Crowd Funding and Morality: Oh, Shut Up.

MikeachimWriting6 Comments

dev hynes


How should people be using crowd-funding websites?

Well, that’s a really stupid question.

A few days ago, singer Dev Hynes lost all his possessions (and his puppy, Cupid) in a house fire. He didn’t have insurance, so in a very real sense, he lost everything.

[quote]Imagine being outside of your home one day. Then somebody presses delete, on the last decade of your life. You own nothing except for what you have on you in that precise moment. This is what has happened. It’s surreal and hard to wrap your head around, or imagine unless you’ve experienced it.[/quote]

Dev Hynes

His girlfriend’s mother went onto GoFundMe and launched a campaign to raise $5,000 to help him replace some of his stuff and get his life back together. It was a wild success – $24,000 raised by over 900 people in 2 days.

Dev has now asked for the campaign to be closed, and is giving the money to charity. Part of the reason is this extraordinarily mean-spirited attack on him by Holly Baxter at the Guardian yesterday.

[quote]Unfortunately, my purse remained as closed as my meanie heart. Because crowdfunding is not about rewarding those who once gave to charity with a luxury wedding. Equally, it is not about replacing Dev Hynes’s lost clothes or paying for a replacement pedigree puppy. What Hynes lost in his recordings can only be reproduced with meticulous time and effort. That’s something I’m willing to pay for. Hynes’s designer jeans and the honour of working for the Mamet sisters? Not so much.[/quote]

– Holly Baxter

Compare this with the Guardian’s far more measure reporting of the story here, from today – while noting the lack of mention of the reaction to Baxter’s piece.

That reaction is going nuts on Twitter and spilling over into blogs and online magazines. No doubt newspapers will be next. (Edit: yup.)

Baxter’s piece is designed to provoke a response. Well, it’s certainly doing that, and the response seems to be “shut the hell up.” People are calling for consumers to buy Hynes’s records in protest to this article. It’s becoming a David vs Goliath story, and in today’s story-addled media, it’s a recipe for a lot of outraged people pointing fingers.

What happened to Dev Hynes is utterly, utterly horrible (especially at Christmas – even though there’s no “good” time for such a tragedy, Christmas seems especially cruel).  It’s a sad story. Baxter is now Goliath, and it’s going to get really ugly.

But that’s not the whole reason her article is offensive. It’s the tone.

[quote]Because crowdfunding is not about rewarding those who once gave to charity with a luxury wedding.[/quote]

Her implication is clear: there’s a moral code to crowdfunding, and everyone Baxter cites as a bad example, including Dev Hynes, has breached it. Specific implication: it should not be used for acts of compassion.

This is of course bullshit.

Here are the facts about crowdfunding online.

1. Anyone can do it, if they’re abiding by the rules of the site hosting their campaign.

2. Anyone can donate money if they feel it’s a worthy cause for themselves or for others.

3. It can successfully support charity efforts and philanthropy, but works best when people eventually get something for their donation, because self-interest beats altruism every time. It doesn’t negate it: it just outweighs it.

Pam Mandel puts forward a practical case from a supporter’s perspective here, regarding travel-related Kickstarter campaigns. Her bottom line is: if I get nothing from funding your travel adventure campaign, I’m not paying up.

[quote]These Kickstarter plans seem like grand adventures for the travelers. God speed. May they travel safely, meet kind strangers, and never have to pack away a wet tent. But I am not paying for it, no way, no how.[/quote]

If a crowdfunding campaign makes someone feel like they don’t want to hand over money, it has failed in a specific sense. If that happens with everyone, it is a total failure. In each case, it’s a practical problem that can be fixed. Something went wrong in the persuasion process, or the concept was something the public could never get behind (“My Spacehopper needs repairs! I need $15,000”) or there were no specific benefits for anyone choosing to contribute, not even that inner warm glow of championing something you really believe in.

However, everyone has the right to get out there and fail.

Introducing morality – “your successful crowdfunding campaign is an outrage” – is ridiculous. If something is successful and overshot its funding goals, enough people wanted it to be a success that it became a success. This is no mean feat. As anyone selling anything on the Internet will know, it is virtually impossible to hoodwink someone into buying something they genuinely don’t want. If a sale takes place, someone has moved from being an interested but unsure browser into an eager buyer. They can’t do that if they are 100% opposed to what’s on offer – and even when that process can be shortcircuited in a million ways. The argument (ie. the copywriting) can be dull. The reward tiers can be unrewarding. The end result might be too self-interested to motivate anyone except friends & family.

If it fails, it fails. That’s business. And if it succeeds, it did enough things right to be a success.

Here’s an example of a Kickstarter that did everything right.

Everyone is allowed to succeed or fail. Everyone. And sometimes, failure is down to sheer luck – and the same goes for success. It’s never a dead cert.

But whenever people start arguing that someone’s success or failure is “unfair”, or arguing that someone’s success is an outrage, I tune out. It’s not about fairness. It’s not about some internet-wide moral code about how people should use their audiences to fund their projects. It’s about making something good that reaches its audience, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s practical and it’s about good business – and about presenting the world with something that is hopefully of value to backers, in a transparent and open and gutsy way, and then learning from what happens next.

That’s the moral of the story here.

Image: Adam Shoesmith

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