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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