Crowdfunding as a potential academic research project began for me with the announcement of the Veronica Mars movie campaign on Kickstarter in March 2013. The subsequent success Rob Thomas, the creator of the TV series and the Veronica Mars cast and producers had with accruing US$5.7 million (of the US$2 million that was originally crowdfunded for), and the speed with which they reached their funding goal with contributions from fans who donated to the project at the time raised interesting questions pertaining to media, digital culture and fan studies.
As a digital culture and fan studies scholar, these were also questions that were becoming extremely pertinent to the academic field. The growth in popularity of crowdfunding, especially within the entertainment media industry, raised questions related to the monetisation of fans, to the ever-evolving relationship between media producers/content creators and their fanbase, and to notions of fan labour, whereby fans are not only actively courted and co-opted into the media industry’s promotional strategies, often performing labour for free, but are now also expected to contribute financially to crowdfunding campaigns, leading to accusations of (and concerns for) exploitation.
As one of the editors of the New Media & Society special issue and an edited collection on the topic of crowdfunding, Lucy Bennett, Bethan Jones and I raised concerns about ethical considerations and notions of accountability with crowdfunding campaigns, particularly when crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter provides no guarantees nor protection to funders from bogus campaigns or content creators who are unable to fulfill the pledge to funders after a project has been funded.
A fervent criticism of crowdfunding, particularly within the context of celebrities taking to this platform to raise funds for pet projects, is the return to the notion of fans as cultural dupes as they help fund projects which critics argue celebrities are more than well-equipped to fund themselves. This also raises questions of free labour, which I alluded to earlier, as fans are no longer expected to merely consume indiscriminately, but also to help fund these pet projects of their favourite celebrities all in the name of altruism. Given that crowdfunding extends beyond the media entertainment industry to other fields such as journalism, gaming, civic society, and even academia, I would contend that these questions of ethics, accountability and free labour also apply.
Is it appropriate, for example, for academics to turn to crowdfunding on sites such as Kickstarter in search for alternative funding and would it affect the integrity of the research? For that matter, how is this different from applying for research funding with established research councils, universities and industry partners? With funding from research bodies, we are not required to send out rewards to contributors who pledged money for the campaign, but we are equally obligated to produce desirable and effective results that would satisfy the funding bodies.
On the other hand, given that academics are already performing many labour for free, and the increasing precarity of academics in higher institutions, would a turn to crowdfunding for academic projects give university institutions further excuses to not support academic research? My aim here is certainly not to provide answers, nor do I have any. However, given the practice of crowdfunding has raised certain concerns in the field of fan studies – a field of study that is often slighted for being frivolous – and given that these concerns extend to questions of labour, ethics and accountability, it is perhaps time to contextualise these issues to academic research and practice.