There’s no question that crowdfunding offers people access to money for creative means. What gets talked about less often is the risks of crowdfunding. While some academics attend to the economic risks, I am interested here in discussing the social, emotional, and physical risks of crowdfunding, especially in an academic setting. I have worked with students and other academic professionals to crowdfund a variety of projects, and while I still believe in the promises, I am aware that capital is high stakes and should be thought through carefully
Risk #1: Burning Social Capital
Crowdfunding works in many cases because people leverage their own social capital; that is, they use their authority, their institutional affiliations, and even their popularity to convince people to fund their projects. Yet problems become apparent when we ask students to crowdfund educational projects. For example, I had one student who volunteered to do fundraising for the men’s glee club to send the group to the UK, and she thought that crowd funding would be a good method. However, she struggled to make her funding goals and had to constantly push reminders to her social network, creating fatigue and even ill-will among her personal social networks.
Risk #2: Long-term Time Investment
Crowdfunding can raise capital for creating new projects, and really successful crowdfunding can even provide stretch goals—“you give us this much extra money and we can do this extra thing.” The problem when working with student groups hoping to crowdfund their projects is that the promises made to investors often exceed the limited timeframes placed on educational projects. For example, I had a group of students who created a computer game for their senior thesis. A masters student then collaborated with that group to finish and launch the game. They crowdfunded the game for $10,000 and achieved their first stretch goal as well. What we didn't account for was the amount of time needed to record and send rewards (those small gifts sent to backers)—a time sink with little educational value—nor did we consider the fact that the group is still working on the game, developing for stretch goals, one year after everyone finished the educational portion of this project. Functionally, it is like a one-year hangover for all of us (I am still acting in my advisor capacity for this group, yet this work does not appear on my annual work reports for my university, and the young men are trying to balance fulltime jobs with the demands of this project).
Risk #3: Emotional and Physical Risk in the Public Domain
This one’s a doozy. When people enter public discourse, especially when addressing socially volatile content, they are opening themselves ridicule, attack, and even the threat of physical violence. Crowdfunding presents an interesting forum for these types of vitriolic public discourse. Those who want to crowdfund projects that touch on hot topic issues are often immediately attacked in comments, social media, and directed emailed simply for the promise of what they will create or say. Consider the highly publicized case of Anita Sarkeesian, who graduated with her MA and decided to become a public intellectual on Feminist Frequency. She decided to crowdfund a series of short videos entitled Tropes vs. Video Games, which would explore the ways in which women are often detrimentally portrayed in games. Sarkeesian was suddenly attacked in the comments, via twitter and emails, and even via a hacked Wikipedia page (see sample comments below).
Image credit “One Week of Harassment on Twitter” http://femfreq.tumblr.com/post/109319269825/one-week-of-harassment-on-tw...
While Sarkeesian firmly situates herself as a public intellectual, other academics and students likewise open themselves to ridicule and verbal abuse. Carly Kocurek and Allyson Whipple, for example, crowdfunded their game Choice, Texas, an empathy game that explores reproductive choices and pressures through the narratives of five different women from different cultural and socioeconomic situations. Almost immediately, the designers began getting emails and comments that threatened them generally, and more scarily, some commentators indicated that they knew where one of the designers worked (public knowledge for academics who have office locations and hours published online).
Screenshot of a comment made on the YouTube trailer.
The toll of these types of comments cannot be overstated. Crowdfunding opens up people to both investors who want a project or product and to those who would fight against that same thing. And while it is unlikely that trolls from the internet would actually physically hurt someone, the point is that they might. We have ample and shocking evidence that people react violently when projects threaten dominant ideologies, from the Santa Barbara shootings to people being stabbed at gay pride parades.
Some Final Thoughts
This is not a think piece that warns people off of crowdfunding. I still believe in this platform to get projects done, to teach students about market viability and demand, and to open democratic support of great ideas. I hope that people go away with a way to think through the risks of crowdfunding and think through ways to mitigate or address these risks ethically and in the interest of everyone’s wellbeing.