Media activist Ian MacKenzie offers a short history of crowdfunding and how it repesents one of the key pillars of our emerging social and economic paradigm.
It’s hard to know when it began. Perhaps it started with my first web page. That moment I typed out my first cautious lines of HTML, and uploaded the document to the mysterious sounding “web server.”
The words spoke back at me from the monitor. With cautious joy I realized these letters were now published to the Internet. My 16 year old mind pictured the thousands of visitors that could now pour onto my site, eager to devour this fresh bit of content added to the infant catalogue of websites growing everyday.
Part of me wanted to remove the page immediately. Who was I to publish something on the web? After all, it would be years before I understood the label: consumer. This is a being that does not create, but only devours the creative products of others – Disney, Hasbro, Nintendo. I didn’t know it in my childhood, but the “imagineering industry” was well underway, with billions of dollars invested and earned by outsourcing creativity for legions of children.
And yet, suddenly, as the single sentence blinked in front of my eyes, it was like a new being speaking back to me. Hello world. I had created life. And I would never be the same again.
Today, almost 15 years since Al Gore coined the term “The Internet” the landscape has changed dramatically. Blogging has become the most significant shift in publishing since the printing press, allowing thousands to share their rawest emotions and (often) inane commentary on just about everything. YouTube allowed us to see each other and share our captured moments. And finally, Facebook and Twitter ushered in the era of “social networking” (on the shoulders of Myspace and Friendster).
The result is a culture of sharing.
Here is what we see today on the web: millions of web videos, music tracks, essays, blog posts, photographs and more, offered simply for no cost (other than a computer and Internet connection). Without even realizing it, the web has become the largest gift economy ever.
To understand the scope of the shift, we must first understand how the dominant cultural economic model has worked for the past 75 years.
Long Live the Consumer
Let’s start with the music industry. Here is a typical example: a record label would sign a promising artist, claiming varying swaths of control over their output and career, sink piles of money into their marketing, and reap the benefits. This model has supported a vast network of “middle-men”, many of whom care deeply about music, but are bound to four mega-corporations who are in it for the money. Music is a commodity just like any barrel of oil or sack of rice.
This model is primarily why most of the tracks on the radio sound identical and are cycled on airwaves until they’ve saturated your psyche. Big corporations know that repetition is the surest way to “create” a hit. The audience participation is sequestered to the final stage of the production line: consuming the album or track or live performance when its released to the masses.
This model has thoroughly permeated other creative industries, such as TV and magazine publishing, with the difference that content must attract eyeballs for advertisers. This is the primary reason you see the same inexplicable reality shows on hundreds of channels and find yourself wondering, “Who watches this?”
(Side note: the proliferation of reality-TV is not because audiences truly demand such high quality viewing. Rather, it’s because networks can pay reality “stars” almost nothing for their 5 minutes of fame, which means the shows are cheap to produce, offering higher margins.)
From Consumer To Creator
In 2007, the electronic band Radiohead released their new album IN RAINBOWS on their website. Instead of a typical “buy now” button with the standard cost, they asked the user to type in an amount. It could be anything, even zero. Although nearly two-thirds of downloaders chose to pay nothing, hundreds of thousands opted to pay a few dollars for the album, and millions more copies were later purchased through other channels like iTunes and traditional CDs.
True, Radiohead is a mega-band that already had legions of fans. And this model is no guarantee for any struggling musician, but this revolution birthed by the Internet is hard to overstate. While experiments in “pay what you want” had been tried before, Radiohead brought it to the mainstream. Suddenly, bands could converse directly with fans. Fans could converse directly with previously unreachable creators. The fans could create their own artwork, remixes, stories, and more, and share them with each other. The consumer had suddenly become the creator.
It appeared the New Age had arrived—but all was not well in this digital utopia. While the means of production had been given to the masses, the masses still lacked the ability to raise funds to create projects of professional size and scale.
I faced this exact conundrum in the summer of 2008, having shot my first feature documentary “One Week Job” about a guy who worked 52 jobs for 52 weeks to find his passion. After 8 months on the road, and 90+ hours of footage, I needed investment to focus on cutting it into a watchable film. I lacked knowledge and patience for the traditional film financing model (plus, it would mean giving up control of my story).
Instead, we turned to grassroots fundraising, but with a modern twist: we asked friends and family for donations through Paypal. Many other filmmakers and musicians had been using similar methods, and I remember thinking it wouldn’t be long before an enterprising startup caught on to create the platform to kickstart campaigns.
Crowdfunded project: Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011.
The appropriately titled Kickstarter launched that same year. For a modest 5% fee, they offered the tools to post and share creative projects and collect funds from the masses. In exchange, the creator offered various “rewards” for different donated amounts, ranging from free downloads of the completed film, to Skype tarot readings with the director, to private concerts with the band. The relationship between creator and audience grew tighter.
Like every good idea, it inspired others platforms. Indiegogo also erupted in 2008, and soon platforms began popping up like fungi. Today, I’ve bookmarked over 15, including: SoKap, Razoo, Crowdrise, Rockethub, and Spacehive. What’s interesting is how each platform aims to use crowdfunding for different purposes (but more on that later).
In 2010 and 2011 respectively, filmmaker/director Velcrow Ripper and I raised over $80K towards our upcoming film Occupy Love, illuminating the Occupy movement and other uprisings unfolding around the world. We turned to crowdfunding for two reasons: 1) traditional sources of development funding have shrunk, even for established filmmakers, and 2) to involve the community in the process of making the film.
It was during our two campaigns that I was able to discern the deeper shift hinted through crowdfunding.
On the surface, crowdfunding seems like a streamlined way to collect donations for a creative project. The underlying “ask” could be stated as follows: “Because I could not raise the money for my project, I ask you to donate your money to help me out. This is a one-time ask, because in the future, I will be able to provide for myself.”
This is the consumer model in disguise. The premise is that we are individuals, driven to maximize our own self-interest. Therefore, it is only through the goodness of your heart that you would support another. After all, if a project is in fact “worthy of making money” in our current economic system, then it wouldn’t need this support.
And yet, with ever more people using the crowdfunding model, it’s no surprise “crowdfunding fatigue” has entered our lexicon. The first few invitations to donate may be charming, but by the 10th or 20th, you’re perhaps ready to hit delete before reading the email. This fatigue also rests on the underlying premise of the consumer model. You only have so much of your hard-earned pie to give away, and once you hit your personal limit, you’re tapped out.
What we are lacking is not the funds to pay for these crowdfunded projects, but the foundational story that allows us to grasp the true significance of the emerging model.
When you examine the type of projects generally being funded, they look far different than what you’d typically see produced by TV networks or traditional record labels: The Spirit Level, a film about how to build happier societies through equality. Or All Together Now, a photo book celebrating women in music.
In short, many of these projects are unlikely to attract dollars via advertisers or mass sales. And yet their impact on the world is far more beneficial than one more episode of Jersey Shore or salacious issue of Cosmopolitan.
In the crowdfunding model, what is really being asked is: “This creative project will be of value to the world. I ask that you support the birth of this project during this time of creation, as you will be supported when you become a creator.”
In this new model, “creator” is a temporary state of gestation and manifestation, much like a mother birthing a child. As a society, we instinctively know that a mother needs special care and attention while in this process, which lasts until sometime after the actual birth. (If you’re lucky, some societies have encoded this in our parental-support policies). Eventually, the creator then shifts back into consumer – and another creator takes their place.
The Shift to Interdependence
In Thailand, if you were to wake in the early dawn hours, you may witness the Buddhist monks leaving their monasteries and weaving silently through the streets. They walk single file, the oldest in the front row, carrying their alms bowls in their fingers. Laypeople wait for them, ready to offer food, flowers, and incense sticks into bowls.
The monks rarely speak, even to say thank you. Giving alms is not thought of as charity. Rather, the ritual is a lived reflection of a deeper reality: that we are all interconnected. The giving and receiving of alms creates a spiritual connection between the monks and the community: the monks offer their deep spiritual work, while the laypeople offer their physical support. Both sides need each other to maintain a harmonious society.
Today, the comparison is important, because we are on the cusp of transitioning to a society that closes the loop on this new model. Rather than perceive ourselves as individuals with only the capacity to create or consume, what does it mean to act on the knowledge that we are, in fact, all interconnected? The missing link in this new creative paradigm is no longer understanding how we support, but why we support.
When I support another creator in birthing their project, it creates the world I want to see. And because I am intimately embedded in this world, I am directly and indirectly affected in an infinite variety of ways. Further, just as I may ask to be supported during my periods of creation, so I must support others with the spirit of selflessness and joy.
You may rightly point out that some countries such as Canada (CBC), the UK (BBC), and others have publicly-funded cultural organizations that fund and produce creative work for the common good of the nation. Yet this model still relies on a traditional, hierarchical method to disperse the funds.
There’s a reason that Occupy Wall Street and other social movements are experimenting with non-hierarchic decision making structures—they are modeling themselves after the most chaotic system of all: Mother Nature. No single entity decides which grass will grow or flowers will bloom. They just do, and the dance works beautifully.
What I am speaking of is unlocking a new economic ecosystem of creativity, where money flows to where it’s needed most. This future is horizontal.
The work being done by conscious creatives in the realms of words, music, filmmaking and beyond, is too important to leave to the skewed bias of the old economic models. Our capacity to free ourselves from the illusions of the corporate imagineers is akin to seeing ourselves again for the first time in a long time.
Our art is a reflection of ourselves, and our ability to truly see the reality behind the curtain: our world is dying, and She needs us to wake up.
Here’s what I see coming:
Crowd-supported Individuals —I know many artists and creatives that produce some of the most profound and beautiful work I’ve seen, and yet most of them struggle with paying their modest bills. I foresee the emergence of individuals supported entirely by funds from the crowd, via ongoing micro-payments and a rotating roster of patrons. (This is already happening: read author Jenny Ferry's story)
Artist Collectives —rather than campaigning from project to project, I believe the shift also include artist collectives aimed at producing powerful, high-quality content, some for entertainment but many for social action and consciousness-raising.
Crowdfunding Everything —As mentioned earlier, the sprouting of crowdfunding platforms now encompasses a range of purposes. You can now fundraise to fix real-world infrastructure in your city, finance important scientific research, and help journalists break key stories. This trend will continue to apply to everything the consumer model currently inhabits.
The end result is what we could call a “culture of creativity” where there is no hard distinction between the creator and consumer, they are merely conditions which temporarily align and disperse as the desire and need manifests. We become participants in our lives again, instead of passive consumers.
Will crowdfunding completely replace the consumer model? No. The old consumer model will continue to retain a significant portion of economic activity—not every product, project, or idea is suitable for crowdfunding. Though just like we are starting to reclaim our relationships with the artists, we are called to participate in reclaiming our communities.
We are invited to join not out of responsibility, but out of gratitude, a key emotion of the new paradigm. Crowdfunding is a model that better allows us to connect our personal gifts with receivers. This is aligned with the nature of the gift.
Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, says it best:
Gratitude, the recognition that one has received and the desire to give in turn, is our innate default state. How could it not be, when life, breath, and world are gifts? When even the fruit of our own labors is beyond our contrivance? To live in the gift is to reunite with our true nature.
As you step into a gift mentality, let your feelings guide you. Let your giving arise from gratitude and not the desire to measure up to some standard of virtue. ... Whatever steps you take, know that you are preparing for the economy of the future.