The Media Playground and Crowdfunding, It’s In The Mix

This is the final entry in this blog, at least for now. Here’s a summary of what was covered:
* Post 1: CLANG crowdfunding campaign opener: A closer look – September 5, 2013
Talked about what crowdfunding is, introduced the CLANG Kickstarter.

* Part 2: Converging to a point we can’t see yet – September 11, 2013
Looked at media convergence, Order of the Stick the webcomic, SHEL the band, the Mailpile secure email project, and Star Citizen (a little bit.)

* Part 3: A view from outside the West, well, sort of – September 18, 2013
Looked at the game Project Phoenix, and the company behind its diverse, globalized employees.

* Part 4: CLANG fails to make noise beyond a muffled CRINKLE – September 25, 2013
CLANG from part 1 failed to satisfy its backers, although I argue it was more a communications problem than anything else and look at how communication is a part of all crowdfunding projects, unlike traditional projects.

* Part 5: Going Out of Crowdfunding Bounds – October 2, 2013
A cursory look at how much some high-profile crowdfunding projects have earned in pledges from the public, as well as a look at Amanda Palmer and the failed Ubuntu Edge phone.

* Part 6: Activism + crowdfunding = ? – October 16, 2013
An overview of two activist scenarios with crowdfunding: Public Access and their fight to digitize public records, and how some suburban parents respond to a drug sting seemingly gone wrong.

* Part 7: To Greedily Go Where No Marketer Has Gone Before – October 23, 2013
A detailed look at two video game projects, Double Fine Adventure: Broken Age, and Star Citizen. Both use elaborate, ongoing advertising and marketing campaigns as well as audience engagement to raise money. I suggest that the crowd wants transparency, honesty, credibility, talent, and hard work.

* Part 8: Crowdfunding vs. Public Relations – October 30, 2013
A look at crowdfunding PR, some of each that have gone well, middling, or borderline disastrous. Further examination of how perceived wealth or perceived dishonesty can harm a project’s chances.

* Part 9: Crowdfunding and Ethical Dilemmas – November 6, 2013
A look at how ethical dilemmas crop up in crowdfunding situations: Kickstarters shipping late, scams, and projects that harm the public.

I ended up talking more about gaming than I wanted to, partly out of, “stick to what you know,” and also because the subjects covered happened to line up well with assigned topics. Because of that, here are some odds and ends I didn’t get to:

The Shackleton British Banjo
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If claims are true, it is the first affordable made-in-Britain banjo in over 60 years, and it may soon be the first banjo to be played at the south pole.

Hacker Scouts
They are a nonprofit who seek to innovate in childhood education, including teaching children how to safely use high tech tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters.

Propublica Crowdfunds an Internet to Study Interns
Why not? On its About Us page, Propublica describes itself as, “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”

Bee and PuppyCat: The Series
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A “cartoon centered around women, created by women”, by cartoon industry vets (The Fairly Odd Parents, Adventure Time) who kept having their pitch rejected. An unemployed magic girl does…hard-to-succinctly-explain stuff, with her cat. Episodes are all free on Youtube so far. Episode 1

Bamboo bee Bicycle
Hand-crafted Bicycles made out of Bamboo.

Some people who figured out how to print circuit boards really fast with a 3D printer, and got funded within 5 hours.

Thrice. The least straightforward museum barn raising:
So… if this were a fireside chat, a popular webcomic author decides one day to build a museum to inventor Nikola Tesla, so he creates an IndieGoGo for this purpose which raises a cool million dollars and some change. Soon after he is sued by a lawyer hired by a different website which had had a spat with the comic author although it turned out the lawyer approached the website and convinced them to sue rather than the website approaching the author with a desire to sue, leading to an epic saga of author vs. lawyer, with one using the power of the crowd, the other using the power of the law. Who won? You’ll have to read it to find out, but know this: It is an epic saga of love, loss, and revenge.

I. Hey, Did Somebody Say Something Was Going On With The Oatmeal?

II. How Dare You! That’s The Wrong Kind of Bullying!

III. The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part III: Charles Carreon’s Lifetime-Movie-Style Dysfunctional Relationship With the Internet

IV. The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part IV: Charles Carreon Sues Everybody

V. The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part V: A Brief Review of Charles Carreon’s Complaint

VI. The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part VI: The Electronic Frontier Foundation Steps In

VII. The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part VII: Charlie The Censor Files A Motion

VIII. Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part VIII: Charles Carreon Gets Sued, Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen Joins The Fray

IX. Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Chapter IX: Charles Carreon Dismisses His Lawsuit

X. The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part X: Philanthropy > Douchebaggery

XI. The Oatmeal v. Funnyjunk, Part XI: What Remains

XII. The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk, Part XII: Brave Sir Charlie Ran Away

In Which Charles Carreon Says Mostly True Things About Me In A Footnote

Charles Carreon Encounters Actual Legal Consequences

In Which I Offer Apologies

Conclusion – Crowdfunding and Democracy.
This course’s textbook ends with an attempt to tie in how mass media fits into an ideal democratic society, so it seems appropriate to end on a similar note here with crowdfunding:

While the power of the cloud is beginning to be both ubiquitous and known, next on the horizon is the nascent power of the crowd. Much as cell phone cameras and wireless access has led to citizen gatherings and uprisings such as the Arab Spring, throughout the world, crowdfunding seems to feed off of a similar discontent among young people with the status quo.

One difference is that unlike the Arab Spring–in which the end result being positive or negative is debatable, the change brought by crowdfunding has been a market change not social. In addition the change has been peaceful, messy, self-correcting, and ever evolving. Whether the end result will be good for democracy, or just the new status quo with all of the old problems (and more!) remains to be seen.

However, there is no question that crowdfunding has begun to transfer the role of the traditional mass media gatekeepers into the hands of those inside the gated community itself itself. Holding the gate open or shut is beginning to be the responsibility of the masses now. The established publishers may never fade away, but the democratization of content markets is well underway. Crowdfunding is yet another part of the mass media landscape now, alongside search engines, blogs, aggregators, social media, streaming sites, and on and on.

And fin. Thanks for reading.

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Crowdfunding and Ethical Dilemmas

“84% of Kickstarters Ship Late” -CNN
In a December 18, 2012 study CNN reported that they had contacted the creators “of the 50 highest-funded Kickstarter campaigns with estimated delivery dates of November 2012 or earlier to determine their shipping status.” 8 shipped on time, 27 shipped late, and 15 had not yet shipped.

In a related column, CNN explored some of the reasons this kept happening. Reasons included shipping products around the world being a snarl, limited manpower vs. unexpected high demand, unofficial Apple product add-ons where Apple products were changed mid-production, the length of time needed to comply with certifications or other regulations, and freak accidents, such as when a glass exploded in cartoonist Rich Burlew’s hand while he was doing the dishes.
2013-11-06 - blog 01In a story called Life After Kickstarter: 5 Costly Lessons From A Kickstarter-Backed Designer, Jon Fawcett recounted problems his successful crowdfunding project ran into because of hiring contractors in other countries to build his product, international shipping, not having established business partners, getting scammed, making deals with business partners who proved to be incompetent or malicious, inventory problems, keeping track of customer address problems, interfacing with needed customer information Kickstarter was providing not going smoothly, and having to learn as he went because he had never done, well, any of this before.

In the end, missed shipping dates seem to come down to a basic reality: Most crowdfunding campaigns are by brand new small businesses, and business for small businesses in the 21st century does not go smoothly.

The dilemma for many seems to be the question of either shipping on time, or missing a shipping date in order to get things right. To date, most crowdfunding campaigns seem to choose apologizing to their backers, attempting to make it up to them in some other way, and shipping late.

For Kickstarter’s part, these missed dates represented a problem. In September of 2012 three Kickstarter employees published a blog post entitled Kickstarter is not a Store. In this piece, it was made clear that gadget-made-by-garage-inventor projects such as Fawcett’s were unwelcome, and the strictness of requirements for such projects had been increased. Afterwards the company sought to rebrand itself as a place for independent artists to find a voice.

However, as early as April, 2012 concerns about the nature of artistic projects on Kickstarter were also being raised. For example, popular gaming voice Rock, Paper, Shotgun ran an editorial pointing out their issues with the site as follows:

1) If we post about a Kickstarter project, we’re essentially implying our readers should donate to it. Everyone makes their own spending decision based on their own feelings and research of course – but it can still be the case that for many of our revered readership, the deal wasn’t even on the table until it appeared here.

2) Without having played the game(s) in question, and most likely without seeing anything meangingful of it for many months to come, we can’t attest to that project’s quality, to the likelihood of the results being as described, or of it even coming to pass at all. This is why ‘celebrity’ KS projects tend to get covered more frequently here – the odds of a big name pulling off what they promise would seem to be much higher than an apparent unknown living up to their claims.

3) We receive several emails about new KS projects each and every day. That’s on top of all the mails about other indie projects, and mainstream press releases, and updates to MMOs and F2p games and and and. We can barely read about them all, let alone post about them all – and, even more crucially, let alone post about them from an suitably educated position that ensures we’re doing our duty to you guys.

4) If we do post about one, that might well be instead of posting about another KS project – or an already existent indie game that you could pay for (or not) and play right now, rather than months or years down the line.

5) Occasionally an indie or KS-funded game leverages its community to mass-mail us in the hope of posting about it. As well as being a practical complication to doing our jobs (imagine if your inbox suddenly filled with essentially the same message, dozens or hundreds of times over), it presents a huge moral dilemma. Some might argue that it’s passion at play and deserves coverage as a result. I’d argue that’s mob rule – so if we post about it, we’re posting about it for the wrong reasons, because we’ve been battered into submission rather than because we’re enthusiastic about it. If a big publisher did similar, and if we posted as a result, it would be a scandal.

6)This sounds horrifically arrogant, but the extent of RPS’ reach means that we can potentially alter the fortunes of KS projects we do post about. That’s a frightening responsibility as much as it is an exciting one.

Despite such stated reluctance, the site soon began presenting a stream of Kickstarter coverage and updates which continues to the present, over 300 Kickstarter blog entries later. At this point, Kickstarter-related updates are near-daily on the site.

Other concerns were raised about ex-Dresden Dolls Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter for an album and a tour, which the artist attempted to correct herself, to mixed result.

Scams – And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you rotten blogs

KOBE RED – 100% JAPANESE BEER FED KOBE BEEF JERKY was a Kickstarter scam discovered in the last days of its quite successful campaign, with Kickstarter itself stepping in at the eleventh hour and suspending the proceedings.

CNN explains: “Kickstarter relies on its community to self-police, and the Kobe Red shutdown came after sharp Kickstarter users and a documentary team raised concerns.” Without the power of the crowd working together, discrepancies in the Kobe Red project likely would have gone unnoticed. They still almost were.
2013-11-06 - blog 02
In this case, Kickstarter’s response seems commendable.

Above the Game – “We Were Wrong”
However, Kickstarter has also gotten it wrong, and it was actually their artist-friendly rebranding that landed the company a number of rotten tomatoes on the face.

On June 19, 2013, a man raised $16,000 for his “seduction guide” entitled Above the Game, a book full of tips on how men could trick women they had just met into having sex. The Kickstarter was successful, and, despite being told about the project by alert community members, Kickstarter took no action as it had with the Kobe Red project and dispersed the funds to the man.

As reddit, The Huffington Post, and others had pointed out, this was more than mere bad taste. A number of the suggestions in the book sounded like assault. Regardless, it was hard to argue this wasn’t an endorsement of misogyny.

To their credit, Kickstarter did soon respond. We were wrong, they said. Such content was not welcome on the site, and the terms and conditions had been updated to make it so. Further, an amount greater than the amount raised from the book was being donated to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

While the reasons the statement claimed for allowing the project to go through seemed plausible (attempting to support an artist in the face of criticism, there being nothing against Kickstarter’s terms of service in the project itself, and company employees learning of the problematic content only two hours before the funding period closed), it was still a disappointing result.

After all, how had something like this slipped through the cracks in the first place? Journalists. had. a. field day. One would hope Kickstarter has learned, and learned well.

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Crowdfunding vs. Public Relations

For the most part, crowdfunding is all about public relations. The first thing most will see, if they see it at all, is a video addressed directly to them: the pitch video.

The Pitch
While first impressions matter, the Pitch is more than that. It is the catalyst for everything that follows in a crowdfunding campaign. In its guide for new projects, IndieGoGo stresses this immediately.

“One of the most important elements of every IndieGoGo project is the Pitch Clip!  It reveals the story behind the story and provides a peek into who is making the project and why.

On IndieGoGo, projects with a video clip raise on average 122% more than projects without a clip.  Further, research shows that people contribute to people they know.”

Kickstarter’s advice is similar. “If you’re like us, the first thing you do when visiting a project page is click play. A video is by far the best way to get a feel for the emotions, motivations, and character of a project. It’s a demonstration of effort and a good predictor of success. Projects with videos succeed at a much higher rate than those without (50% vs. 30%).”

From there, the campaign has to hit critical mass quickly or it will fail. For instance, a group of scientists have found a way entirely based on social media reception to determine whether any crowdfunding campaign will succeed or fail within four hours of its launch. As such, the want to appeal to the public, the want for word of mouth is strong.

Transfer of Control
Initially, the people behind the project have all the control. The 2013-10-30 - blog 05message is one way, from project PR to whoever is listening on the internet. After that, though, it’s easy to lose control. Efforts by celebrities such as Spike Lee (director), Zach Braff (of Scrubs fame), Lord British, and Amanda Palmer, while they ultimately succeeded, had to battle excessive negative buzz including a skeptical, sometimes hostile press, having to do with a sentiment of, “aren’t they rich enough and well-connected already?” It’s a fair question. Couldn’t these celebrities have funded everything themselves out of pocket? Were they perhaps playing the public for suckers, so that they could minimize their risk if things didn’t work out? Couldn’t that money have been better spent on more needy, more deserving projects?

After the success of Spike Lee’s project, Kickstarter leapt to his defense. In a post entitled “The Truth About Spike Lee and Kickstarter”, argued that each successful Kickstarter celebrity project increases awareness of Kickstarter and brings thousands of new people into the fold, people who might be more inclined in the future to back something else. While an optimistic point, the more salient fact may be that the negative buzz about Spike Lee had gotten to an unpleasant enough drone to where it was actually hurting Kickstarter’s brand.

Projects with lesser celebrities backing them such as Broken Age (Tim Schafer) and Clang (Neal Stephenson) have also suffered from expectations differing from reality. Many Clang backers seemingly were expecting another Neal Stephenson book or a sword game or at least Neal Stephenson writing, despite the pitched project clearly being a motion controller, and a primitive sword game with no writing whatsoever.

Broken Age backers were expecting a fully formed idea, and an olden-style adventure game like Tim Schafer used to make whereas Schafer had definitely pitched something different: Some sort of new adventure game he was going to come up with if he got the money, with the entire process of coming up with the idea and making the game being turned into a documentary. Broken Age spent a significant portion of their campaign trying to correct fan expectations. For the most part, it never seemed like backers were collectively listening, preferring the idea of a new Tim Schafer game, rather than Tim Schafer’s actual idea.

The project getting delayed, going over budget, and expanding in scope all didn’t help. However, in each case Double Fine has turned things around by engaging their backers, arriving at compromises where possible, course correcting when feasible, and always pressing forward.

Many crowdfunding projects such as Old School RPG and Shadow of the Eternals have ended up fighting a losing battle because of negative media coverage and bad word of mouth which built and then built some more.

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Shadow of the Eternals suffered from a number of issues: a prior (substantial) checkered history which had already destroyed one company, a refusal to address those issues, promises based on past nostalgia, and a narcissist in charge, all of which were sleuthed out by the collective hive mind of the internet, as it digitally muckraked… and did not like what it dug up. Failing to assuage concerns in its ongoing dialogue with its would-be backers, two successive Shadow of the Eternals campaigns failed, and the fledgling studio disbanded, its employees scattered, left to look for work elsewhere.

2013-10-30 - blog 04In Old School RPG a dream team of past game design greats had been assembled. Tom Hall and John Romero two of the key people behind the 1990’s megahit Doom, and Brenda Brathwaite who was beloved for her work on Wizardry 8. However, John Romero’s since soured reputation, primarily from his flop Daikatana, as well as the fact that he and Brathwaite were now engaged… as well as the fact that Romero was in charge of the new studio… as as well as the fact that the internet seemed to have forgotten all of the good games Tom Hall had made… as well as the pitch sounding rushed, unfinished, and heavy on attempted nostalgia appeal. (The opening pitch contained numerous references to 1980’s “cloth maps”, and the number of times the phrase “old-school RPG” was used was also off the charts.) The project was in trouble immediately, and ended up being canceled two weeks later.

(All this without Romero ever saying a word in the pitch video. His presence, apparently, was enough.)

The dual-game pitch was clearly all about Tom and Brenda, each of whom were to design one game. Romero’s studio went back to making budget phone games, and Tom Hall soon found work elsewhere.

Dealing With The Aftertaste
2013-10-30 - blog 01Projects have also succeeded, but left a bad taste left behind. Shadowrun Returns is the most prominent example with studio Harebraned Schemes forced to have to renege on certain promises due to new contractual obligations, as well as high backer expectations. This has resulted in doubt that Harebrained Schemes will be able to launch a second successful Kickstarter, if they so choose. Studio lead Jordan Weisman’s views are interesting to contrast. After the campaign completed but before Shadowrun Returns had been finished he was largely positive. By the time Shadowrun Returns was finished (six months late), he was not as enthused, stating it was the most stressful project he had worked on in 35 years, but soon launched a second successful Kickstarter.

In the end, when multi-million dollar public relation campaigns can lose control of their message multiple times, what hope do considerably smaller by comparison crowdfunding campaigns have? So far, crowdfunding project organizers and their carefully crafted PR campaigns are subject to the fickle winds and whims of the internet. The big question for this internet crowd: Where are they going next?

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To Greedily Go Where No Marketer Has Gone Before

Double Fine advertising Broken Age

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In the still nascent field of crowdfunding, Double Fine used their game now known as Broken Age (the Kickstarter was entitled Double Fine Adventure), to try a new route of advertising. In addition to standard Kickstarter rewards: t-shirts and etc., they promised to make a documentary cataloguing everything about the process of their either creating a game, or failing spectacularly. The catch was it was only for backers. However, they soon reconsidered, and released the first video of the process as an incentive. It is a massive ad for the project, but it is also entertaining and fascinating.

It highlights how (founder) Tim Shafer’s charisma and humor are the heart and soul of the company. His same quirky, intelligent writing, sense of offbeat humor, and lovable personality is what instills the games he works on with such charmed fanbases.

As the documentary progresses however, it perhaps reveals too much. A later episode shows Tim freely admitting he’ not good at managing a company from a business perspective, which explains why everyone at the company is happy, but perhaps why Double Fine is constantly struggling to make ends meet–later 2013-10-23 - blog 03still, episodes show he has hired “a business guy”.

On the other hand, it represents a new advertising strategy, almost unheard of these days: Honesty. A willingness to admit shortcomings, even when money is on the line.

So interesting, granted, but as Broken Age game development and the documentary are both still ongoing, the results are inconclusive. The documentary is high quality stuff though. Upon completion, if they ever put the complete documentary up for sale, chances are good that a lot of people will want watch it.

Another thing it revealed is the renewed possibilities of the soapbox speech in our world where everything is connected online. As demonstrated at the end of the first episode of the documentary, where Tim addresses two crowds: An actual crowd of co-laborers at his company and a second vastly larger crowd, spread out throughout the world, who were watching from their computers and TVs and mobile devices,  watching as the Kickstarter stream counted down to zero, as if it were New Year’s. In a way, maybe it was:

“I don’t want to say that this is the end of the whole games industry as we know it. It’s not. It’s not! [laughter] And it is not like a total replacement of all publishers and publishing games. There still might be a few games made by publishers after today, just a couple games. [laughter] But it does mean, if you’ve ever been told that you’re part of a niche market. If you’ve ever, like, when you were a kid, you had your favorite TV show canceled, or you hear about your favorite band being dropped by their label for not selling enough… We’ve just been like, why does a big company get to choose what music I get to listen to or what movies I watch or TV shows I watch or what games I get to play, now you know they just–they can’t do that anymore. You can choose. So thanks, everybody.”
-Tim Schafer

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Soapboxing used in ads? Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech has recently been used in mobile phone ads on TV, to negative reaction. What if that was a traditional advertising company giving the same concept a shot and failing, precisely because honesty was not present? So how about someone genuine like Schafer, who actually means it, who actually believes in what he’s selling? Ads like that might actually go somewhere, and there are a lot of passionate people like him turning to crowdfunding.

Star Citizen

On October 10, 2012, at the annual Game Developers Conference in Austin, Texas, Chris Roberts started a new kind of advertising campaign. It wasn’t obvious what he was doing at the time. One year later, it is. Still not clear is where the advertising campaign ends up, because so far the twists and turns have been unexpected, successful, and continuing.

Mr. Roberts was a video game designer, programmer, and producer who had been the public face of a number of famous (and beloved) Star Wars-like and Elite-like (think lone trader adventuring on their own in a ship through a giant galaxy) space combat simulation games in the 90’s and 2000’s. Titles included:

  • Wing Commander (1990)
  • Wing Commander II (1991)
  • Wing Commander: Privateer (1994)
  • Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (1994, 2013-10-23 - blog 01one of the first games to use extensive video scenes with real actors, starring Luke Skywalker’s Mark Hamill himself)
  • Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (1996, Hamill returned)
  • Starlancer (2000)
  • Freelancer (2003)

However, after that he quit the game industry, moving to Hollywood where he tried producing for a while. The only movies he produced which survived to the big screen were The Punisher (2004), The Jacket (2005), and Lord of War (2005), with Lord of War being the only one he got an official credit on. After that, he faded from public view.

But on this particular morning, 7 years later Chris Roberts announced he was returning to the games industry. He had started a new development company called Roberts Space Industries, had already put together a team of people, and was announcing an ambitious new game Star Citizen, which they already had a demonstration of, with a brand new funding model.

The game sounded incredibly ambitious. Roberts wanted to combine many different game types: the singleplayer offline branching storytelling (the story would continue and adjust based on whether the player lost or passed each mission) and combat of his Wing Commander space games, the space trading of Privateer and Freelancer, the offline and online hybridization of Demon’s Souls, the jump in multiplayer matchmaking and fights of World of Tanks, and the massively multiplayer nature of Eve Online.

As if that wasn’t enough, Roberts said (and demonstrated the beginnings of) Hollywood production values. He explained that traditionally what would happen is that he would not show a game this early in development to the public. Instead, the proper thing to do was to pitch this project to a publisher, because understandably enough, something this ambitious was going to cost a whole lot of money.

However, those publishers were not interested in space games, nor in a personal computer exclusive Roberts was pitching. So instead, he was trying something new (although surely inspired by the success of projects such as Double Fine Adventure), a hybrid approach: a number of investors who had agreed only to give Roberts money if he could prove that there was demand. He intended to do that by pitching it to the gamers watching it at home. If gamers were interested, they could go to a certain website, and donate money via Paypal, in exchange for various in-game items, such as spaceships, with bigger and better spaceships costing more and more. He was hoping to raise $2-4 million.

As it turned out, Roberts was only getting started. Where we are a year later: The requests for funds continues, with $24 million raised through various sources: the Roberts Space Industries Paypal donations, investor venture capital, and a month-long Kickstarter. New features have constantly been added as pledges have increased, such as first person combat which was promised and delivered after a $20 million goal was reached.

Throughout there has been a steady river of advertising and other attempts to get players buzzing such as livestreaming new features. It seems to be working, word of mouth, and money coming in has grown and grown. Starting in June 2013, they have started doing space “car ads” basically, although not for cars. These are for virtual spaceships which will be in the game.

I almost wish these were on TV as commercials. They would definitely get a reaction.

Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but Star Citizen shows no signs of slowing down. Its methods of online advertising are successful so far, but if the actual game isn’t all that and a bag of chips, a lot of people who have given money are going to be… let’s just say, angry.

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Activism + crowdfunding = ?

Crowdfunding, Paying For Legal Bills?
The allegations, if true, are serious. The parents of a Riverside, CA 17-year-old, Doug and Catherine Snodgrass, say their son has autism, Tourette Syndrome, bipolar syndrome, and no friends. His parents claim an undercover policeman–pretending to be a fellow student–befriended the young man, pressured him so severely into buying marijuana that he began harming himself. Further, they say when the social pressure grew too great for the student, he did buy some marijuana, leading to his being promptly arrested, along with 22 other special needs students, and then expelled by an unsympathetic school district.

In court, the alleged victim was found not guilty although the judge required to serve 20 hours of community service. He was returned to the school in spring due to a court order, however the school district is still fighting to expel him due to a zero tolerance policy regarding drugs.

After the verdict, Reason, a libertarian magazine and web portal which is unsympathetic towards the War on Drugs picked up the story:

The Snodgrass’ plight/allegations of impropriety/request for aid/attention seeking/blame deflecting/whatever-one-wants-to-call it seems to have escaped the notice of most of the public, whom overall so far seem either indifferent or unaware. Then again, the parents’ next move led to at least a small number of people saying, “wait, what?”

That next move was to open a two month long IndieGogo, entitled The Snodgrass Legal Fund, (currently in progress, with $1,941 of an asked for $30,000 raised) asking for help with legal bills from anyone who had heard the story and felt sympathetic (or perhaps just wanted to ensure the police and school district aren’t doing this kind of thing in the future.)

The news coverage and attempted use of IndieGogo has raised the interest of a few activist internet blogs: “Riverside Cop Tricks Autistic Teen into Buying Pot“! was’s take. “Undercover cop tricks autistic teen into buying pot“! said boing boing. The teen’s mom probably got the best one-liner in, however. “This experience basically taught our son how to sell drugs, and that’s not why we sent him to school,” she said.

The Snodgrass Legal Fund is still in its infancy. Currently with not even 10% of the requested amount raised, it looks unlikely to succeed. Still, this may have more to do with the public’s unawareness of this story, let alone that the Snodgrass family is asking for money. The Snodgrasses come across as sympathetic, and, if word of mouth were to grow, (as it does appear to be, although slowly), internet activists may be able to chalk up an important early first win for a new way of financing their pet causes. In this case, that of policy reform for the local police and the Temecula Valley Unified School District.

More important than that though, hopefully the truth will be determined and justice will be done in the case of young master Snodgrass and his seemingly not-so-good first-friend “Dan”. Hopefully no police officers are out there converting innocent special needs students into drug dealers. And hopefully Snodgrass’ next friend is a decent person.

Public Access to Public Records

Somewhere in Sebastopol, California, an average looking man with a crazed gleam in his eye poses for a picture, surrounded by piles of government documents, books, and boxes that contain many more.

2013-10-16 - blog 01 Anyone who can be around that many government documents and be excited, even though he is not a government employee, is clearly no ordinary man. He is Carl Malamud, outspoken activist, creator of the first internet radio station, founder of, and much more besides. His passion is the public domain, something he advocates for in tireless fashion. In particular, Malamud believes that the text of all government laws should be accessible to the public so that the public can read them. Not content with the laws being accessible, Malamud desires for these documents to be easily accessible, preferably on the internet, where they can be easily searchable.

To that end he has engaged in numerous endeavors to make internet copies of government materials. His website claims he has digitized 588 government films for Youtube and the Internet Archive as well as publishing a 5 million page archive from Government Printing Office materials.

Malamud has also clashed legally with several government entities who have asserted copyright over their documents. For instance, he has challenged California’s assertion of having complete ownership to the copyright of all its laws by publishing the state’s building, plumbing, and criminal codes online. When it came to the state of Oregon, Malamud was able to convince Oregon’s legislators to change their minds without either side resorting to a court battle. As a result, the state of Oregon currently does not assert copyright over any of its statutory laws.

Carl Malamud’s latest such effort is a Kickstarter. He is asking for $100,000 (needed by October 28, to be successful) to convert 28,000 or so public safety documents to HTML and to put them online. As of today he has raised about one fourth of that, making his success somewhat of a long shot. However, Mr. Malamud seems to be an irrepressible sort. If this endeavor fails, no doubt he will remain unfazed.

More to come?

Currently such campaigns seem to be in their infancy. Even if these particular two do not succeed, it is not so hard to envision a future where even big politicians might use a crowdfunding model for raising their election support. As to whether such a future will actually come to pass, though, this author has no idea.

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Going Out of Crowdfunding Bounds

How much money can a crowdfunding initiative raise?
More specifically, how high can this go? There’s probably a limit, right? What is it? These remain questions no one knows the answers to yet, although not knowing has hardly stopped people from speculating.

In July 2012, PC Magazine published an editorial of the opinion that Kickstarter tech projects are a bubble (Kickstarter seems to be the go-to crowdfunding platform that those in the media will point to to represent crowdfunding) which, much like the housing bubble that triggered the Great Recession, would soon burt. A piece arguing the same thing, except about a Kickstarter video game bubble, was presented at Gamasutra two months earlier. There has also been speculation that federal regulation will make crowdfunding illegal or impossible.

Meanwhile, singer Amanda Palmer utilized her close relationship with fans, her famous husband Neil Gaiman, her 2013-10-02 - blog 03semi-celebrity status, her “known” status as a musician who had already released albums and toured, and creative pre-order rewards to enact a Kickstarter campaign for a new album. A month later her funding goal had been blown through eleven times over. And she made it look easy.

On the other end, crowdfunding has been hailed as the beginning of the end for the traditional publisher-creator partnership. Novel authors Michael J. Sullivan and Bradley P. Beaulieu have both broken their publisher relationships and declared this is the end for publishers–the publishers just haven’t figured it out yet.

But like most “highly successful” crowdfunding campaigns, Palmer’s album topped out at a million dollars or so. Informal wisdom was that this was the most someone could ever hope for and then only if everything went really, really well.

Searching for the edge
In order to know where the edge was, it was important to figure out what the lay of the land was first. Who exactly is out there?
Kickstarter’s most successful projects (that this author is aware of) are:

  1. The Pebble e-Paper Watch ($10 million)
  2. The OUYA video game console ($8.5 million)
  3. The Veronica Mars movie ($5 million)
  4. Torment: Tides of Numenera video game ($4.1 million)
  5. Project Eternity video game ($3.9 million)
  6. Mighty No. 9 video game ($3.8 million)
  7. Reaper Miniatures Bones: An Evolution Of Gaming Miniatures ($3.4 million)
  8. Double Fine Adventure video game ($3.3 million)
  9. Wish I Was Here film ($3.1 million)
  10. FORM 1: An affordable, professional 3D printer ($2.9 million)


  1. Canary: The first smart home security device for everyone ($1.9 million)
  2. Let’s Build a @#$% Tesla Museum ($1.3 million)
  3. StickNFind- Bluetooth Powered ultra small Location Stickers (~$900,000)
  4. Lets Give Karen -The bus monitor- H Klein A Vacation! (~$700,000)


  1. Sharecraft 2012 Feed the Children campaign ($1 million)
  2. Wikileaks legal defense fund 2011 ($368,300)

Most of the other entities in the crowdfunding this author could find were operating on the sub $1 million scale (examples: Sponsume, Funding Circle, GoFundMe, and Community Funded).

So it does look like Kickstarter has the most notoriety and the most success in terms of money raised. However, an Indiegogo project almost upended the status quo.

The Ubuntu Edge
On July 22, this year, after a short teaser campaign, Canonical announced the Ubuntu Edge. Canonical is the international corporation best known for Ubuntu, their free desktop variant of Linux. Ubuntu has tried for years to defeat Windows and Mac OS X in glorious battle–always failing in terms of who-is-winning-the-popularity-contest. Much like Microsoft has expanded Windows to tablets and phones, Ubuntu Edge was the same idea for Linux. If successful, 2013-10-02 - blog 01the exceedingly ambitious Indiegogo shindig was going to raise thirty-two million dollars, and usher in a new smartphone that had a completely different operating system going on under the hood: A new phone version of Ubuntu.

The phone had a number of advanced but out-there sounding features. Instead of normal phone glass, the Edge was going to be coated with glass made from sapphires (supposed to be much more scratch and fall resistant.) While cool, it added a lot to the cost. Also in the mix were a high-end processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a 720p display, and stereo speakers all just because it could. Many of these features were unlikely to make a phone user’s experience appreciably better, but were likely to drain the battery faster. Instead of being a traditional phone, the phone could work both as a phone and as a normal, albeit extra tiny, computer.

Crazy, yes? It sounded so, and all of this from a company that had never built a phone before, with an operating system no one in the public had gotten a chance to test drive yet. After rushing up to the $8 million mark, the campaign soon ran out of momentum. There it stayed until the final weeks, when Canonical began revising their pay structure, offering cheaper and cheaper payment options for the phone, which eventually dropped from the starting $800 to $655. It wasn’t enough. There were no takers on the $80,000 corporate pledge option until the campaign was almost over, at which point a single company pledged (perhaps symbolically?)

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Thus, the campaign did fail. However, it failed at an impressive $12.8 million pledged–still a crowdfunding record despite no money changing hands. Unlike many Indiegogo campaigns, Canonical had set things up so that if the campaign failed, they would not collect the money pledged and walk away. Instead, they had set it up so they got a more honorable nothing

Was it a publicity stunt? In some ways, probably. CEO Mark Shuttleworth told the BBC that, “we would have been bringing the future forward a year or two at least.” Others had suggested Shuttleworth was having difficulty finding phone building partner companies who would take Canonical seriously. That $12 million probably helped open some doors.

And Canonical is still going ahead with Ubuntu for phones, just without making the phones themselves. The awareness and demand for Ubuntu phones is likely much increased from their failed Indiegogo campaign, no small feat in a market dominated by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android (also a linux variant, although a locked down version).

2013-10-02 - blog 04Mark Shuttleworth

For now, the crowdfunding standard a successful project can expect to raise does seem to stand at about $1 million–creeping up to $3 million on Kickstarter. But the record stands at 12.8 times that. Sort of.

So far, though, the numbers look like they are trending ever higher. If an obscure phone project can raise that much money, the future looks interesting.

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CLANG fails to make noise beyond a muffled CRINKLE

A funny thing happened on the way to finishing our Kickstarter
Until September 19, the newest update on the CLANG sword game project (previously written about on The Crowd Publishers here) was April 28. In the new update, someone from the CLANG sword game project posted a project status update on their Kickstarter blog. The news seemed all bad. CLANG had run out of money. The team of developers had relied on securing additional funding from non-crowdfund sources… which had fallen through… neither of which they had bothered to inform Kickstarter backers of until this point. So far as anyone had known up until this point, the $500,000+ raised was supposed to be enough to see things through.
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Effective immediately, or possibly already in effect from some time before–it really wasn’t clear–CLANG development was paused. (Or was it? Later on the post said CLANG had become a, “evenings and weekends,” hobby project.) While not canceled yet, CLANG was now in financial limbo at best. In addition, no backers would be getting their money back. There was no money to give back because it had all been spent.

Not only that, the update recommended readers back yet another Kickstarter project being run by “friends” if they wanted to see the promised sword controller. Audacious much? It was a reminder crowdfunding doesn’t always go so well.

We’ve hit the pause button on further CLANG development while we get the financing situation sorted out. We stretched the Kickstarter money farther than we had expected to, but securing the next round, along with constructing improvised shelters and hoarding beans, has to be our top priority for now. We hope we’ll be able to make an announcement on that front soon. In the meantime, if you’re still interested in helping the next generation of swordfighting games move forward, have a look at the STEM Kickstarter now being run by our friends at Sixense. We’ve contributed to an update on their Kickstarter that will explain some of the reasons we are excited about what they’re doing.

Other points made seemed strained through a verbal gymnastics filter. Encouraging gems such as:

The project isn’t dead in dead-parrot sense until the core team has given up on it and moved decisively on to other projects. Other events such as declarations of bankruptcy can also serve as pretty reliable markers of a project’s being dead.

And this doozy of a… Really? You didn’t know that before?! Well…:

Kickstarter is amazing, but one of the hidden catches is that once you have taken a bunch of people’s money to do a thing, you have to actually do that thing, and not some other thing that you thought up in the meantime.

…did not inspire confidence.

The Response, part 1 – The people who actually gave money
Backers have little financial recourse outside of the courts because Kickstarter does not issue refunds on projects that raise enough funding but later fail to deliver their goals, nor does it require the entrepreneurs in charge of a failed project to do so. Surprisingly enough, initial reaction from backers was predominantly positive.2013-09-25 - blog 02
However, as the word got out some negative comments crept in.2013-09-25 - blog 01
Still, outside of a couple upset people, replies seemed upbeat. Many seemed merely grateful for an update, so long as the project was not abandoned entirely.

2013-09-25 - blog 03

Response part 2 – The Press
In contrast to the users, the press and gaming press was not nearly so kind. Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which had previously been kind to CLANG in coverage, wrote: “The whole Kickstarter update is kind of astounding, to be honest. It seems like the CLANG team wasn’t prepared to handle the actual logistics of creating this thing at all, and now they’re dealing with the consequences.” The, traditional publisher-loving, Gamasutra headline was: “Another high-profile Kickstarter runs out of gas”. Similarly, “Famous Kickstarter Turns Into Complete Disaster“, blared Kotaku.

Rather than simply fall back upon some kind of caveat emptor, buyer beware, apologist piece for why crowdfunding is still awesome–no really! Honest!–despite this high profile failure–just be careful what to back!, or writing a piece discussing how crowdfunding is a scam that will take backer’s money with no return, or something something dark side about how crowdfunding video games is a fool’s errand because video game development is really hard, it’s time to take a closer look.

What was really going on? Were things really that bad?
2013-09-25 - blog 08Or was the situation even worse… or better somehow?
Several interesting things came up in the course of doing research on the project. They all flow from one easy-to-miss fact.

The original CLANG pitch promised mainly one thing outside of various pledge amount rewards (T-shirts and etc.):

A bare-bones arena sword-fighting game.

This seems to have been completed and delivered to backers in the form of a demo on April 28. After which the project went silent until this new update, which admits the demo is “underwhelming”.

However, many of the replies to the Sept 19th blog post expressed a lack of awareness that there had been a demo release at all. Many project backers seemed pleasantly surprised to discover so. The gaming press seems to have been equally unaware. So far they remain so, more interested in a “famous author Neal Stephenson + Kickstarter + failure!” narrative.

In hindsight, it does make a certain sense. Since the demo release was a backers-only update, only backers could see the demo in the first place. As such, the news that a CLANG demo was out seems to have been non-existent last spring, and no word of mouth was able to spread either. After all, the gaming press could not cover something that was for backers’ eyes only unless some members of the press, too, were backers. None of them seem to have been. And if backers didn’t know themselves, they couldn’t exactly share the demo with their friends.

This and several other exchanges with backers, suggest CLANG as a project had a different core problem entirely:

Communication difficulties
So the demo may have been the only thing promised, and in hindsight the opening pitch seems to have been clear that CLANG was planned to have 3 funding stages: a Demo (Kickstarter), followed by  two further stages for a full game and for the special sword motion controller. However, the majority of the pitch was definitely about the controller, and the implication (a strong one) that came through loud and clear was that backers would be getting all three things. Simple game followed by better game, followed by sword controller–not a demo (even if that counted as the first part) followed by silence.
2013-09-25 - blog 04
By being unclear (possibly downright weaselly) in their wording, by hyping up expectations (although somewhat understandable as it was a pitch–pitches pretty much have to excite people to succeed), by not informing their audience that the success of the project was contingent on additional funding from non-Kickstarter investor sources, by ceasing updates after phase the first of a three phase project was ostensibly completed, by failing to launch a second public funding round as was expected, by neutering press coverage including when they finally had something to release, and by an update 6 months later full of non-apologies and semantic gymnastics, CLANG has crashed and run aground.
2013-09-25 - blog 05

The implication
The saddest part is most of how this all went down sounds like a wasted opportunity. The team technically did deliver what was promised, and still do have a chance to deliver the rest. In time. They even have a backer base who is still mostly onboard and wishes them well. However, their PR ineptness, as well as seeming lack of knowing how to run a project smoothly has clearly damaged their good name, especially in the press, and their chance of continuing.
2013-09-25 - blog 06
Be that as it may, Neal Stephenson has started replying in the comments as of yesterday. So the dialogue continues, at least. Perhaps CLANG is not dead, only laid low by a blow to the helmet.

As many of the backers replying to the announcement made clear: A lot of times backers just want to be kept in the loop, even when there are setbacks or delays. This suggests a whole lot of crowdfunding users are treating crowdfunding similar to angel investing or venture capitalism, despite the lack of return they receive compared to such investors. (Perhaps there is room for a crowdfunding site where backers are treated like investors? Where backers are given shares and allowed to share in any future financial success?) As it is, many crowdfunding backers seem to treat pledging, not as a glorified pre-order scheme, but almost as charity, and their attitudes seem, well, charitable. Hats off to them.

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