Gatekeeping Trolls: Mind Your Own Business And Stop Harassing Crowdfunders

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We Internet veterans–I hesitantly include myself in this group despite my youth because I, like many weird nerd kids, was way too into intellectual-property debates when I was in my teens–have been spending a long time thinking about the slow crumbling of traditional distribution channels for art and media, and how indie creators can thrive outside such models.

The holy grail was a model that would allow creators to demand payment for their work commensurate with the demand for that work without needing to put digital media under lock and key–without needing to sell X units to make Y dollars and needing the copy protection, the corporate marketing/advertising campaigns and the storefront presence that model entails.

And so for us the “ransom model” of distribution seemed like a perfect solution. I remember all my “Free Culture” friends talking about it. Long before Kickstarter got started or “crowdfunding” was a word, people were developing models for pre-release investing in creative work, as early as 1998.

It seemed like there was no downside to it–the ransom model meant that rather than waiting for some hopeful investor to decide your idea had potential, based on focus groups or market analysis or their own “gut” or whatever, we could circumvent all those suit-wearing middlemen and let artists go find their target audience–however much of a weird, fringe target audience it might be–and get their “advance” directly from them. People would be able to signal market demand without having to go through gatekeepers; artists would be able to ask for compensation directly from their audiences; a utopia of creative expression was at hand, and all those useless suits would finally be put out of work. 

A quarter-century later, crowdfunding has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. It got the Veronica Mars movie made. It brought back Reading Rainbow. It brought the Oculus Rift to the masses.

And it’s also kicked off some of the most epic harassment campaigns in Internet history.

When Kathy Sierra wrote “Physics of Passion: The Koolaid Point” she referenced “The Koolaid Point” mostly in good fun–the people being named as “Koolaid drinkers” were fans of big brands, the fights referenced were vitriolic but harmless online wars like Microsoft vs. Apple, Yankees vs. Red Sox. Think Elaine Benes seething with irrational resentment of The English Patient.

Now, in 2014, Sierra’s followup “Trouble at the Koolaid Point” was much less lighthearted. The anti-Koolaid crusaders weren’t going after brands or sports teams, but individual human beings. It wasn’t about scathing reviews or troll threads on fan forums–it was about finding real people and doxing them, stalking them, threatening them with violence.

And the “Koolaid” that triggers the most abuse is when money is involved. There is nothing that moves the Internet to rage more than the suspicion that someone, somewhere, is profiting who doesn’t deserve it.

And this is not aimed, as you might think, toward big corporations “abusing” the platform–but at exactly the small indie creators reaching out to niche audiences that crowdfunding was supposed to be invented for.

And not by people who donated to the Kickstarter and felt cheated, but by people with no intention of giving any money to the Kickstarter but are deeply offended other people are doing it.

See both the initial flood of hatred launched at Anita Sarkeesian for merely announcing a crowdfunded YouTube series about video game sexism, and then the sustained concern trolling about her videos being “late” from people who mostly don’t want the videos to be made at all–and who contribute to the videos being late by blasting her with abuse and threatening to shoot up her talks.

She’s not alone, even though she was the most prominent one. The fig leaf of a “real issue” #GamerGate harassers use to justify their campaign is “journalistic corruption”, by which they mean the phenomenon of journalists and reviewers contributing to the Patreons or other crowdfunding campaigns of indie game devs.

Not only are the amounts involved pocket change compared to the amount of money actual game studios spend wooing the press, but the concept of a journalist giving money to a developer is, as I have pointed out, the exact opposite of corruption–corruption is money going in the other direction.

A reviewer giving money to a developer they like and support comes out of the same motivation as giving that developer a positive review—a genuine appreciation for that developer’s work–and it’s that appreciation that the anti-crowdfunding crusader defines as “Koolaid” and seeks to suppress. The irony of an “anti-corruption” movement attempting to silence journalists’ and reviewers’ genuine aesthetic and moral convictions cannot be overstated.

For me the breaking point was when this behavior left the already-toxic, misogyny-infested world of gaming to YA fantasy fiction aimed at girls–the one environment you’d think male gatekeeping trolls would leave alone.

But when author Stacey Jay offered to Kickstart a sequel to her book Princess of Thorns for the sake of her fans–a Kickstarter that would involve taking a significant pay cut over her expected advance for writing in the romance genre–she got the same brigade of attackers blasting her for “exploiting” her fans and claiming to be acting in defense of her poor, impressionable teen girl fans.

Eventually she had to take down the Kickstarter and back off the project, while also having to go into embarrassingly personal detail (the blog post has since been taken down) about her personal finances to justify that listing her “living expenses” as an expense in the Kickstarter wasn’t some kind of con–it’s how making a living as a writer works.

So look, anti-Koolaid crusaders:

First off, you’re not fooling anyone. The abuse launched at crowdfunders is not “equal opportunity.” Abuse of crowdfunders is concentrated toward creators who are seen as less “legitimate” in some way–and, often noted, in the white-guy-centric world of tech that means women and minorities come in for the lion’s share of crap.

Nor is there any coherence in the “whataboutism” of claiming that a crowdfunding project about feminism in video games is offensive when there are “worthier” projects out there to feed the hungry or save people from malaria or whatever.

There was a whole project designed to satirize the concept of judging the “relative social worth” of one Kickstarter over another. It raised $55,000 to make a bowl of potato salad.

Much like “Smash Mouth Eat the Eggs” should’ve killed the idea of the extortionate “charity challenge” but somehow didn’t, the potato salad should’ve served as a reductio ad absurdum of debates over other people’s discretionary purchases that ended them forever–how could any Kickstarter contribution be less worthy than the potato salad?–but somehow, alas, did not. And Zack Brown’s piece of performance art somehow got a minuscule amount of abuse compared to good-faith Kickstarters like Anita Sarkeesian’s or Stacey Jay’s.

What it comes down to is that all purchases in the “Art and Entertainment” category are personal, irrational and subjective. All content creators are in business and trying to make money in order to pay their bills and enjoy their lives.

When you buy a book from Barnes & Noble or an MP3 from iTunes or a game from Steam you’re paying some amount of money that goes into the profit margin of the creator–and for the various middlemen responsible for getting the work onto that platform.

The complaints about varying degrees of “transparency” among various crowdfunders are amusing in light of the fact that in “traditional” distribution channels you get no transparency whatsoever–no book has printed on the cover what percentage goes to the bookstore, what percentage goes to the publisher, etc. When you buy a loaf of bread at a farmer’s market the package doesn’t specify whether the staff of the bakery was hired in a completely meritocratic process or it is in fact a “corrupt” family business. No one asks if Taylor Swift needs to be paid seven figures to perform at a concert or if she might be able to make do on less if she trimmed her household budget, and thus save her fans on ticket prices. 

What Stacey Jay was asking for from her fans was nothing more nor less than the standard practice of authors asking for an advance from a publisher to cover the cost of living while writing the book. Tons of books–probably the majority of traditionally published books–never “earn out” their advances by making that money back in sales. That’s considered part of the risk publishers take on in the publishing industry. No one advertises which authors don’t “earn out” their advances and demands to brigade such authors as “con artists” and “beggars” who are “scamming” the publishing industry.

So why the hell do we feel entitled to do this kind of inquisition into people’s personal budgets, into their business process, and into their profit/loss statements with crowdfunding? Why do we do it for other people’s crowdfunding donations, screaming at “Koolaid-drinking” satisfied customers that they shouldn’t be satisfied when they are, and that they should feel scammed when they don’t? 

It all comes back to that good old gatekeeping, the attachment of some consumers to a commercial model that put them at the center of the market and their fear of losing power and influence by the market changing.

There is no particular merit to the way Hollywood makes movies–getting pitches into the system through insider connections, having suits thumbs-up or thumbs-down movies based on what’s worked in the past, workshopping the movie through focus groups and market research–other than tradition. Such movies often suck, and often fail, and often lose millions of dollars.

But that system, at least, has traditionally centered a particular demographic–mostly young white men of means–as the tastemakers being courted by big business. When a movie like The Lone Ranger or a game like Medal of Honor: Warfighter fails, that’s taken as part of the daily business of the industry.

But give people a chance to make money outside the traditional system, in a way that gives a voice to “niche” markets? Like teen girls, or older retirees, or artsy “hipsters”?

Well, that’s outside the sphere of experience of the entitled, angry “core” consumer. It threatens the only source of unearned power they have–their unwarranted importance in the eyes of marketers. It triggers those spring-loaded unexamined feelings of resentment toward any minority who’s entered a space where they don’t “belong.”

I’ve enjoyed my fair share of schadenfreude toward bad Kickstarters. But it hasn’t escaped my attention that the odds of a Kickstarter controversy going viral are a lot higher if the person is seen as an “alternative” voice, someone whose legitimacy is already in question. I’ve noticed that Amanda Palmer gets shit for her crowdfunding decisions when her husband Neil Gaiman doesn’t, that female “YouTubers” get raked over the coals for being “beggars” and “camwhores” while their male counterparts get hailed as media revolutionaries—that, in other words, the urge to be a watchdog of other people’s crowdfunding contributions is a biased one. 

So I’ve decided that, you know what? From now on, if it’s not my money at stake, it’s not really my business what Koolaid other people do or don’t drink. Even if it is my money, the only thing that’s really any of my business is whether I get the product or service I paid for with my purchase–the way the artist chose to spend my money in the meantime is between them and their business manager, and not my concern.

It’s better for my blood pressure to think that way–and I don’t accidentally find myself caught up in a massive, openly sexist or racist harassment mob.

I recommend it. TC mark

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