The usual line of praise offered for crowdfunding is that it allows for those whose interests aren’t catered to by the culture industries to see their desired products come to market, and this seems to me, indeed, to be praiseworthy. That praise is, however, mitigated by the way in which all this takes place within the realm of consumption—while it may add diversity to the offerings of the culture industries, it does not add diversity to the modes of engagement available to the fan; as a funder, she still has no voice in production or content. Worse yet, she stands to reap no return on her investment; she is treated as a consumer rather than an investor, although she is called a funder. This allows the culture industries to treat crowdfunding as no-risk speculative market valorization of the long tail of niche consumptive interests.
Funding of scholarly work—in the humanities at least, and most of the social sciences—is not subject to these criticisms based on economic justice. The products of crowdfunding research are not profit-oriented or integrated into profit-oriented enterprises. But who are the fans? What scholarly work do they silently call out for, waiting for an academic to reach proper funding in order to give their academic interests voice?
For the most part, academics struggle more to interest publics in work already being conducted and made available, when academics attempt to interest the public at all. There are exceptions, such as Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, which books are sold in regular bookstores nationwide, but for the most part academic research is not a product that finds waiting demand in the marketplace. Even students must often be blackmailed through quizzes and exams in order to force them to read the materials they (or their parents) have paid to learn.
I’m not convinced, however, that this is due to a lack of interest—perhaps we could say, adapting Kierkegaard’s comments in The Sickness Unto Death on despair which does not know it is despair, that the public has a form of interest that it does not know is an interest. Do we not—again, in the humanities at least, and most of the social sciences—make studies of just those sorts of things which the public finds compelling in films and novels; op-eds and magazine articles; online forums and blogs? The mode of engagement and presentation is different, to be sure, but we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the problem is public disinterest in our work.
The problem can be addressed from one end by improving access and visibility of academic work to the public. We too often publish our work with large academic publishers who require exorbitant access fees which effectively require university affiliation to provide access. We may be surprised to find how much of the public will choose to come in, if we only open the door. This may be a small minority, but crowdfunding works on the long tail, so this should be no barrier.
On the other end there are actions which may be taken as well, not by opening the door to the public, but by entering the agora ourselves. The barrier here is in academic incentive structures: tenure and promotion processes do not usually highly value public engagement, and publications for a general audience are usually tossed out of the research into the service category, clearly the least valued column in faculty portfolios. The way we have defined scholarly excellence as virtually entailing disconnection from public discourse is surely a part both of the public’s misperception of disinterest in our work, as well as the increasing funding cuts which follow from not-baseless perceptions of our work’s irrelevance.
The very reasons why crowdfunding scholarly work seems doomed are the same for the sake of which it should be pursued. We should reform our professional expectations in order to valorize public engagement; we should reform our publication choices in order to increase access and impact; we should facilitate the public’s realization that they do care about the work we are doing, and that it does have value for life and not just for research. In my own field, it may be some time off that crowdfunding would be able to support progressive research in political philosophy in the same sort of way that conservative and religious foundations support philosophers who work on moral character and family values, but this seems to be something we should strive for, both in the name of academic freedom and diversity, and in the service of the good of society. In other areas, we can see opportunities already, and opportunities missed: Anita Sarkeesian found crowdsourced funding for her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video series; could not the same have been done by academic game studies scholars?
For the silent masses to find voice in scholarship, philosophers must become public, or the public must adequately philosophize.