Is It OK to Use Kickstarter to Make Money?

Three weeks early and $359,630 short, Bjork's Kickstarter project to make an Android version of the Icelandic superstar's iOS-only educational Biophilia app has been canceled because few people wanted to give charity to a rich person.

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Three weeks early and $359,630 short, Björk's Kickstarter project to make an Android version of the Icelandic superstar's iOS-only educational Biophilia app has been canceled because few people wanted to give charity to a rich person. Kickstarter doesn't bill itself as crowd-sourced philanthropy, rather describing itself as a "funding platform for creative projects." But since the beginning, the spirit of the site has involved patronizing a "creator [who] couldn’t get money through traditional channels," as Rob Walker explained in a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile of the then-new company. So, the people took it as an abuse of the system when a famous person like Björk, who has enough money to buy herself a penthouse in Brooklyn Heights goes on there soliciting nearly $600,000. But it's not like Björk is the first established rich person to go on there asking for money. Legendary video game designer Tim Schafer, for example, got $3.3 million to make his next game, and established designers have also had luck, too.

But, this time, something was different. The people have no sympathy for the failure of a millionaire. "A moment's silence for multimillionaire Björk who couldn't convince the public to fund her latest whim," tweeted one particularly upset Mancunian DJ, echoing the sentiments of others who don't approve of a "super high status persons using Kickstarter." Even before she stepped away from the ambitious project, people questioned the move, with tweets like "something tells me @bjork probably has the resources to fund porting her paid music app without crowdfunding" and "struggling up-and-coming artist Björk launches a Kickstarterproject? Seriously?" All of a sudden it's not OK for rich people to make money on Kickstarter again. What changed?

The crowd-funding platform has combined elements of philanthropy and commerce, but these days one side can be emphasized more than other. In Jenna Wortham's profile of the company in 2009, The New York Times described Kickstarter as a place where "Patrons Support Artists on the Web." Two years later,  Wired's Carly Adler described it as a sort of a public research and development unit, calling it "a lab for daring prototypes and ingenious products."

Kickstarter co-Founder Yancey Strickler explained how the service lived between those two poles to Walker. "Money demands answers," he said. "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." At times, the market rewarded good ideas, like the multimillion dollar Pebble smartwatch. But it didn't take too long for people to realize that money begets more money. Soon, bigger players with better PR and marketing came to the platform and succeeded, as Technology Review's David Zax laments:

What I love about Kickstarter is that any scrappy entrepreneur with an idea can go out there and get funding for his back-of-napkin vision. When you look at the two most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date (here, the runner-up), they involve established or semi-established companies whose promotional videos wear their production value on their sleeve. These aren’t rogue designers, tinkerers, or DIY “makers.” And this isn’t, in a meaningful sense, a kick-start–it’s a 90-yard punt.

Kickstarter entered most people's consciousness around this time, when it focused more on commercial success. The funding of huge projects like Pebble and that Tim Schafer project led to a saturation of crap on the site from people just trying to get rich quick. And it made some especially mad because it felt like people hitting friends up for money, not a deserved artist seeking philanthropy. The site has turned into more of an online panhandling forum, as Ryan Tate writing for Gawker explained last year, than the people's republic of crowd-funding for the greater good.

Perhaps this huge Björk failure is the manifestation of those feelings. She should have succeeded, with her well produced Kickstarter video touting a project tied to an album with both commercial and critical success. It shouldn't have mattered that Björk has a ton of her own money, she played by the market rules Strickler talked about. But, it didn't work out like that. Perhaps that's because her project, which mixed philanthropy with art, reminded people that the site was once for "starving artist" types, not for rich people to use as PR for their charities.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.