Much has been written about Zack “Danger” Brown’s potato salad Kickstarter, a jokey but earnest request for $10 in donations that brought in more than $50,000.
The most common account is that the guy who just wanted to make potato salad—"Basically I'm just making potato salad. I haven't decided what kind yet."—tickled the Internet, spreading joy and receiving wide support from those who had a buck or two to spare. Some experts even chalked it up to the democratizing powers of crowdfunding.
But the data behind the campaign paints a different picture, one that suggests a tiny and fairly homogenous subset of the Internet drove the campaign’s success. Using a very basic web scraper, I took all available data on the Kickstarter page (and older versions of it stored in the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine) to look at how the campaign changed over time.
As of this writing, Brown has raised $51,719. If we break down this amount by level of funding, the majority of supporters are contributing very little to the campaign. Some 69 percent of all backers pledged between $1 and $4—yet small donors only make up 15 percent of the total campaign funds. In other words, most of the money is coming from a small group of donors. The group that gave the largest share donated between $35 and $49, contributing roughly 40 percent to the total. Yet this tier of funders, who will receive a T-shirt and a bite of potato salad, make up less than 10 percent of the 6,154 backers. That means a set of 555 hardcore potato salad enthusiasts had the biggest financial impact on the campaign.
There was an even larger skew on the first day of the campaign, when only 18 supporters—1.4 percent of the total—donated 61 percent of the total pledge. This suggests that crowdfunding, like political campaign fundraising, isn’t always democratizing. Sometimes it’s just about getting the support of a few people who think like you. It only took a dozen or so people to make a potato salad Kickstarter look overwhelmingly successful.
What really pushed the campaign over the edge—and into five figures—was Reddit. On July 7, one user flagged the campaign in an “offbeat topics” subreddit where it received over 4,250 upvotes. The exposure prompted a rush of small donors: Several hours later, 1,039 new supporters had donated, with the vast majority of them—96 percent—contributing a dollar. At the same time, the total funding swelled from $5,000 to $23,000, an improbable feat for small donors. So who was piling on the donations?
Once again, elite backers carried the campaign forward. Those who donated between $25 and $50 or more contributed 80 percent of the total pledge. That’s 258 people pledging $18,600 within only a few hours.
At some point, the campaign hit $70,000—then fell by over $20,000 shortly after. Kickstarter spokesman Justin Kazmark explained to the Washington Post that these sudden fluctuations might have just been human error. “When you’re backing a project you get to choose how much money its very possible that someone chose $10,000 instead of $100,” he said.
This seems unlikely, though. First of all, donation amounts are typed in manually, making it doubtful that someone would accidentally punch in five zeros instead of one or two. Charting the changes in pledges shows that the fluctuations occurred only when the campaign was at its most viral, making it seem more likely a few were having fun artificially boosting the numbers (then watching them fall). As the campaign neared its end, the pledges soared and dipped again.
When we peek a little further at the data, 73 percent of donors are men, 19 percent are women, 8 percent are unidentifiable, and one person identified as transgender.
This makes sense: Overall Kickstarter visitors are 76 percent male and 24 percent female. The campaign received its most dramatic boost in support from Reddit, where the average user is an American male in his twenties.
The campaign also received global support, with donations coming from 54 countries. One third of all backers (among those who listed their location) came from outside the United States. The densest areas of support came from urban coastal areas.
And what about the popular narrative that the campaign spread joy across the Internet? One could argue the elation about potato salad, too, was limited to a niche corner of the web. I was unable to scrape the endless data on social media, so I looked at a small sample of comments that appeared on a Facebook share of when the campaign had hit $23,000. Of the 66 comments I analyzed, 70 percent were negative, like: “absurd and sad,” “horror,” “I fucking hate everything right now,” and “this just made me cry.” One woman who is trying to fundraise for emergency surgery said she felt “slapped in the face with this sort of thing.” Others who were also trying to raise money for health or charity expressed similar heartache.
Another 18 percent responded with wit: “He could have made a million on egg salad,” “He may get hired as a hedge fund manager,” and “Beauty of the Internet. Never disappoints.”
The 12 percent of positive comments included “brilliant”, “genius” and “heaven forbid someone have a little fun in life.”
But the potato salad Kickstarter isn’t the first of its kind. Back in 1998, when crowdfunding was in it infancy, a nameless American “middle class business owner” known only as the “Gimme a Buck guy” asked the Internet for a buck. He received $75,745 instead.