The Ethics of Kickstarter: A Conversation
Recently, a kickstarter project to create a ‘dating’ manual called “Above the Game” was revealed to come from a redditor who’s dating advice can only summed up as a manual for sexual harassment and date rape.
“Decide that you’re going to sit in a position where you can rub her leg and back. Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances.”
The above quote is from an archived reddit post of the kickstarter project’s creator. Kickstarter was first informed by a blogger Casey Malone, whose blog post began the flood of protest towards Kickstarter about the project. A petition that has now reached over 60,000 signatures was presented to Kickstarter yesterday, demanding that the funding be removed from this project. Kickstarter did not stop the project, giving this press release yesterday.
“This morning, material that a project creator posted on Reddit earlier this year was brought to our and the public’s attention just hours before the project’s deadline. Some of this material is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as people and as an organization. Based on our current guidelines, however, the material on Reddit did not warrant the irreversible action of canceling the project.”
However, after large public disapproval of Kickstarter’s decision, Kickstarter posted an apology today with information on what they are doing to make amends. This conversation arose between Jonathan Hielkema and I, exploring the ethical implications Kickstarter needs to face through their publishing platform.
Jonathan Hielkema: [In response to knowledge of various conversations I had about the subject.] What got you so [concerned] over this issue in particular?
Jacqueline Ristola: Well, the first blog post I [read and shared] was very virulent. That definitely got me riled up. The one about spinelessness. The Spine Blog, as [a friend of mine took to calling] it. Part of it is that there is no excuse. Kickstarter has stopped projects minute before their deadline before. They could have at least suspended it to think about it more. There were a lot of options. Choosing to do nothing was the worst.
JR: Part of my reaction (I think I read something about this in a some kind of published thing on psychology) is that because I had to defend my position, from two different people, I ended up being even more supportive of it. Getting more entrenched, though with more insight as to why, admittedly. It isn’t the clear cut case as I first thought, because crowdfunding sites are new, and the ethical implications are still being worked out. Which I am totally writing a blog post on. What do you think?
JH: To me, it seems more like moral responsibility for the manual lies with its creator and those who funded it. Kickstarter has an enabling role. The question is: what kind of metaphor do we use for Kickstarter’s role here? Is Kickstarter a pipe or a road or a stock exchange? Or is it more like a real agent in helping these schemes become a reality?
JCR: That’s the thing that’s difficult. [In a different conversation,] my friend and I were using metaphors a lot to get at the issue, or presenting alternative ideas [to grasp the ethics of it], because the actual site itself is difficult to name. Again, new thing.
JH: To me, Kickstarter has always seemed like an oversight board for financial transactions.
JR: But the site does have policies preventing hate speech and such from being funded. The project was permitted to be funded. Now, originally, Kickstarter did not know of the malicious intent hiding underneath the project. But they were well informed soon before the deadline. Kickstarter’s policies, such as not allowing projects with hate speech, indicate they decide those are bad, the ones that are allowed are good, worthy of being kickstarted. (I know, I know, binary…) [Ed. We are no scholars of Derrida if we are relying on binaries.]
JH: Now, I’m not a strict free speech libertarian. That said, I find it somewhat chilling that Kickstarter’s response was to ban an entire category of submissions.
JR: Though I wonder, if society is responsible for keeping itself in check, so to speak, couldn’t kickstarter have been a part of that? Saying no the project, etc. Instead of having the book being published, and then people having to react to that. I do think that instead of banning “seducing guides”, they just need more flexibility when it comes to issues like these.
JH: The guideline on their website simply says: “offensive material (hate speech, etc.)”
JR: Yes, needs more clarification. I would put a date rape manual under offensive material.
JH: The vagueness gives them more latitude in responding to complaints like this one. In other words, if it’s offensive, people will take offense. I think that it’s probably correct to err on the side of laissez-faire policing of projects and responding quickly when problems become apparent. This project isn’t exactly an artwork, since it was a nonfiction book/instruction manual that advocated immoral and misogynist behaviour, not to mention criminal. I imagine that some projects in the future could make the line between an offensive project and a work of art much blurrier.
JH: I note that they do not allow porn either. Oy. That is going to cause them issues in the future.
JR: Oh? You think so?
JH: Yes, especially if more fine artists start using it. Imagine that someone comparable to Andres Serrano (i.e. the creator of Piss Christ) enlisted Kickstarter to help fund a project. Suppose it pushed the boundaries of acceptability, and offended most people who saw it. Would Kickstarter be in the right to remove the project? If you’re going to use a category like “offensiveness,” there is going to be a huge human bias attached to that. I would guess that a radical feminist artwork or book would not get pulled down because the outrage would be coming from people Kickstarter doesn’t particularly want to associate with. But the offense is still there. In other words, Kickstarter can ban or leave whatever they want according to their present content guidelines. It all depends on whether it’s going to cause the RIGHT people to stop using their site. In other words, creative types–liberal-leaning for the most part–who want to fund projects there but could go to a competitor.
JR: Though the thing with kickstarter is that many of the projects only have concepts behind them, or do not have a full distinguished product yet. So kickstarter at first didn’t know the content of “Above The Game”, just a vague enough description.
JH: How does that change what I just wrote? Except that it means Kickstarter is in an information-poor situation? Now, the Kobe beef situation is different, because that was fraudulent. So Kickstarter intervening in that situation is analogous to the SEC busting a pyramid scheme. Whereas blocking a more creative project like an art work is more like censorship.
JR: You’re right. Though standing by an established artist would be easier than a seduction manual…..hopefully. Because of the clout.
JH: An established artist, yes.
JR: The trust in artistic ability.
JH: As the article you posted about the Kobe beef incident read, the community on Kickstarter is self-policing. In other words, they have to figure this stuff out.
JR: Or have it pointed out to them. Which, to reiterate, these situations aren’t typical [for Kickstarter.] But Kickstarter has the flexibility to deal with them effectively, they just need to use it.
JH: So, at the heart of the issue is the question: is Kickstarter morally responsible for the projects that get funded? And, if so, why?
JR: That is definitely the question at hand.
JH: At this point, I would say yes. Because they have chosen to be.
JR: I agree, because all projects have to go through some form of moderation, it does mean those that fail to qualify are rejected, whereas (I’m assuming the majority) are accepted as worthy projects for funding. There is a process there. When people of the internet community realized that is was not an appropriate project to fund and demanded for it’s removal, and it wasn’t, that was a problem. Kickstarter and other projects are different from, say, donating to a paypal account of a person who blogs hate speech. Or a donation to a paypal account of the redditor, for example.
JH: So Paypal does not equal Kickstarter. So you say. Why?
JR: Because there is no system of approval, no project presented to paypal. (I don’t know as much about paypal, but I assume they haven’t stopped accounts because of the actions associated with a user, for example.) The paypal user in question might post something, a project write up, asking for paypal donations.
JH: I imagine that the only way Paypal would shut down a user account would be a court order.
JR: Mmm. How would they even know [about a project with malicious intent], would be the thing. Aside from a court order.
JH: Kickstarter also provides a platform for publicity and outreach.
JH: And has placed itself as an arbiter of content.
JR: It’s all about specifically artistic development. Content creation. Other sites may use fundraising to pay desperate hospital bills, for instance. Or [community action programs, or charities. But Kickstarter has this specific focus.]
JH: It has taken responsibility for the trustworthiness and appropriateness of the projects, so it can be faulted for not following its own rules. Are those rules good?
JR: They are vague so kickstarter has the flexibility it needs, but apparently does not execute.
JH: If Kickstarter just said, “anything goes,” would that be better? They would be in a more neutral position in that regard.
JR: Mm, I don’t know if it would be better. One of their rules is no political campaigns, that is no oppositional projects against a political opponent. That’s something I discovered when researching, and I think that’s a good idea. There are enough super pacs, thank you very much.
JH: How about they just get rid of their “no offensive material” requirement?
JR: [I’m not sure what you mean.]
JH: I’m saying that, if they got rid of that requirement, they would no longer be moderating whether a work is offensive or not.
JR: Ah, [I see. That idea troubles me, though.]
JH: Now, they won’t do it for the sake, not of being moral, but of their reputation.
They don’t want to be the site associated with people funding amateur porn films.
JR: Uh huh.
JH: What puts them in a bind is that they have a strong brand identity.
JR: Yes, they do.
JH: They are a recognizable platform with a reputation to protect.
JR: They might be the biggest fundraising site [of their kind.]
JH: Which is the entire reason for that requirement. They make their money by people going to them for funding, because of that reputation. That is why they will intervene in these instances.
JR: Any why they’ll keep their oversight and rules. Because things would not go well PR-wise if they are profiting from amateur porn projects or stuff like this. They did not take their 5% cut, [by the way.]
JH: Right. Given their present rules, they should have intervened in this case. I’m more concerned about the vagueness of those specifications.
JR: Mm. it gives them jurisdiction to take down anything, which could be misused to be over reactionary in the future. [I suspect it] will.
JH: Actually, you know what kind of institution those guidelines remind me of?
JH: Apple’s App Store.
JH: The same vagueness has gotten Apple in trouble countless times. Banning war satires. Sexist apps. Constant problems policing porn, even though the phones the apps are sold for have Web browsers. They’ve overreached a ton of times. Kickstarter here seems to be thinking of itself more like a retailer. Than a money moving platform. But what they’re selling is their reputation as a reliable method of getting projects funded.
JR: Hmmm, I wouldn’t stretch the retailer idea too far, because kickstarter main focus is “power to the people”, so to speak, through crowdsourcing. But kickstarter definitely brands itself as a innovator, a source for good. It’s not *just* “give us your money”, it’s “support this vision for better community, art, entertainment.” (Not that those are mutually exclusive.)
JH: They make their site look like a retail site. I’m not saying that they are a retail company, only they rely on some aspects of online retail to advertise and define themselves online. They have a staff picks section like a bookstore. Their website advertises products brightly, almost like finished products. It’s not a retail outlet, but it acts and looks like one in some ways in order to make it simple for people to understand. And most funding platforms do not have content guidelines. It’s a minor point, but I think it helps give us some insight into why they have guidelines in the first place. It’s not too different from how Wal-Mart and other brick and mortar retailers won’t stock NC-17 movies on shelves.
JR: Ah, I see. I think you’re right in how they market themselves, at least somewhat. In terms of design, they may rely on established tropes in retail, when [Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites] are a new, different thing, with no precedence for it. There is no model that Kickstarter can [follow], so they take at least some elements from retail.
JR: Or at least elements that retail uses as well.
JH: I just checked. There are crowdfunding platforms for porn. So Kickstarter’s restrictions generate alternatives.
JH: Mm. Anyway. I’m not sure I have much more to say about this.
JR: [This is] good for now. We got at the heart of the matter.