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.