Crowdfunding or funding the crowds: a new model for the distribution of wealth?

Renée Ridgway
Not so very long ago the social ‘welfare states’ of Europe provided health care for everyone and a sizeable amount of money for culture, which was generated from tax revenue. Many artists and cultural practitioners had the opportunity to apply for grants, supplemented by patronage, sponsorship, selling their work, or even having jobs. The contemporary discourse in the cultural sector has now shifted and takes its cues from neoliberal policies of development, adopting an ‘everything for the market’ attitude. This has led to Europe’s assimilation of a U.S. inspired laissez-faire approach to culture, and subsequently transformed cultural practices into the burgeoning imagination of the ‘creative industries’. Creative industry is marked by a particular condition of state withdrawal of financial support for culture while emergent forms of online, networked platforms increasingly facilitate private donations. For example, electronic money transfers using digital technologies have enabled micro-finance networks that restructure the funding support and patronage earlier available to cultural practitioners. These have ensured an even quicker transfer of the private wealth of citizens to individuals within the cultural sector, such as with the phenomenon of ‘crowdfunding’.

Instead of governmental support, increasingly more and more art workers and cultural organisations are being forced to engage with crowdfunding as a legitimate means to finance artistic practice by drawing on their networks, primarily their friends, family, neighbours and colleagues. With crowdfunding it now appears as if the network will not only provide attention, feedback, and reputation but also create a means of monetary support for many of these projects, as a surrogate for former governmental or public monies. While this reliance on distributed networks is celebrated, there is very little attention paid to the balance of trade-offs and returns in this model. The excessive reliance on colleagues or ‘friends’ entails other dynamics in these tit-for-tat exchanges, which need to be unpacked: affect, exploitation, and indebtedness. Relationships with people become even more entangled and, unlike money, which is anonymous, brokering agency for artistic projects results in a negotiation of social relations. Will crowdfunding en masse lead to a new model for the distribution of wealth as is claimed or is it a commodification of one’s very own social relations?

What is Crowdfunding?

“Crowdfunding describes the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their resources, usually via the internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. Crowdfunding is used in a wide variety of activities, including disaster relief, citizen journalism, musicians fans, political campaigns, startup company funding, movie, or free software development and scientific research.” [1] There are different types of crowdfunding. With donation-based models, funders donate to causes they want to support without the expectation of compensation (i.e. philanthropic or sponsorship based incentive). Equity-based crowdfunding is a model in which funders receive compensation in the form of equity in the fundraiser’s project or revenue from profit-share arrangements. Lending-based crowdfunding is where funders receive fixed periodic income and expect repayment of the original, principle investment. The focus within the cultural sector is reward-based crowdfunding where a non-financial reward, or ‘perks’, usually a limited edition print, or a cultural artefact, is manufactured in exchange for contributions.

Crowdfunding craze

Every country seems to have at least one national crowdfunding platform, at the moment of writing there are over 700 sites worldwide. In Denmark it is Booomerang[2], in the Netherlands VoordeKunst[3] is more specific to cultural and art related activities. Indiegogo[4] is a worldwide platform where you can raise money for anything, including for-profit ventures, creative ideas or personal needs: facilitating clean water in rural parts of the world, partnering with microfinancing institutions or helping artists without insurance who need surgery. USA Projects[5] is only open to artists, is a non-profit and offers limited ‘matching funds’ for every applicant. In the US the most visible platform is Kickstarter[6], which is also the world’s largest (and for-profit) funding platform for creative projects. Indiegogo has the option of ‘flexible funding’ where you can keep the money you raise, whether or not you meet the goal, whilst Kickstarter and Voordekunst have an ‘all or nothing policy’. The Spanish site[7], in contrast, only supports projects with social, cultural, scientific, educational, technological, or ecological objectives that generate new opportunities for the improvement of society and the enrichment of community goods and resources.[8]

What all of these platforms share is their use of digital technologies that unite global networks, connecting projects with people and even monetary support in order to realize them. Instead of a few patrons donating large sums of money, micropatronage facilitates many patrons contributing small amounts through the internet. Much like the buying of catalogue clothes or Amazon books, etc. online reward-based crowdfunding delivers the goods in the mail. As with other online purchases there is a service charge for the transaction, either Amazon Payments in the case of Kickstarter, or Pay Pal and banking services for other platforms. Just like other retailers, the crowdfunding platforms harvest a percentage – VoordeKunst and Kickstarter take 5% (the latter being profitable according to its founders).

In the past few years, there has been an increase in the demand for monetary remuneration of artistic projects via crowdfunding initiatives. Artists are pressured to ask their colleagues to support their artistic endeavours (financially and not just with a ‘like’). It is routine now, as a cultural practitioner in the US, to receive during the course of a week 2 or 3 emails or updates on various social media platforms asking for financial donations to support individual projects. The average crowdfunding campaigns are between the $1000 and $10000[9] and ‘rewards’ or ‘perks’ are offered in return, the type dependant on the amount of the donation. Assuming one would support 8 projects a month at €50 per each project, one would pay out €400 a month. If one were to pay out €4800 a year for two years one would spend €9600 on others’ projects. Let’s say one wants to put a project on Kickstarter and one is asking €9600 from all contacts, colleagues, neighbours, friends and family. Could one trust those who one supported to contribute in return? Would all (192 people) also pay €50 for one’s own project? Are these social networks strong enough and contacts close enough so that they would each, so to speak, pay each other back? Statistics show that of the money that is contributed to a crowdfunding campaigns, 75% comes from an already known network and only 25% from random or unknown contributors.[10] In this reciprocal relationship would one be able to divide up not only personal time but also personal wealth in order to produce one’s own works as well as supporting others’ artistic projects?

Crowdfunding: Why not?

The networks of support that one calls our communities are ostensibly garnered to consume whatever one supplies. Facilitated by digital technology, crowdfunding draws on one’s own social network to finance these artistic and cultural projects, yet the practitioner also needs to fulfil the crowd’s (and one’s network) requests. Concomitantly these online initiatives bring about a range of emotional and affective labour issues, tit-for-tat exchanges, indebtedness or the repercussions of gifting. In an attempt to understand the link between digital technologies and new forms of remuneration in online contexts, let us examine issues of value, affect and ethics that are all tied up in the monetization of social relations through the following hypotheses:

1. Crowdfunding draws on notions of community, acts of volunteerism and the herd mentality for support

Following the herd has always been part of human nature and nowadays crowdsourced activities, where groups of people come together to accomplish tasks, have been occurring offline as well with online events. The crowd as patron in the digital age is presently the motor of crowdfunding platforms. Closely converging with acts of volunteerism and ‘do gooding’ neighbourly support, the crowd has been the basis for many foundations of community help. In past decades U.S. volunteerism has fulfilled a certain percentage of incommensurable labour that keeps the economy going and provides community activities for retirees. Since 2010 the present UK governmental ‘Big Society’ policy demands participation from the public in the form of time and unremunerated labour. Based on these previous models of volunteerism and doing community good, crowdfunding “uses [the campaigner] to tap into a deep-seated belief in our culture that volunteering is an important social value”[11] and to draw on the neighbourhood[12] for not only time but help in the form of financial support.

If not time then on what does the public spend their money and why? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational draws on research[13] conducted with test cases regarding valuations that challenge the assumption that people know their tastes.As a reversible business model he refers to the story of Tom Sawyer. Tom has to whitewash the picket fence and does the chore instead with feigned pleasure, making his friends consider the task a privilege and to be so envious that they not only takeover the job of painting the white picket fence but to pay him for it. In Twain’s words, Tom “had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” [14] This scarcity value or ‘Tom’s law’ questions economic assumptions regarding experiences being pleasant or unpleasant and whether people reliably know what they like, or not. This degree of uncertainty may be very substantial in regard to people’s preferences, even if they are familiar with the experience. Therefore the valuation of goods and experiences has an arbitrary component “yet after one valuation has been made people provide subsequent valuations that are scaled appropriately relative to the first- [forming] ‘coherence’.”[15]

2. Crowdfunding is not a sustainable solution as a replacement model of public support for arts and culture.

Public funding for culture is neither a solution nor does it differ so much from actuarial applications for crowdfunding. These subsidy applications entail enormous amounts of preparation, bureaucracy and experience, years of previous ‘work’, along with a high risk factor. After ‘free labouring’, the application appears before a board of paid ‘experts’ who decide the fate of the application and whether it gets funded- more likely not- resulting in unpaid labour for the applicant. ‘Cultural gambling’ is perhaps not the solution to creative endeavour yet when one weighs the odds it might provide more autonomy and higher financial return to the artist or cultural practitioner than crowdfunding.

What makes crowdfunding so attractive is that anyone can do it, if one has a posse (patrons) on social media to back it up, in other words finance it. In an era in which the cultural sector has less and less grant money and more and more art marketing of commodities, crowdfunding is an alternative to grant-giving foundations. “Kickstarter combined fundraising with opinion polling, marketing with grant-writing. Supposedly its original appeal was the “one-to-one relationship with the artist, without layers of grant. And weren’t donors just a precursor to grants?”[16] Kickstarter has become the most talked-about example of this democratizing technology: an arts organization for the post-gatekeeper era.”[17] Is this technology really democratizing and which white picket fence along with its gate is being painted, by whom and for how much?

Historically the US in general has provided less support for the arts and culture from tax revenue (the exception being the WPA) than Europe, where longstanding state funding and interest for culture has existed along with preservation trusts.The last fifty years in the US the cultural sector has progressively depended on private donations from benefactors and patrons as a form of philanthropy. The largest governmental support comes from the NEA (National Endowment of Arts), and depending on the state’s politics, more or less money for culture, along with various city grants. Therefore, as a recognized system of patronage, the US has nationally embraced crowdfunding more quickly, in particular Kickstarter, which is being rumoured to be ‘the people’s NEA!’[18]. Recently it supposedly surpassed the funding for the arts provided by the NEA, although this was later retracted as the total amount included design, innovation and product development.[19] No wonder Wired magazine recently assessed Kickstarter not as the champion of artistic underdogs but as “a lab for daring prototypes and ingenious products.” [20]

Across Europe cultural organizations are now also being forced by their governments to gather up private donations as well as crowdfund because they receive funding from their respective ministries[21]. In Brussels, millions of European Union monies earmarked for culture is even being distributed to certain organisations in the Netherlands so that they can organise seminars to teach cultural practitioners how to crowdfund![22] In the US Kickstarter has now started working with “private foundations, arts councils, and city governments to wrap their minds around what Kickstarter can mean to them as a ‘compliment’ for their ongoing efforts.”[23]

The present financial crisis and initiation of austerity measures continue to force drastic reduction in state funding for the culture industry all across Europe. Crowdfunding is seen as a surrogate or ersatz model, serving as a replacement for state responsibility. Yet taxpayers would then be paying double, first with taxes that are distributed by how politicians see fit to spend them i.e. diminishing support for culture, health care and education; then with distributing taxpayers’ ‘surplus income’ with crowdfunding initiatives. Workers in the ‘culture industry’ are now all being asked to crowdfund instead of/along with applying for state or governmental public funding, because these forms of public monies are diminishing and no longer (or barely) exist.

3. The successful rhetoric of crowdfunding campaigns masks the fact that the financial reward not only fails to account for the free labour but does not even pay for all of the material and personnel costs involved.

Crowdfunding is now being advertised in the media as a solution to ‘interference’ by the state and as less of a tax burden for citizens because the cultural sector receives less money. In turn people feel more empowered because unlike their tax money, they have a choice in deciding what projects should be funded and what not. To an outsider, crowdfunding looks normal, fair or even logical in present day capitalism. It promotes the illusion of democracy and participation by allowing the funder to choose where s/he spends her money, instead of governmental control and authority. Yet, with this obfuscation, what is largely ignored is the invisible labour that goes into every crowdfunding project.

In order to crowdfund one has to do a lot of lobbying, social media advertisement and emailing. First, there is the labour involved in organizing the campaign on the crowdfunding platform: making the introductory video, sending out emails, posting on all social media sites and lest we forget, emailing reminders. The time, energy and labour involved in running the campaign, (some campaigners even outsource the work to professional PR firms) not to mention the numerous updates and “thank-you’s” afterwards all add up to the eternal indebtedness of successful campaigns.

The individual artist’s investment of labour, materials and time involved in the production of works for the ‘reward-based’ crowdfunding model cannot be overlooked. For example, the production of prints, photographs, small objects and even designing and printing t-shirts all cost time and dedication, not to mention the risk of not being able to distribute them if the funding is not accrued. If one is funded and wants to remain in the network one just tapped into then one needs to package the rewards, invest in postal supplies as well as round up friends in order to send them out. Organizations, especially not-for-profits also are being asked to crowdfund but they don’t have the staff, the resources or the volunteers to organize a crowdfunding campaign besides all the regular work involved in keeping the organization up and running.

If one actually paid a decent wage to all of the people involved in helping with the campaign, one would be loosing much of the money raised. The production costs of organizing a €10000 campaign will have already used up some of the funds for the project that is to be executed when funded. The actual costs of organizing, raising money and carrying out the campaign are therefore not funded. It is the people who actually do most of the work (the campaigner) who are not paid enough (if anything at all) and then only if the project is successful, i.e. if the amount of funding requested has been raised.[24]

4. Crowdfunding campaigns make invisible affective and unpaid labour by reducing the process to questions of meeting the threshold financial reward, social networking, lobbying, etc.

Although everyone gets to feel good revelling in the fact that they are participating in a ‘creative project’, these activities that people enjoy are also shamelessly exploited. Tapping into the kindness and generosity of other people includes using the ‘users’ of the internet- those who are ‘campaigning’ as well as the ‘backers’ themselves who decide how and where they distribute their surplus in the form of contributions. Frequently disregarded is the free labour and affect that has been brought about by all the family, friends, neighbours and colleagues who have been solicited and coerced to read the emails, Facebook posts, emails, hyperlinks, etc. involved in the campaign in the first place, not to mention the labour involved in getting someone to bail one out at the last minute to make one’s crowdfunding goal.

“With crowdfunding, much like the ego-centricity of social media, we are asked to gather cash from the network, which is the same as gathering ‘friends’ and being ‘liked’.”[25] As with many invitations one feels obliged to contribute, but this time the transactions are towards monetizing one’s social relationships within the networks that one belongs to. “Kickstarter demands this social fabric, but only extracts from it, giving nothing of social value in return. It is up to us, those who run the campaigns, to invest the labour and capital back into our communities to keep them running, and to keep them sustaining us. In this light, the 10 percent taken off the top is a form of usury, taxation. We’re paying for harnessing the economic power of our community, yet how does the community benefit?”[26]

With the general equivalent, in the case of money for example, terms of exchange are fixed. This commensurability is something we do with anonymous exchange, using money to pay for goods and services where we do not know the parties involved. But with services rendered with colleagues or ‘friends’ or even family, other dynamics play a role in these intimate exchanges. Does crowdfunding really promote solidarity as it claims or is it rather a series of tit-for-tat exchanges? Indebtedness surfaces and even though the debt is only temporary and resolved with reciprocity. one knows that gifting is never equal. And unlike money, which is anonymous, the results of brokering agency for one’s project are a continued negotiation in social relations.

5.Crowdfunding is another form of underpaid or unremunerated labour that ultimately monetizes the network of social relations, mostly those friends, family, neighbours and colleagues who contribute.

“The digital economy is an important area of experimentation with value and free cultural/affective labour. It is about specific forms of production (web design, multimedia production, digital services and so on), but it is also about forms of labour we do not immediately recognize as such: chat, reallife stories, mailing lists, amateur newsletters and so on. These types of cultural and technical labour are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion, that is they have not developed simply as an answer to the economic needs of capital. However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and they are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect.”[27]

Ultimately, is not about the amount of funding for cultural practitioners generated from the ‘creative projects’ but for the crowdfunding platforms accruing their network of friends, family and colleagues who support them. These social relations are in this way commodified and, ultimately, monetized. The crowdfunding platforms desire that this network of backers who know the campaigner (75%) can be later harvested and made aware of other projects by visiting their sites and discovering more projects they can support to become the 25% of the unknowns for other projects. With the sharing of links, data, views and visits the users are tracked and their interests and favourites stored like many other websites that collate personal data. This network becomes the investor group of future projects, for those for-profit as well as for not-for-profit crowdfunding platforms. But not only does crowdfunding gather investors together, it makes potential campaigners out of them.

Accruing their cut of the private wealth from these networks as well as the members themselves is the goal of all crowdfunding platforms. Much like future investment, the numbers of investors add up and are able to keep investing in what could essentially be a Ponzi or pyramid scheme. And like all true community endeavours this sense of belonging is supported by reciprocity- a return financially in the form of contributions to those forthcoming projects. “The true product for sale on Kickstarter is not your art project, but your community and networks.” [28] With Kickstarter the founders have values that determine the form of the creative projects which include favouritizing the campaigners who ‘respect this process’ and “who think through the rewards for backers, get the word out and engage an audience. In other words, the process doesn’t shape the aesthetic. It is the aesthetic.”[29]

6. Crowdfunding data so far shows that risky and experimental projects are less likely to be supported. Will this lead to crowdfunding giving form to art?

Crowdfunding platforms serve as a partner for supporting the less traditional forms of art commodities (films, theatre décor, dance/performance, orchestras, community art, etc.) and provide a means to finance artistic activities that do not receive public monies. It is seen a new fusion model where private/public partnerships have become the status quo. For some crowdfunding is understood as a method to raise private funds by the artist in combination with subsidies or for the general public who are interested in cultural endeavour. Crowdfunding is now becoming part of institutional policy where this public support would be considered ‘matching funds’ to subsidy and those projects that are ‘crowdfunded’ would receive positive advice, i.e. funding. [30]

Projects that are crowdfunded are usually those that are the most popular, much like Google’s Page Rank where the indexing of linking, views and hits is ranked higher. This imposes on artistic freedom, because the project is now dependent upon popularity, not necessarily the content or value. The most successful crowdfunding campaigns are projects that are very popular, the artist (musician, actress) already known with an extensive fan club.[31] More obscure projects would need a particular use-value for a specific interest group in order to be financed. If you want to develop a project for a niche culture or a small audience then you either have to find your interest group, who wants to see the project financed or your own network, who wants to see you employed and not collecting welfare (which doesn’t really exist anymore in most countries). Or you might get lucky with the sway of the crowd.

It is those projects that question, shock, startle and perhaps scandalize the status quo, which can’t be contained within a box and are not especially palatable to the general public that do not get funded. “Experimental projects, risky or critical, cost more funding and are marginalized within the general context of crowdfunding platforms.”[32] Populist politics extends and ever-increasingly determines the radical potentials and subversive intention of some forms of artistic and cultural activities.

Crowdfunding platforms such as VoordeKunst and Kickstarter benefit from the mix of design prototypes, innovation proposals, architectural community plans, book productions, film financing and ‘art’ campaigns that fall under their category of ‘creative projects’. At least a third of these projects are rounding up funds for technology: gewgaws, gadgets, games and music projects with films being second only to game design. Not only involved in financing design products, Kickstarter is creating new markets and the founders see their approach “as a new alternative within a larger framework. Commerce shapes cultural output in subtle ways. Money demands answers. People want to put money into things that they think will be successful, and to be successful you have to participate in the market, and the market has very specific rules.A Kickstarter project, as a form, really does open up what forms art can take, Strickler (one of the founders) muses.” [33]

Is ‘art’ really taking on other forms as these projects are being crowdfunded? These conceptual ideas are similar to the artistic proposals in grant writing, only now (if they are popular enough) they are being financed by individuals instead of the state. The ‘creative projects’ are being marketed as pre-purchases, with backers receiving a share of the artistic practice in the form of artifacts, some perhaps worthy, others definitely not.Are these successful ‘creative projects’ art or are they not rather examples of good ‘cultural entrepreneurship’,[34] as is increasingly expected of artists and creative practitioners all over the world in our neoliberal societies. It is an investment of time, energy, labour and creativity on the part of the campaigner to be geared toward the market; concomitantly the backer feels like a shareholder, an investor in a speculative ‘creative project’ where not only the material reward is the pay-off, but the enticement of future backing of one’s own crowdfunding campaign.

7. The distributed nature of funding facilitated by global technology networks offers a promise of support and subsidy that is disproportionately larger than the available corpus of anonymous private donations.

Drastic cuts to the public sector and funds for culture has led to an explosion of crowdfunding projects. The people who initiate them are acutely aware of the high-risk potential of these projects because there isn’t enough public wealth available to finance all these projects. Moreover, the new model of patronage for the distribution of private wealth, to support the cultural sector, is riddled with a fundamental paradox: in order to seek financial support the cultural practitioner has to become a source of support for other stakeholders in the network. Our relationships with others then becomes even more entangled, with added exchanges of money between colleagues that incite mutual support, yet more often than not, financing is not reciprocated: those who once were supported do not like the project, the reward, are not interested or are cash-poor, indebted to the bank or unable to support others when called upon for a return.

The inherent trust implied in these networks builds relationships, in which one is mutually dependent on others. Where one once supported each other morally, with time and attention, a crowd of interest, one is now asked to finance the preproduction of the forthcoming goods, whether that be a film, a video, an installation, a community project or even more material production, such as a publication or fabrication of a monument. The actual product, the ‘creative project’ is pre-financed based on the trust contained within those social relations, the track record of the campaigner and whether it is a ‘good idea’. What about the results from this exchange?Would one’s bonds be stronger with each other because of supporting each other’s projects? If money were tied into the equation would it then deepen one’s relationships with others?  Would one need to stay in contact like the mafia in order to be ‘paid back’ for example or would this also only happen virtually?

In regard to public funding for the arts, Kickstarter believes that it can be “wielded as a tool for public agencies to show that there is an incredible appetite for creative works in the public sphere. They see the ”enormous public outpouring a support for creative projects on Kickstarter sites and others as fodder for fighting for increased government support in the arts and culture sectors, as there is obviously an enormous appetite for creative engagement demonstrated through the explosive growth in this form of funding.”[35] Why would this private financial support of the general public encourage sustainability or incite increased governmental funding for ‘creative projects’? Rather it shows that as long as people, patrons and backers donate their surplus to crowdfunding campaigns there is less of a need for public monies to finance cultural production. The question remains then whether all of these backers would be able to support each other in terms of financial reciprocity.

Funding the crowds

1. From governmental taxation to taxing our networks to tax deductions  

So besides taxing the network that supported one’s cultural endeavour one is paying tax on what one receives and yet others don’t pay tax at all.Throughout history a model of patronage has been developed where wealthy private benefactors have invested in and supported culture, through philanthropy and donations to society. The same situation remains, however- those with money still decide what will get funded with their surplus. This type of redistribution of surplus has enabled patrons to support cultural projects as tax deductions and to finance many foundations for culture. Contributing to a crowdfunding campaign can be another viable means to avoid paying (more) tax.[36]

Philanthropy, although having the appearance of gifting, illicits control and censorship as well as reputation and attention with the recognition of the name of the patron. The wealthy may use crowdfunding as a tax write-off, being the donors, as long as they don’t receive anything, otherwise it would constitute a purchase. In contrast with reward crowdfunding one pre-purchases concepts and buys a reward as if shopping online. With digital transactions crowdfunding now enables the micropatron is to be rebranded as a donor, with her name appearing in the credits of the film, on the sides of the building, next to the murals, on all publicity posters, etc. Crowdfunding remains a patronage model without liberation.

As a campaigner, the money you receive with crowdfunding is subject to tax and depending on one’s status as a cultural entrepreneur, small business person, or freelancer, taxation occurs without the benefits of either employment or the ability to use the campaign as a tax-write-off. Rather the crowdfunding campaign is viewed as income.[37]One is taxed on the small amount one receives as the crowdfunding platform siphons off a percentage along with the transaction companies.

Certain types of crowdfunding, such as equity models, have benefited from the recent legislation in the US, such as the JOBS ACT, although some would argue that this has just made it easier to speculate and extract money from the crowds instead of creating jobs and structured labor conditions.[38] Other countries have analyzed crowdfunding networks along with those projects that appeal to smaller interest groups, or niche communities. Governmental legislation in Spain appears to be limiting the crowdfunding platforms from receiving funds from financial capital, as equity crowdfunding does, because the legislation for it does not yet exist. [39] Certain organizations however are interested in initiating law firms that would enable setting up a legal framework governing crowdfunding platforms worldwide and those who would use them, donors (backers) as well as campaigners.[40]

Funding the crowds

2. Monetization of social relations

In Marxist theory capitalism is unified through the exchange of unknowns by the obfuscation of interaction between people and their relations. In social exchange, relations do not have the anonymity of money but rather provide reciprocal returns in broader terms, open-ended networking models and tit-for-tat exchanges between people.[41] With the present online monetary exchanges between willing parties that occur during crowdfunding campaigns, social obligations are made to appear as if they were relations between things instead of people. The reifying effects of universalised trade in commodities, involves a process Marx called “commodity fetishism” meaning that social relations become expressed as relations between things;for example, price relations.[42] This commodification process describes how something without value is assigned a market value, which can replace social value. However, commodity fetishism not only perverts the realities of society’s economic base but moreover commodifies the entire social relations of capitalism.[43]

Unlike the factory’s position in the supply chain where the manufacture and the people involved in the production of goods is hidden, crowdfunding attempts to make transparent the production process of the social factory including the amount raised so far, along with the acquisition of these goods (rewards) and services (the future project) by the consumer. Although acquiring the commodity (the reward) does not reveal the labour involved in the production of the reward by the campaigner, in crowdfunding the campaigner is usually known (75% of backers) and backers are now being asked to make a contribution using a universal equivalent, in this case money, in the form of digital micropayments. Alienated labour is replaced with community activities in the form of participation. Increasingly individuals feel obliged to contribute to the projects of others (especially during the financial crisis): friends, family, neighbours and colleagues are contributing cash in order to maintain their social relations within their networks. In turn these networks become commensurated through the online money-form and the social relations between the individual workers (campaigners) and the donors (backers) are objectified and reified.

Through this private distribution of wealth it becomes progressively difficult to create a surplus by those who work precariously, because of financialization of debt in which people are forced to pay back education, loans, credit cards, mortgages with higher interest. Debt rises yet wages do not. If no new value is created in the form of surplus how will other crowdfunding projects be financed? With the advent of technological advancement ideas are much more easily transformed into commodities, along with an expansion of goods for market exchange. Notwithstanding all of the contributors to be seen as future benefactors of other projects, with the crowdfunding platforms selling their data to third party profiteers or future systems of advertisement that are all made possible by digital technologies.

This monetization, in the sense of commodifying something not usually marketed (social relations), is the causality of crowdfunding. It now takes the form of not only giving one’s time, or attention, but the commodification of one’s very own social relations. In turn, these social relations are monetized and all of us, who are online and participating, are contributing to the commodification of this subjectivity. Crowdfunding is yet another model of surplus redistribution as part of a larger economic shift, brought upon by technology in the form of digital transactions and exacerbated by austerity measures. It helps keep capitalism in place by gearing all cultural production to the market by investing in futures, the presale of projects, which have yet to be determined.

Crowdfunding is being touted as a ‘new economy’ where buying personal or hand-made commodities occurs online from people we know instead of from larger companies or retailers who take the profit. Yet the micropayment does not buy into a collective or a communal project but rather supports the authorship of the designated ‘campaigner’. The new ‘work’ that is produced from the crowdfunding campaign corresponds to exclusive access to the commodity- ownership. The rewards in the crowdfunding production process remain for private consumption with indebtedness to the patrons by the campaigner.  The campaigners accrue the symbolic capital with the help of social media, rumour and contributions, along with the further production of the ‘creative project’, their visibility increases and this ‘valorisation’ process adds value. The attention gained by the crowdfunder during the course of the campaign reinforces the circular course of capitalist production and enables the future productions of new commodities, generated from the labour power-producing surplus from the backers.

With the campaigner retaining the ‘relations of production’ along with sharing this spotlight with the crowdfunding platform, the production of new capital will continuously be generated in the form of these new commodities -the creative projects. In other words it is like the ever-expanding production needed to continue the manufacture of commodities and the continual process of producing more and selling more. Yet as surplus increases will this be kept in private pockets or distributed elsewhere, toward sustainable commodities or even savings, or will it be re-donated back to other creative projects, hence ‘funding the crowds’?

Funding the crowds

3. A new model for the distribution of wealth?

As crowdfunding sites (700+) continue to mushroom worldwide they are a force to be reckoned with. Many of these platforms include the previously mentioned types of crowdfunding: donation, lending, equity and reward. Debt crowdfunding is also expanding with growth the past year with only more expected in years to come. The legal framework for all types of crowdfunding will be most likely be passed into legislation in the US and Europe in the coming year. Crowdfunding platforms are becoming more and more international, harvesting money from people all over the world, with free API technology made available to make it even easier for groups of people to charge and collect money for any activity. The past year (2012) the amount of donations from platforms has doubled, even tripled and this year promises to see an increase as the trend of crowdfunding spreads as even more people find it an acceptable means to raise money from their networks for their causes. Yet the statistics show that the ratio of 75% known and 25% unknown funders has remained the same. [44]

Often incorrectly attributed to Karl Marx, it was actually Louis Blanc, French politician and historian who, in 1839, championed cooperatives and stated, ‘each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’[45] Steve Bell, cartoonist for the Guardian, altered Blanc’s text to ‘each according to their vulnerability, each according to his ‘greed’ in regard to the demands of UK’s ‘Big Society’.[46] One could also rewrite Blanc’s statement in regard to precarity and crowdfunding as ‘each according to his ‘flexibility’, each according to his ‘greed’. With equity theory people see financial distribution based on ‘to each according to his contribution’ as fair, although not all cultures abide by the same value system nor wish to or are able to participate to the same degree. In this respect, contemporary society’s embrace of crowdfunding as a new means of global funding is not without critique, especially in regard to the monetization of social relations. Is this leading to self-sustainability in which our own networks create not only the monetary support for the production of activities outside of the market, but also produce goods (food for example) directly for private consumption?

Instead of being just another model that redistributes surplus there are alternatives to support cultural production that can be developed from crowdfunding. A future scenario might include a financial model in which the amount that we contribute to the crowdfunding campaign is a certain percentage of collective authorship in the project that will be financed. In this collaborative endeavor, the audience (those who contribute financial support) obtains distributed ownership of the works that are financed. If crowdfunding is made successful with the financial support of the multitude, so shouldn’t we also be speaking of co- or multi-authorship? The campaigner ostensibly retains authorship yet Indiegogo for example keeps all of the online campaign for itself.[47] If the commons are fronting the cash why are the commons not reaping the benefits?

By breaking down the system of private property and looking at crowdfunding projects where communal good is supported by the community, for the community and of the community, we come across some examples of ‘alternative crowdfunding’. Now, more than ever, shared authorship and collective agency is what makes things happen. Producers and users are coming in much closer contact with one another and in the process the roles in between ‘artist’ and ‘audience’ are multiplying.[48] Perhaps eventually the ‘donors’ who support the projects might join in the production.[49] Crowdfunding projects are not usually released with a free license, but there could be projects designed to fulfill this criteria, like ‘crowdfunding the commons’ where the ‘results can be shared, reused, remixed, copied, replicated in whatever form.’[50] Therefore ‘crowdfunding is a promising field because it can address many of the dynamics that underlie the crisis of the cultural economy and its transformation from a commodity to a commons-based environment.’[51] This is what the premise of embodies, a ‘social network for co-financing and collaborating with creative projects that further the common good.’[52] In other words, “those who use the platform to raise money should control the platform, collectively, and share in the benefits generated.”[53] Organisations such as Brickstarter are attempting to improve upon the Kickstarter model into a social economy. The voices of the people contained within the platform gather together and use tools to form collaborative proposals, communities are involved in the experience and can follow the progress of the project as well as participate. In order to reach a ‘technical democracy’ the manner in which ‘hybrid forums’ and civic engagement play a crucial role is key – offline in the public aspect of confrontation and discussion, along with the organization and execution of the project; online with the collating of funds to facilitate it.[54]

Crowdfunding in its present form is not a self-sustaining model.[55] The campaigner is unremunerated for most of their labour and paid substandard wages for the production of the project. Networks are of the highest value and tapped into by the campaigner and harvested by the platform. Financing is sought from patrons (workers) who decide to spend their surplus income as funders. The funders do not end up with financial returns for their investment nor do they share in the authorship. Instead, with reward-based crowdfunding, they receive a perk, a token- an artifact of limited value. At the same time, personal relationships are commodified by an exchange of money that was previously not demanded between these networks of people. As Dmitri Kleiner points out, ‘[a]s such, it can never grow beyond the level of the retained income workers can sustainably divert from consumption, at the expense of workers’ savings. This means, that crowdfunding cannot directly have a significant effect on the social distribution of wealth unless what it funds is itself something that itself directly challenges political or economic power.’[56]

A series of questions remain unanswered: Isn’t crowdfunding just another ‘polite’ form of begging, specifically donation crowdfunding? Is the decision to support a campaign by the backer based on the quality of the project or the backer’s relation with the person? Are backers able to discern the quality of the project? Are the backers just going along with the crowd or are they relying on the reputation of the campaigner and the implied trust involved in their relationships with others and the potential kickback? Do they see their expenditure as a purchase, an investment or promoting solidarity? Will supporting those projects one trusts eventually lead to engagement with unknown crowdfunding projects by others, trusting total strangers and sharing wealth? Will crowdfunding lead to wider support for others and mutual interest in the form of a sharing economy, only what is shared is the general surplus of private capital of individuals? Why should one engage in these forms of expenditure that add to the growth of crowdfunded cultural activities and service neoliberal agendas worldwide?

As technology enables an even quicker flow of capital the state is no longer held accountable and it is increasingly private bodies, either individual or corporate, who decide what will be financed and for how much. Developing new cultural economies in our existent neo-feudalistic societies means looking beyond micro-networked patronage models such as reward-based crowdfunding. That is, if one wants to be remunerated for cultural endeavour that isn’t exclusively market driven.







[8] http://goteo/about


[10] This information is well hidden and not publicized as such but came to light through the Mediamatic event, ‘Kom jij Ook?- Crowdsourcing’ on June 11, 2011 this 75% to 25% was announced by Daniel Cohen and reiterated by VoordeKunst on January 22, 2013. This was reiterated in a Q&A with the representative by the state sponsored Irish national crowdfunding site at the ‘Collaborative Change’ conference in Dublin, July 2011. In their ‘Best of Kickstarter 2012’ Kickstarter shows similar stats (albeit cryptically) yet unchanged from the previous years. This was confirmed by Kickstarter in NYC on January 9, 2013.

[11] Macphee, Josh (2012) Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter? The Baffler, No.21

[12]  “I think Kickstarter helps people do something a lot of us have forgotten how to do — ask our neighbors for help.” This was stated by Lewis Winter, a designer in Melbourne, Australia, has given financial support to 373 projects (including three portrait commissions, an interest of his).

[13]  Ariely, Dan; Loewenstein, George; Prelec, Drazen (2005)  Tom Sawyer and the Construction of Value

[14]  “Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”  Twain, Mark (1876) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, p. 69

[15] Ariely, Dan; Loewenstein, George; Prelec, Drazen (2005)  Tom Sawyer and the Construction of Value

[16] Walker, Rob (2012) Interview with Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler

[17] Walker, Rob (2012) Interview with Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler

[18] ‘We’d turn to Kickstarter: the people’s N.E.A.!’ Walker, Rob (2012) Interview with Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler kickstarter.html? pagewanted=1&_r=2


[20] Walker, Rob (2012) Interview with Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler kickstarter.html? pagewanted=1&_r=2



[23] Email exchange on October 24, 2012 with Stephanie Pereira, director art programme at Kickstarter. Kickstarter site: ‘This year the site introduced a feature called curated pages, which gives (thoughtfully chosen) entities like Sundance Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design, the New Museum and Pitchfork space to highlight Kickstarter projects proposed by people associated with their organizations, or anything else on Kickstarter that they happen to think deserves promotion.’


[24] Payment gateways like PayPal in turn charge if a purchase is deemed to have been made (3.4% + € 0.35 between 0 and € 2.500) In turn, those receiving the money are self-employed or have business billing for revenue (invoice with 21% VAT) and consequently pay tax on that amount. In short, you can earn about 30% less than expected at the end of the process. In this amount we add the costs to produce and distribute gifts and different bonuses and hours of work invested in keeping up the campaign (estimated at about 4 hours a day for over for 30 days  for projects seeking € 12,000 ). It is therefore not surprising that many of the people we consulted who have worked with crowdfunding platforms have an ambivalent relationship with their experience with them. P. 17, P.16, Caparrós, Silvia (2012) Experiencias de crowdfunding en el estado Español y Cataluña: principals características, retos y obstáculos. Inspiración y recomendaciones para un instrumento más sólido de financiación transversal colectiva, pública y privada de la cultura. X-net report, http://whois–

[25] Hopkins, John (2012)

[26] Macphee, Josh (2012) Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter? The Baffler, No.21 P2

[27] Terranova, Tiziana (2004) Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. Pluto Press: London. p.79

[28] Macphee, Josh (2012) Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter? The Baffler, No.21 P2

[29] Walker, Rob (2012) Interview with Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler kickstarter.html? pagewanted=1&_r=2

[30] VoordeKunst is now partnered with the Mondriaan Foundation, a Dutch institution for cultural and heritage subsidies. Mondriaan’s new policy(as of January 1, 2013) includes a personal contribution of €3500 for project subsidies, including money raised from crowdfunding.

[31] Amanda Palmer is the highest successful campaigner ($1,192,793) so far only afterwards she didn’t pay local musicians while on tour: Clover, Joshua (2012) Whoopi Goldberg ostensibly needed funds ($73,764) for her documentary ‘I Got Somethin’ to tell You.’

[32] These platforms have been born thanks to the facilities of digital networks for access to databases fans or prospective clients and monetary exchange. This implies that in the long run, the products produced by these platforms are closed tangibles or consumables. This can be detrimental to the production of cultural events where the experimental, procedural or criticism is present. That is, the danger is that crowdfunding popularizes the popular and ends up as a complement to the market. P.16, Caparrós, Silvia (2012) Experiencias de crowdfunding en el estado Español y Cataluña: principals características, retos y obstáculos. Inspiración y recomendaciones para un instrumento más sólido de financiación transversal colectiva, pública y privada de la cultura. X-net report, http://whois–

[33]  “That traditional set of rules, he continues, “dictates what people make” — like paparazzi photos, let’s say.” Walker, Rob (2012) Interview with Kickstarter founders Chen and Strickler

[34] “What is not to love about these new forms, so sleek and attractive on the outside, with the promise of aiding us in the fulfillment of the last remaining human right in our society: the right to be an entrepreneur?” Macphee, Josh (2012) Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter? The Baffler, No.21 P2

[35] Email exchange on October 24, 2012 with Stephanie Pereira, director art programme at Kickstarter

[36] Offering tax deduction to backers can be an appealing way to draw in more funds. But, you can only offer tax deductions if you are a tax-exempt non-profit organization (501©(3) organization), otherwise backers funds are not tax deductible. If a backer is giving money through a 501©(3) organization, make sure the money is funded under the name of the organization, if it does not go through the organization the money will not be tax deductible. For Kickstarter, you must fill out the 1099-K tax form and, for Indiegogo, the organization must have a PayPal account that the money can go to. Daily Crowdsource

[37] A successful campaign requires hard work and in some cases, on time investment, fees and taxes imposed on results mean that many users would reconsider whether to use this mechanism to make future projects. This factor is exacerbated by the improbability drawn from the patronage law that despite being on the political agenda in recent legislatures, for now will seem not to materialize. P.17 Caparrós, Silvia (2012) Experiencias de crowdfunding en el estado Español y Cataluña: principals características, retos y obstáculos. Inspiración y recomendaciones para un instrumento más sólido de financiación transversal colectiva, pública y privada de la cultura. X-net report, http://whois–

[38] The JOBS Act also loosens a whole range of other reporting requirements, and expands stock investment beyond “accredited investors,” giving official sanction to the internet-based fundraising activity known as “crowdfunding.” Taibbi, Matt (2012)

[39] Crowdfunding support limit is is becoming clear. Many open source projects or proposals by nature conservationists have niches and very small population to support them. That they can not contribute to the financing of all projects that arise can be a real limit the growth of the crowdfunding. This problem could be solved by opening the possibility that these platforms receive funds from financial capital. P.16, Caparrós, Silvia (2012) Experiencias de crowdfunding en el estado Español y Cataluña: principals características, retos y obstáculos. Inspiración y recomendaciones para un instrumento más sólido de financiación transversal colectiva, pública y privada de la cultura. X-net report, http://whois–

[40] A law of patronage that rewarded donations more clearly would be a key factor in launching these initiatives and make them more interesting for big donors. Local and regional authorities have great difficulty integrating the crowdfunding as one of the sources of financing of serials, movies or other initiatives which in turn are likely to need public funding. We need to generate frames that accept this new reality and normalize its operation as a means of financing. It is important to conceptualize and to better define the concept of social return. Crowdfunding not only earns a pre-purchase and is an efficient tool for funding projects seeking a more fundamental socio-cultural aspect. Finally it would be very useful, in addition to the necessary changes in the current fiscal framework to compile a guide of good practice for the sector to facilitate the understanding of the rights and benefits to be gained by users, but also to define clear legal limits facing the platforms themselves. This would allow the sector to grow continuously without facing uncertainty. Given these circumstances, we have proposed a law firm with the intention of proposing solutions to these problems. P.18, Caparrós, Silvia (2012) Experiencias de crowdfunding en el estado Español y Cataluña: principals características, retos y obstáculos. Inspiración y recomendaciones para un instrumento más sólido de financiación transversal colectiva, pública y privada de la cultura. X-net report, http://whois–

[41] Spehr, Christoph (2007) Free Cooperation. In The Art of Free Cooperation, ed. Lovink, Geert & Scholz, Trebor. Autonomedia: New York. Institute of Networked Cultures: Amsterdam.


[43] Crowell, Jacqueline (2012)

[44] According to Kickstarter in 2012: 2,241,475 (up 134% from 2011) people pledged $319,786,629 (up 221% since 2011) and $274,391,721 was collected (up 238% from 2011). Of which 570,672 people backed two or more projects; 50,047 people backed ten or more projects; 452 people backed 100 or more projects. The most popular pledge amount is $25. Successful project average: $5487. Music had the most funded projects: 5,067. Games had the most money pledged at 83,000,000. Art had 3,783 projects launched, of which 1837 were ‘successful’ with $10,477,939 pledged by 155,782 people.

[45] In the Revue du progres, which he founded, he published in 1839 his study on L’Organisation du travail. The principles laid down in this famous essay form the key to Louis Blanc’s whole political career. He attributes all the evils that afflict society to the pressure of competition, whereby the weaker are driven to the wall. He demanded the equalization of wages, and the merging of personal interests in the common good– “à chacun selon ses besoins, de chacun selon ses facultés”, which is often translated as “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

[46] Referring to Marx, the award-winning political cartoonist Steve Bell in the Guardian on 21 January 2011 and the Guardian Weekly newspaper on 28 January 2011 adapted Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” for the Big Society: “From each according to their vulnerability, to each according to their greed”.

[47] Indiegogo: Our Proprietary Rights: Except for your User Content, the Service and all materials therein or transferred thereby, including, without limitation, software, images, text, graphics, illustrations, logos, patents, trademarks, service marks, copyrights, photographs, audio, videos, music, and User Content (the “Indiegogo Content”), and all Intellectual Property Rights related thereto, are the exclusive property of Indiegogo and its licensors. Except as explicitly provided herein, nothing in this Agreement shall be deemed to create a license in or under any such Intellectual Property Rights, and you agree not to sell, license, rent, modify, distribute, copy, reproduce, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, publish, adapt, edit or create derivative works from any materials or content accessible on the Service. Use of the Indiegogo Content or materials on the Service for any purpose not expressly permitted by this Agreement is strictly prohibited.

[48] Stadler, Felix (2012) Crowdfunding the Commons: Interview. Shareable.

[49] Burns, Axel (2008) Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond, from production to produsage. New York: Peter Lang Publishing

[50] Kluitenberg, Eric (2012)

[51] Stadler, Felix (2012) Crowdfunding the Commons: Interview. Shareable.

[52] Ibid

[53] Macphee, Josh (2012) Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter? The Baffler, No.21 P3

[54] Hill, Dan (2012) Conversation with Rodrigo Araya, Tironi Asociados, Chile. That the involvement of citizens in everyday decision-making about their environment is likely to result in outcomes that are more inclusive, holistic, faster, scalable, and better, as they are decisions “owned” by the citizens. In other words, sustainable.

[55] Although sometimes crowdfunding has served communities to make visible the need for funding and distributing creative projects that otherwise would not have been known, certainly crowdfunding is not sufficient to meet the needs of all areas of cultural production and contemporary thought that have become more exposed thanks to constant public funding cuts. This makes us question the role of having this tool in the production of culture and forces us to be cautious about their possible role in the funding of contemporary culture. P.16, Caparrós, Silvia (2012) Experiencias de crowdfunding en el estado Español y Cataluña: principals características, retos y obstáculos. Inspiración y recomendaciones para un instrumento más sólido de financiación transversal colectiva, pública y privada de la cultura. X-net report, http://whois–

[56] Kleiner, Dmytri (2012)


Renée Ridgway: Artist, free-lance curator, writer and educator based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.


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