognize Kickstarter in five, assuming there is a Kickstarter to not recognize.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how much desperation and insidiousness money can bring along, especially “real” money that has now begun to flock and flow into Kickstarter’s campaigns. The first hundred-thousand campaign got attention – the first million-dollar campaign got a champagne celebration that raved on as the second million-dollar campaign hit. Million-dollar payouts are a musk that bring out the worst of human nature, from regions and places of darkness that are not to be trifled with.

Overdramatic? I don’t think so – searching the news archive for phrases like “murdered over” gets you some insight into the human condition over things a lot less compelling than a million dollars.

So with a jar of honey thrown into the Pit of Bears, it’s Kickstarter’s game to lose. The question that remains is what they can do to protect themselves against this rising tide of chicanery and greed. Go too suspicious and paranoid and block out income. Continue at the current rate, and in comes The Full Con.

I am positive, as much as I am willing to be, that someone somewhere has rented an office and begun the careful, involved process of building a backstory and a history for their non-existent endeavor. This endeavor will come at you with the warm, smiling pitch of the talented grifter, with an answer for everything and a dream that’s just this side of crazy and therefore that side of compelling. They’ll have domains, a website, a phone number. They’ll give you a feeling of being at the start of something great. And you are. You most certainly are.

But that one big grift, when it happens, will make news but not be the end of things. It’s the endless smaller grifts and failures that add up – stories where people who are always looking for something to grouse about and will jump on any sorrow conducted through a wire will have 1000 words before the horror of the marks have even begun to sink in.

With each one, comes a clampdown – a decision to get out of risky issues, to get away from things more trouble than they’re worth. Already, there are dozens of seemingly arbitrary rewards now verboten on Kickstarter. Soon there will be dozens more.

I’m not down on Kickstarter – Kickstarter is a wonderful thing and we have many dreams to live with before things are beyond saving. And it won’t be a bustling office in Brooklyn one day and an empty shell the next – it doesn’t go that way with ideas that are truly executed as well as they have. But Autumn is coming. Until the cool winds blow, please enjoy the summer days. They have been wonderful.

Now, who’s for lemonade?

Categorised as: punditry

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  1. David Fisher says:

    I keep having thoughts (which I’d like to compose into a blog post, but keep not doing so) about the reasons that so many Kickstarters are ‘failing’ in the eyes of backers (most people aren’t that experienced with that amount of money is the basic cause, and time-estimating is hard), and that the expectations of backers are at the same time unrealistic (as they need to understand that its not a store, and there is risk involved).

  2. daggar says:

    Yes, the heady days of expanding into a vacuum are past. Kickstarter as a company might not surive; as a verb it’s already locked into the culture. The only question is whether the Kickstarter company proper becomes an electronic institution on the scale of ebay, or if it flounders so that its core idea is carried on by another site, or several sites, that run he same service.

    Whichever happens, it will be gamed, conned, and scammed. It will have the pick up the sort of necessary tedium that governs Ebay seller ratings.

    But this isn’t the autumn of kickstarter. It’s barely the end of the beginning. Its growth curve hasn’t seen an inflection point yet. The only thing that’s ending is simplicity of narrative and I’m happy to kick that to the curb.

    • Laroquod says:

      You may find that simplicity of narrative will always come back to bite you in the end, given its built-in hardiness and distant reach.