Kickstarter as a Brand

I didn’t plan to talk about Kickstarter so frequently on this blog, but I want to briefly bring up what I think is a little-talked-about huge issue for their future.

One of the big controversies of the past week was, of course, Above the Game, a Kickstarter-funded book that promised to help men pick up women. It turned out to a handbook for sexual assault, there was a huge outcry, Kickstarter let the campaign run to completion anyway, and then reversed course to apologize for their actions. (Update: The author has also apologized and offered to change the book. I don’t know the full details, but for the purposes of this article I’m refraining from commenting directly about him.)

I don’t have anything to add to the basic moral issues here. The book sounds disgusting, and Kickstarter’s apology was excellent, as it didn’t try to shift blame and involved concrete steps to demonstrate their sincerity. However, I was surprised at how much people were blaming Kickstarter for the situation, and their statements that this would taint every future Kickstarter project.

The question facing Kickstarter now is whether they are a hands-off service, or a curated brand. For example, I blog through WordPress, and (as far as I know) no company employee ever reviewed my writing for appropriateness. If something like Above the Game were written as a blog, people would be disgusted by it, but I don’t think many people would be calling on WordPress to shut it down. It just wouldn’t occur to them that WordPress, as a company, was responsible for the blog in any way. On the other hand, if that book were being published by a major company like Harper Collins, people would be very upset. Big publishing companies individually choose their titles to fit a brand, and their name is intended to be an indicator of quality.

So what is Kickstarter? Is it a general service like WordPress, or a controlled, curated brand like Harper Collins? Ok, I know it’s somewhere in the middle, but where in the middle does it fall? People who say they won’t trust Kickstarter any more obviously think of it as a brand that can be tarnished, and they’re mad that the company didn’t closely review the book before approving the project. On the other hand, Kickstarter seems to think of themselves as closer to the WordPress model: Their job is to put up the website and manage the money, but every time you back a project, you’re warned that Kickstarter has nothing to do with the creator’s success or failure. People have been sued for crowd-funding campaigns that made promises they couldn’t live up to, but Kickstarter has avoided responsibility even in those cases.

The tension now is that the company and its users have different visions of what Kickstarter is. And though Kickstarter takes legal shelter in their hands-off definition, they definitely profit from the belief that they are a curated brand. You only have to look at the way people react when they hear a project is up on Kickstarter: They’ll send money through that to people that they otherwise would never trust without more proof. Also, Kickstarter does impose restrictions on the types of projects allowed, and they’ll refuse to publish anything that isn’t “art” in some way.

So Kickstarter does make value judgments, imposes restrictions on their projects, and profits from the strength of their brand name. On the other hand, they say that they are just a middleman for the artistic creators, and have nothing to do with the qualities of the actual project. This contradiction cannot last, and it seems that things may be reaching a breaking point. I’m not sure how Kickstarter is going to handle this.

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