That Kickstarter news

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Tagged: bite me, blockchain, kickstarter

Kickstarter, oh yeah. Lots of people talking about Kickstarter right now. Most of them are talking about Teh Blockchain.

Let's not do that! How about this? I'll paste in the meat of Kickstarter's recent update -- except for the lines about blockchain. I'll just skip over those bits. We can talk about the rest of it, okay?

(Warning: I will return to the blockchain bit at the end of this post. At that time, I will point out that blockchain is horseshit. If you want to read about how blockchain will save the Internet, go read another blog post, because this one will just annoy you.)

1. Kickstarter

Here's Kickstarter's post, minus the blockchain:

Crowdfunding has made it easier to fund creative work without the involvement of intermediaries and gatekeepers. At the same time, there should be better ways for creators to connect directly with their communities, and more tools available to help creative projects of all kinds and sizes come to life. Backers should be able to easily discover and participate more deeply in projects, better control their data, and have more robust tools to assess the trustworthiness and viability of a project.

That’s why we’re supporting the development of a [...] crowdfunding protocol that will make it possible for people to launch and fund creative projects anywhere, whether it’s on or someplace else on the web.

You may have heard of HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) which helps you browse the web, or SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) which helps you send email. Protocols like these make up the unseen infrastructure of the internet. Imagine that, but for crowdfunding creative projects.

The protocol will [...] be open source, and be available for collaborators, competitors, and independent contributors from all over the world to build upon, connect to, or use.

This openness enables everyone who is interested in the promise of crowdfunding to help build its future and have a say and stake in how it works.

-- from Let’s Build What’s Next for Crowdfunding Creative Projects, Dec 15

So what are they talking about? An open protocol describing crowdfunding projects, to "discover and participate". I figure that means browsing lists of projects; looking at data about projects; backing projects; commenting on and discussing projects.

This is obviously a good idea! Data about Kickstarter projects is in great demand. If you've ever run a KS project -- or backed a big one -- you've spent hours obsessively refreshing Kicktraq. This is a third-party site that shows you the complete donation history of every KS project, day by day. Here's the graphs for the Myst Documentary project, for example.

This data is gold if you're planning a crowdfunding project. If you want to kickstart a parser IF game, you look at Thaumistry. (Hadean Lands predates Kicktraq's data feed, oh well.) You look at as many similar projects as you can find. Once you launch, Kicktraq tells you how well your daily marketing efforts worked.

How does Kicktraq get this data? It scrapes it off the Kickstarter site HTML. Then it reposts it and, hey look, they're considering web ads. The search is pretty weak, too. Type in "Myst documentary" and see how far down the results the Myst documentary is buried.

This is an embarrassment! For Kickstarter, I mean. They could provide all this data directly through an open API. Then anybody could dig through as much as they wanted. (I mean, until the API rate-limits you. But all public APIs have to do that, sigh, Internet life.)

So an API is obviously step one. What else?

Imagine many crowdfunding sites start providing this kind of project data in a compatible format. Is this useful? Sure! You could do audience analysis -- see which sites are most favorable, or most suited to your sort of project. Maybe you could multicast a project across several sites, using a common funding goal. Maybe someone wants to set up an "index fund" which covers a whole category of projects (poetry zines, jigsaw puzzles, BIPOC-owned comic books, whatever). You donate to the fund and the money will be passed along.

Maybe crowdfunding could be connected with other kinds of charitable donation. Think about how nonprofit organizations work. The US provides a database of registered nonprofits. Other nonprofit catalogs like Guidestar are organized around this list. Result: your favorite nonprofit, no matter how niche, shows up everywhere. You can target it for employer donation matching; you can name it for Amazon Smile or Humble Bundle donations; whatever you like.

Does this sort of federation make sense for crowdfunding? I don't know, but it's worth finding out.

Now, open-and-public data has its tradeoffs. You might not want all of your project donations to be publicly visible. Then again, there are legitimate reasons to want to track trolls and griefers between sites so that you can moderate more effectively. Then again, there are legitimate reasons to donate anonymously and join discussion forums under a pen name. Gotta balance the tradeoffs. Project creators need to have some of their personal information protected, even as they put themselves and their projects up for public scrutiny. These are messy problems and the answers will require a lot of messy discussion. Kickstarter has a good claim to expertise in this area. Not perfection -- nobody claims KS has solved its griefing or comment moderation problems -- but they at least represent a body of experience.

What about broadening the scope? Kickstarter's announcements all talk about "creative work". They repeat that phrase a lot. They want you to think about stand-alone art projects that either get funded or don't.

But the line between "creative work" and "my job" isn't sharp. Patreon tilts more towards supporting an artist day-to-day. That has its own problems, as we see every time Patreon tries to adjust its donation model and screws over some of its users -- they need stability. Does this crowdfunding protocol apply to Patreon? Does it need Patreon to be considered a success?

The arts aren't the only crowdfunding area, either. There's civic projects: shelters, parks, public maintenance. There's medical fundraisers. There's emergency relief, both personal and public. GoFundMe is the most prominent crowdfunding site in those areas. Does it make sense for them to interoperate with Kickstarter? KS (and Patreon too) clearly want to stay clear of all that stuff. Hm. Again, tradeoffs.

Indeed, there are serious social questions around this sort of fundraising. Starting with: how the hell has our society failed people so badly that they have to go begging for medical expenses? Any individual GoFundMe story is heartwarming, but the global picture is a nightmare. There's a reason that conservative assholes have spent decades trying to destroy social safety and substitute "personal charity"! Because in that world, the whims of public opinion decide who lives and who dies. Which is to say that the biggest gang lives, and the poor and vulnerable die.

I digress, maybe. I don't know how to work backwards from the public good to an open crowdfunding API. Maybe nonprofits are the link after all. The US nonprofit system is a massive flow of support from rich people to the public good. (The tax system more or less enforces this.) It's patchy, imperfect, and often-abused, but it's a pillar of society which exists alongside our direct government assistance programs.

The KS plan includes a nonprofit. From their original announcement:

In the spirit of decentralization, we’re establishing an independent organization that will kick off the development of the protocol. Kickstarter PBC will provide this new independent organization with some funding, appoint an initial board, and commit to being one of the protocol’s earliest clients, meaning will be built on top of the protocol.

-- from The Future of Crowdfunding Creative Projects, Dec 8

This is not a public charity per se, but it makes sense for managing an open API and protocol. For-profit companies can and do fund open-source projects, but it's awkward when they manage them. You want some kind of group which is answerable to all users. That's how they retain trust.

For any of these ideas to work, you need trust and cooperation. There's no point in asking Kickstarter to interoperate with another site if all the data they receive is spam and lies. Again, this is a matter of reputation. (And, if money is involved, lawyers and contracts.) It doesn't magically happen just because you write a spec. But, again, Kickstarter has the credibility to get this started. So it's really good that they're thinking about the problem.

2. Blockchain

I've just written a thousand words on how an open data model could benefit the crowdfunding world. I haven't mentioned blockchain. That's because blockchain has dick-all to do with those benefits.

Non-profit orgs: already exist. Open APIs and protocols: already exist. Internet standards: already exist.

I'm not going to get into all the arguments about why blockchain is horseshit. Smarter people than me have done that. I will just note that by commiting to blockchain, Kickstarter is throwing away their reputation. I don't mean that blockchain smells scammy (although it does). I mean Kickstarter is literally saying "Don't trust us!" Kickstarter's reputation for handling crowdfunding reliably will no longer be the basis of their service. Instead, they say, you should rely on this algorithm in this small cardboard box. The algorithm is better because it's out of their control. They can't fix it, they can't redesign it, they can't solve problems that happen with it. (And neither can their "independent organization", because that would violate decentralization too.)

Sounds awesome, right?

Let me put back the lines I snipped out of their post.

The protocol will live on Celo, a carbon-negative, public blockchain...

I don't know anything about Celo. A quick web search indicates that it's an "open-sourced Proof-of-Stake blockchain" with an "algorithmic reserve-backed stability mechanism". It's not clear how a proof-of-stake system can be decentralized -- by definition, it's run by the people who own the most tokens. (We used to call that "plutocracy".) As for stablecoins, you can read up on them too; spoiler, they're stable until they're not. (The most prominent stablecoin, Tether, is an endless fount of hilarity, lies, and market manipulation.)

Never mind what happens when Celo gets hacked, obsoleted, stolen, or incites a screaming argument among its owners which deadlocks so badly that the whole system schisms. You know, like what happened to Bitcoin.

(As for "carbon-negative", well, this is blockchain. It's easier to lie about being carbon-negative than to actually do the work. So how do you think that will turn out.)

And then:

Blockchain will also open the potential to be rewarded for contributing to the systems that you use everyday.

I don't even know what to think. It's so blatantly the opposite of everything they just said.

Kickstarter will be based on Smooth Love Potions instead of dollars? Your money will have to go through a sweatshop of Ponzi victims to reach the project creator? Will these "rewards" come out of the donor's pocket or the artist's pocket? Or will they be pure speculative bubble, and the first rug-pull wins the ballgame? Will people start spamming Kickstarter with a thousand bot-created projects per second in order to mine the token? (Remember, it's a blockchain protocol, so nobody can moderate it.) If this protocol makes users money, won't people launch hundreds of meme-clones and doge-protocols to get in on the action? (You know, like what happened to Bitcoin.)

That's just the first few ideas off the top of my head! I can't even imagine all the ways people will come up with to make it horrible when the system actually exists. The one absolute certainty is that if you give people a financial incentive to game the system, they will game the system.

Look. The Internet relies on lots of open, decentralized protocols. The post I quoted above named a couple. There's lots more. They are designed and maintained by annoying, fallible human beings. They work. Sometimes they work patchily. DNS gets boned up and takes down Facebook for an afternoon. Whoops. But we get by.

If someone comes along and says "I've reinvented email but now it will make users money!" that person is an asshole. That's just trying to destroy email and replace it with some proprietary crap. Same thing with HTML (Google's AMP) and DNS (the .org sellout scandal from last year).

Kickstarter sounds like it's trying to become its own asshole. If I can put it that way.

Maybe it's just an investor play. Announcing blockchain/NFT news is the hot trend for boosting corporate value -- whether or not you plan to carry through! Remember, the most carbon-neutral blockchain is the one you never bother to set up...

But I have no idea.

Someone go shake Kickstarter awake and tell them to edit a couple of lines out of their post.