Petulant Fans As Investors: The Ugly Side of Crowdfunded Content

Is the relationship between creators and fans today a healthy one? Has the new closeness made things ever more personal? Kickstarter and other crowdfunded content are coming under increased scrutiny with the biggest lesson so far being that when backers contribute money, they don’t make requests, they make demands.


A New Market and Industry

Kickstarter and crowdsourcing in general exploded when its potential was finally realised by the masses. No longer would it be necessary for creators to suck up to executives, middlemen, or bankers in order to get the funding they needed. Cutting them all out and going straight to the source? It was a panacea for creators and individual fans who believed in their work.

The market hasn’t been without growing pains however. A couple of projects failed to deliver on the original promise, with some failing to deliver anything at all. More than one also turned out to be the perfect vehicle for some embezzlement. Ooops.

Criticism of Kickstarter projects is far more likely to happen to artistic ones than others. The reason for this is the very group who generally tend to support them in the first place: fans.

In an ideal world, fans would contribute and fund a project, and then wait patiently for the finished product. All the while, trusting in the creator and the rest of the team to deliver upon their promises. A noble thought, but one that’s at odds with reality. There’s no idyllic, utopian relationship between creators and fans. What’s appeared instead is a breakdown of the relationship, or the realisation of the worst aspects of the creator-fan dynamic.

Bee & Puppycat: A Cautionary Tale

I’ve written about Bee & Puppycat a couple of times here on the blog from the standpoint of an industry observer with a general amount of praise for the efforts of the team behind it. That said, the eventual episodes produced were disappointing from a personal perspective; a situation in which I was far from alone. Common sense dictates that since I never backed the show, airing my opinion was about as much as I could do or hope to accomplish. Manners dictated said opinions were kept to myself.

Fans and Kickstarter backers have not been shy about doing the opposite.

The hype of the fundraising campaign gave way to disappointment and anger as the first episode was released. Voicing their displeasure on the internet in the good ol’ traditional manner is exactly what fans did, with many proclaiming a desire to get a refund from Kickstarter. More recent comments are no better, with many fans proclaiming the series dead to them, or at least fallen from their good graces.

Putting much stock in angry internet comments is never a good idea of course. Blinded by rage and oftentimes ill-informed, they make for poor indicators of the prevailing mood of the entire audience. Reeking of entitlement, unsubstantiated infractions, and a distinct undertone or menace are the hallmarks of many fan’s responses when the final product doesn’t live up to their expectations. That said, their claims are not completely without merit.

Which is ultimately the largest flaw of the crowdsourcing model. Fans are not investors yet they perceive themselves to be. They are not returns, but rewards. Their legally-binding contracts with the creators lack the fine that any good investor will be sure to include. Never mind the lack of due diligence!

Do fans see themselves as investors?

It’s a fundamental question because many seem to behave as if they are, in fact, noble investors in a legitimate business. Contrary to belief, investors don’t get that much of a say in how businesses are run. Accountability at the annual general meeting is their primary weapon unless they wield a seat on the board. Investors have multiple avenues open to them when it comes to grievances. In a worst case scenario they can sell their shares.

Crowdsourcing backers lack any such tools. When things turn sour, they have but one option: complaining on the internet.

The Magnifying Focus of the Artistic Lens

The magnifying focus of the artistic lens makes these shortcomings all the more obvious, and potent. The end product is an intangible piece of incredibly subjective art, not a pre-defined physical object. How do you measure its quality? What concrete data can you use to measure it against the initial promise?

Ignorance of the actual product pervades investments in media companies where the only meaningful outcome is whether the content makes money or not. Most investors in media companies never watch what they produce. Why would they? Few people care about how a plane flies so long as it leaves and arrives on time.

Ignorance of business pervades fandoms in general. Economic realities tend to be understated or ignored despite clear evidence. The overall reception of the product is subservient to the whims of the individual fan. Did Fox bring back Family Guy? Yes! Except that the original cancellation had nothing to do with the quality of the show itself; the network messed up the scheduling and marketing.

Artistic endeavours create products that are emotional. They provide a connection with the viewer that promise untold benefits when its strong. Promises build hype and the failure to deliver on it has caused entire media conglomerates to falter.

The reaction of backers and fans to Bee & Puppycat evokes the worst aspects of entitled fans. Money is not, in fact, the be all and end all of the transaction. Decisions made and contracts signed help move the production along. Bumps in the road and unforeseen circumstances need to be fixed. Unless you’ve undertaken an attempt to produce an animated cartoon, you’ll likely be ignorant of all of it. I sure was.

Whether the internet encourages such behaviour or merely amplifies it is debatable. What’s beyond doubt is that the involvement of money is making things much more personal than before. At least in the old model, if you didn’t like the content, you were in no position to complain about it. As the Simpsons so eloquently put it:

Bart: Hey, I know it was great, but what right do you have to complain?

CBG: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.

Has the balance of power shifted in fans’ favour now that they are giving their hard earned money directly to creators? No! The power hasn’t shifted, but risk has!

Are Fans Blind to Risk?

Any investor undertakes a risk when they invest. Risk underscores the entire risk/reward capitalistic model. Contributing money to something with an unknown outcome is to undertake a risk that said outcome may not be the one you hope for. Risk is the price of obtaining the potential for reward.

Are fans ignorant or blind to risk? Their words and actions seem to suggest so. Old business models may be partially to blame. The reward is unbelievably high and the risk is startlingly low when the only thing you are investing is time.

Watching a bad TV show only wastes your viewing time. Watching a bad TV show you’ve partly funded is a waste of that and your money in addition to the time you spent earning that money! Suddenly there’s a real cost to  screened entertainment that didn’t exist to the same extent before. Viewers do pay for cable, but the unit cost of that compared to funding an individual show is so small, it’s imperceptible.

A poor understanding of the degree of creative risk catches fans unawares. Misunderstanding what was at stake to begin with makes shaking the feeling of being duped difficult. The flip side, is of course the many projects that have succeeded on Kickstarter. The first season of Cyanide and Happiness is one. [Declaration: I contributed to that project.]

It’s clear that fans of Bee & Puppycat didn’t properly perceive the creative risk of the project when the contributed. They rolled the dice and lost, yet feel they are unfairly aggrieved and deserving compensation of some kind. Even some basic due diligence would reveal that the project was run by a responsible team, with the necessary skills and connections to make the whole thing work.

The show is a good example of the many reasons why fans make for lousy investors in creative projects, and why there is some merit to leaving a degree of separation between themselves and creators. As the market develops further, there will be a real need to either codify or legislate the status of backers and the responsibilities of creators to those backers. While the benefits are clear to those making physical projects, there is a real need for greater discussion regarding artistic projects as Bee & Puppycat ably demonstrates.

NOTE: This post was edited on the day it was published for clarity and ease of reading.