The Question of Crowd-Sourcing: Why Kickstarter Troubles me

The Question of Crowd-Sourcing: Why Kickstarter Troubles me May 20, 2013


When Don Miller wanted to make a film of his book, Blue Like Jazz, he directed his fan base to a Kickstarter program and raised $300,000. And, yes, I was a contributor. Something I remembered today as I threw out my signed copy of the Blue Like Jazz poster, one of the “gifts” for those who gave a specific dollar amount. That’s not a commentary on Miller or the movie. I was cleaning the garage out. I also took several of my own book posters to the recycle bin.

I never did see Miller’s movie.

That probably is a commentary.

I didn’t see it because so many of my friends who saw it came away disappointed.

To be fair, I don’t go to very many movies as a rule. I think the last movie I went to see was Hunger Games and I walked out of that one. Too graphic for me.

There are very few movies I like better than the book and I liked Blue Like Jazz the book very much. I didn’t want to lose that affection, so I avoided the movie.

I won’t go to see The Great Gatsby either. Primarily because I saw the Robert Redford version in 1974. It is the only movie I can ever remember watching with my mother in an actual theater. Because of her smoking habit, Mama could not sit through a movie. Besides, let’s face it, Mr. DiCaprio is no Redford.

But back to the point, a whole lot of people have asked me as of late to contribute to their Kickstarter fund. On one hand, I’m delighted to be invited. I like to help people when I can. On the other hand, I’ve come to feel discombobulated by it.

I got into this writing gig back when we used self-addressed-stamped-envelopes and typewriters to query editors. I was still getting rejections letters from editors after my first book was in print. That’s how long the turn-around time could be for such things.

I have three file drawers full of queries I painstakingly typed-out and nearly as many rejections letters that followed, also painstakingly typed out, on real typewriters. I even have a handful of personal hand-written notes from some very lovely editors who sought to encourage me.

Despite popular mythology, I didn’t get into the writing business to get rich. I didn’t even get into this business to have a New York Times bestseller, although I fully expect that will happen one day. (I live by hope, remember?) I got into this writing gig because I believe it is God’s call upon my life. To quote Mr. Miller, it gives my life meaning.

But my life had meaning before I ever knew there was a writer lurking within me.

Don Miller has started Storyline, a company whose focus is to help people find their meaning.

“It’s basically a company that helps people tell better stories with their lives. Through conferences, websites, and individualized training, we create life plans and career paths for people who want to live meaningful lives,” Miller told The Daily Beast.

I’ve been to Miller’s Storyline conference. I didn’t come away with a new or better life plan, but I had a really fun time. I made some new friends, met some old ones.

I agree with Miller. I’m all for people living better stories. I certainly think I’ve lived a pretty fantastic story myself. I’ve had adventures I never counted on. I hope to have a few more. Preacher said today that Pentecost is proof that we serve the God of Surprise. God has certainly surprised the heck out of me, over and over again. I love that about him, don’t you?

Truth is, I loathe living by a prescribed formula of any sort. There are books stuffed into nearly every cranny of my home – they spill out in my office, on my bedside, in my living room and the garage. But among all those books you would be hard-pressed to find any “formula” books. There are no books on how to be a happier person, how to be more successful, how to make more money, or how to build a platform, or how to influence people.

Nearly every book in this house is a about one of three things: history, theology, and/or people.

There might be a formula to marketing.

There might be a formula to amassing more wealth.

There may even be a formula to building a broader platform.

But really, what does any of that matter?

All boiled down life isn’t about any of that stuff.

It’s about the relationships we build with one another.

Relationships are the only things that we will carry forward into eternity with us.

I think that is the thing that bothers me most about Kickstarter. In a very real way, it takes the relationship-building element out of the work we do.

Like with all forms of social media, a person’s virtual circle of friends, is, as virtual suggests, somewhat  artificial. It’ s not that I don’t value the need to raise money for projects, it’s the absence of the personal relationship that bothers me.

If we can solicit all the money necessary to create our art by clicking a button, rather than sending a hand-written note or sitting down to have a face-to-face conversation with someone, then haven’t we in essence taken the relationship-building out of our work?

Sure, Kickstarter is more efficient than the rather intimidating, and, yes, too often humbling way of the past. At it’s core, Kickstarter is a great tool of capitalism and the American way.

I’m just not convinced that it makes for good art.

And, I can’t help but wonder if virtual crowd-sourcing doesn’t take the God of Surprise out of the equation, and thus rob us of some heart-pounding adventures, and the opportunity to completely rely upon God to do his thing.

What say you?




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  • Marian Carcache


  • Gary Nelson

    I would have been just giddy to get one of your book posters!

    • Gary: Send me a check for $200 and I will go fish it back out of the recycle bin. I did hate getting rid of them but it seemed a little, oh, I don’t know, weird to keep giant size posters of myself. It was creeping me out.

      • Gary Nelson


  • I can’t say I disagree with anything you said here–except for you walking out of Hunger Games. (I thought they did a decent job getting the essence of the book.) There may be times when we detest the “guardians at the gate”, but I also think they’re there for some good reasons. As for Miller’s movie, I loved Blue Like Jazz, but the making of the movie felt forced. Like they were going to make it despite the fact that no one in Hollywood wanted it.

    • Kat: You loved BLJ the book or the movie? Or both?

      • I loved the book. Didn’t see the movie. There are certain books that translate well (enough) into movies, but I didn’t see BLJ as one of those books. I saw Donald Miller about two years ago at a conference. He seemed to be a very different person than the guy who wrote Blue Like Jazz.

  • Gary Nelson

    No disrespect intended here, but children beating and killing one another isn’t Karen’s cup of tea, nor mine – in any format.

    • Gary: Does this comment refer to something I missed?

      • Gary Nelson

        Walking out of the Hunger Games movie in the comment below. Lol!

        • Ahh… okay… yes… This Disqus program often doesn’t put the replies in relation to the remarks. Drives me nuts. But yeah, children killing children, can’t stomach that. Weird how fiction affects me.

          • Gary Nelson

            Well, I guess I should have replied under her remark, but I didn’t think to do it that way. That movie and topic is one of my trigger buttons, ha!

    • Gary, the idea of kids killing kids is very disturbing to me, as well. I did recently watch The Hunger Games, because, although I’d never let my kids read the books or watch those films, they have friends that do, and I want to know what my kids might be getting exposed to, even their exposure is through word of mouth. By familiarizing myself, I am now able to sit down with my kids and discuss what’s right and wrong with those stories, and to help them form their own thoughts about them so they can be ready when their classmates bring up the topic.

      That said, while the movie was hard to watch, it was well-crafted.

      • JW: I think it’s terrific that you inform yourself in this way. More parents ought to do that. And you are right, the HG was very well-crafted. I think that’s what made it such a visceral experience for me.

    • Gary, that is precisely the point of the HG. The over-arching narrative is one of a government gone terribly awry that forces her people to kill one another to keep them in line. At the heart of the government is a mass of a rich elite that profit off the ignorance and fear perpetuated by the government. It takes the courage of a handful of savagely oppressed youth to overturn the evil that is destroying the oppressed and oppressors alike. Unfortunately it is not as far fetched as the genre might make us think.

  • I’m in general agreement with you here, Karen. I really like the BLJ movie, though. I think Hollywood didn’t want to make it, not because of any agenda, but because Christian-themed movies have been so awful and have gained a reputation for low quality over the years.
    But to your main point: I had never heard that take on Kickstarter before. It’s definitely a different way of doing business and of raising funding. Of course, in the late 90’s, venture capitalists were offering money to any company who’s name ended in “dotcom”, and that wasn’t the best funding model, either.

    • JW: Yep. I remember sitting with Sister Schubert as she spoke about how upsetting it was to lose $2 million in the industry. How it drove her to her knees and eventually led her to the orphanage in the Ukraine. Sister Schubert believes in the God of Surprise and it’s brought long-lasting meaning to her life.

  • I follow you on Twitter and Goodreads and read your blog often, but this is my first time commenting.

    I ran a campaign on Kickstarter two years ago to raise money for the research and writing of a nonfiction book, and for me it was a very personal experience with my backers, both during the campaign and afterwards during the research and writing process. I had a great time interacting with people through the Kickstarter website and through emails, and I can’t speak for everyone else involved, but it seems like others enjoyed it too. A great deal of my support came from people who knew me already and had talked with me in person, on the phone, or through email about the project before the campaign even came into being — but then once the campaign started, I met many people who became backers either through word of mouth of my friends or just through browsing the Kickstarter website, and I was also able to talk personally with them about the project, other aspects of my book’s topic, or the creative process in general. A few of the people I met through the campaign still keep in touch and still discuss writing and books with me two years later. To date I’ve written three books, and the one funded through Kickstarter gave me the most opportunities to discuss my ideas with family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike — it was definitely the most community-oriented project I’ve worked on, and I had a wonderful experience. I can see how it might not be the same experience for everyone, but like so many things in life, you get out of it what you put into it, and I put a lot of my heart into the relationship aspect of my campaign. For me it wasn’t just about getting money to do a project, but about connecting with other people who were interested in the idea behind my book. Maybe I was able to do that because my project was relatively small, several thousand dollars instead of hundreds of thousands, which kept my number of backers under 100, a manageable number to interact with. I can also say with certainty that for me the God of Surprise was very much involved in the whole process — there’s no way I could have met all those people and had all those interactions and seen the funding come in the way it did if He weren’t involved. My heart was definitely pounding and I was definitely growing in trust in God (as He works through people and their giving) in those last days of the campaign. Again, I’m not saying it’s that way for everyone, but for me it wasn’t just an efficient way of accomplishing a task but also a way to grow in faith.

    • Rebecca: Welcome to the discussion part of the blog. Glad you took this opportunity to contribute your thoughts. I once worked with a fellow who told me his conversion experience came while he was a member of a cult. I love that story because it’s a good reminder to me that God can and will work in our lives in whatever way He chooses, if we only grant Him access. So I am not suggesting that God can’t work through Kickstarter. Who am I to say?

      But I also agree with what Kathy said below. Gatekeepers can serve a good purpose, and some of the work funded by KS seems forced. Like eating an apple that’s too green. It leaves one wincing instead.

      I suppose the other part of this is that as an author I would never expect my community of readers, friends, fans to fund my books before they are published. This is not a judgement about your choice. I’m just saying I come from a different way of thinking on this matter.

      In journalism there used to be well-defined borders between the advertising department and the news department. This served the purpose of not making the reporters beholden to advertisers. This is a particularly important function when dealing with editorial writing and investigative reporting.

      Those lines have blurred for a lot of complex reasons, not the least of which is that capitalism has seeped into our souls.

      All of that leaves me to wonder, doesn’t the artist who is crowd-sourced feel beholden to that audience? To not say or do anything that might offend, or drive away the very people who put up the money for the art to begin with?

  • Larry_Shallenberger


    I think its important to commemorate the shift that comes with social media websites like KickStart. But I’m not sure the standard of its effectiveness is whether it generates “good art.” It’s a tool capable of facilitating the creation of “indie” art. But then forces such as a the market and dumb luck sift it all out.

    I’m sure back in Renaissance, during the age of patrons, one could point to inequity of a handful of artists being bankrolled by nobles, while more worthy artist starved.

    Every system has its ills.

    • Every system does indeed have its ills, Larry, and it’s the job of truth-tellers to address them. I believe I did point out that Kickstarter is an excellent example of capitalism at work.Having someone support you and your work as an artist is not quite the same as promising a crowd of “investors” as it were a certain product. What happens when you fail to deliver said product? Or what if the product you deliver is shoddy? Or what if you tweak the product to please said patrons? Aren’t we losing something valuable in the midst of all that?

      • Larry_Shallenberger

        I believe shoddy work on Kickstarter would have the same consequence as shoddily written traditionally published book. The market would reject and ignore it.

        My experience in traditional publishing is that editors tweaked my books to appease said patrons (or their core audience anyhow).

        Now, I’m not sure what the consequence would be if someone raised the funds but didn’t deliver. I have noticed artists on Kickstarter now offering a description of the risks they must overcome to create the art.

        Your post makes me want to look at Kickstarter through the lens of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of “extensions and amputations.” There’s certainly losses that come with the gains of any medium.

  • Rebekah Gleaves Sanderlin

    I’m really on the fence on crowd-sourcing. I get and agree with the comments about needing to have gate-keepers. As a consumer, I like to know that someone knowledgeable and professional is providing a filter so that I don’t waste my time and money on crap. However, as someone who grew up around the music industry in Nashville, I’m thrilled with the potential in crowd-sourcing. I waited tables with the most amazing musicians the rest of the world never got to hear … never got to hear because they’re still waiting tables. (We call them ‘singer-songwaiters’.) Despite their abilities, they lacked the look, or the of-the-moment sound, or the age. Commercialized art is often more interested in profits than quality — which is why Snooky got a book deal while thousands of real writers got rejection slips. Crowd sourcing threatens the juggernaut of commercialized art as it allows for those who might not have mainstream appeal to fund their projects anyway — and that is fantastic. But it IS less personal than, say, calling up a buddy and asking for support — or even holding a fundraiser, or selling CDs (or books) out of the trunk of your car, or making yourself vulnerable enough to receive stacks of rejection slips. And a self-funded project (through crowd-sourcing, personal wealth, or other means) DOES lack the legitimacy afforded by traditional means. I hate to admit this, but when I hear that someone self-published a book, my first thought is, ‘It must suck, otherwise a publisher would have picked it up.’

    All of that said, I did find this Ted Talk on this subject to be fascinating, though:

    • Interesting perspective, Rebekah. And I’ll admit that I think the same thing when I heard about a self-published book, even though I know that it is not necessarily true. Lord knows traditional publishing has put out more than its share of total crap — including books by Snooki and Pippi.

      But then I have worked with great teams of editors at every publishing house I’ve been with and I know how rigorous the process can be. I do think self-publishing and crowd-sourced projects almost always lack that rigor.

      The other part of crowd-sourcing a project is accountability. In traditional publishing there are deadlines attached to those dollars. Where’s the accountability for crowd-sourced projects?

      Does anyone know exactly how that $300,000 for Miller’s BLJ was spent? Or do crowds simply not care once they click that button where that money goes?

  • kennyjohnson

    I’m not sure I agree that crowdsourcing will somehow produce worst art. In fact, I think there is good reason to believe it can produce better art. The traditional gatekeepers were gatekeepers because they were taking financial risk on something and wanted to make sure that they will make a profit. Transformers 5 won’t be made because it’s good art. It will be made because it almost assured of making Paramount a profit. Likewise, some smaller independent film will be overlooked because it does seem to have mass appeal. I’ve supported a handful a projects because I believed in them and wanted to see them get made. I will continue to do so. A friend of mine recently recorded an album through crowdsourcing. I’m glad she did. I’m not sure if the album would have been possible without it. I doubt Universal Music or Warner or Geffen would have been interested.

    There are also tons of niche products (i.e. board games, etc.) that don’t have a broad enough audience to get capital investments from investors looking to make back a large return, but have a big enough fan base to break even. Kickstarter helps both the creator and the fans make that happen. To me, that’s beautiful and should be celebrated!

  • Karen,

    As a fellow Patheos blogger I just stumbled across your post and enjoyed the read. I do agree with some of what you lift up, especially your appreciation for the fine art of writing and the necessity of relationship building. As someone who has led an online community of faith, and as an avid blogger myself, I do not agree with notions of online relationships being categorized as less than face-to-face relationships. I also agree with some of your other readers here that encourage us to think of the inequity of how the arts have been historically supported by the elite.

    So too I agree with the notion that just because a project gets all the way to Kickstarter that it exhibits a craftsmanship that is worth of our money. I do very much appreciate the opportunity to see and support artists beyond the few that the “industry” would tell us are worthy of our attention. I do not believe that crowd-sourcing takes anything away from God working in our lives since I believe that we are God’s hands and feet in the world and called to engage the world as such. But thank you for your post and the opportunity to think about this more.

    • Kim: Thanks for stopping in and sharing your thoughts. Just so we are clear about this, I never said that online relationships are less than anything. I said they tend to be somewhat artificial, virtual by their very nature.

      RE: Kickstarter, Check out the stories from NPR and NBC this week about the use of Kickstarter by clebs like Zach Braff and Whoopi Goldberg. The bigger celeb you already are, the more money you are likely to make from KS. So that sort of deflates that whole “arts for the working class” mentality.