Crowdsourcing Has Very Deep Roots
By Paul Smart
Crowdfunding had its biggest year ever in 2017, when nearly one billion was raised by Ethereum and other blockchain-based computing platforms for new cryptocurrencies. It capped off a few years in which the world of online crowdfunding platforms mushroomed from several hundred a decade ago to several thousand, and shifted from arts-related and community-minded non-profit campaigns to ways of gaining venture capital, and maximizing profits.
Remember the days — not so long ago — when we were alerted to local funding campaigns to help out families facing medical disasters, or recovering from fires? When local musicians and filmmakers, novelists and even out-of-work journalists spread news about IndieGoGo, Kickstarter and GoFundMe drives for income.
Performative artist Marina Abramovic raised a pile of cash for a huge building project in Hudson she later abandoned. New Woodstocker Amanda Palmer pulled in over a million for a tour where she was getting audience members to play for free until she was notified about the moral side of shared economics.
But how about stepping back from the present? The ideas behind crowdsourcing are actually much older, and often more innovative than what they’ve become since the advent of the Digital Age. They were there in the early ages of publishing, when the first books and magazines were sold through pre-sales, attracting subscribers in what was planned for a published work. They were involved in national economics via war bonds, which have been used to pay for aggressive behavior on the part of a monarch or nation, and by happenstance all the other expenses involved in a larger economy, for centuries now.
Wikipedia, the modern gem of crowdsourcing (the non-monetary sibling of crowdfunding), noted how the 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte funded a few years of his thinking — which resulted in his theory of Positivism (which many see as the first great philosophy of science) — through public support. Later, The cooperative movement — a reaction to the bad sides of industrialization championed by Robert Owen (who we wrote about a couple of months ago) — pooled funding among like-minded souls to develop, fund and start distribution of new concepts, productions, and systems throughout much of rural Europe and our own Midwestern and Western states. And in 1885, it was a newspaper campaign calling for small contributions that ended up paying for the Statue of Liberty’s base, where Emma Lazarus’ immortal words of welcome ring out to this day.
In the 1930s, a time when popular progressive governments were facing off against a rising tide of Populist fascist movements around the world, the great humanitarian filmmaker Jean Renoir decided to act upon his own ideals and make a film about the legacy of the French Revolution’s original idealism in a way that reflected his belief that cinema was “the people’s art form.” He worked with unions to pre-sell his move, La Marseillaise, by subscription.
The result was a movie truly made for the people, full of rousing crowd scenes where all characters were treated with an equal sense of respect while progressive ideals fought to win, politically, the entire world the film moved through. Unfortunately, the politics beneath the French government turned far right by the time of La Marseillaise’s release, so it sank from view only to regain an audience with cineastes more recently.
The basic ideas behind crowdsourcing have changed little: you sell a project before it’s time, to a large audience instead of a select few investors (although many times, it’s those select few that a crowdsourcing campaign is really after). The benefits range from the innate marketing involved, the access to funding without overt control, and a sense that what one is doing is based on something provenly popular. The liabilities are that most such campaigns fail to make their mark, ideas placed into the marketplace in these ways are easy prey for others to pick up and run with, and the fact that you may be playing into a growing sense of burnout for constantly being hit up for funds.
Of course, there are elements to consider beyond this, especially as one moves from the idealistic and communitarian to more capital-accumulating endeavors. First off, there are two basic formats of crowdsourcing: Rewards crowdsourcing, where a product or service is presold without the incurring debt of any debt, or of sacrificing of equity/shares. Equity crowdsourcing, on the other hand, exchanges shares of an idea for money pledged.
Furthermore, there’s long been worries about how the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission will end up regulating the process, especially now that much of Dodd-Frank’s been lifted on the big money sources out there. Some say they’re worrying about fraud, others are simply tsk-tsking the fact that so much money’s been moving without the financial industries touching and getting some of it.
Just as the ideal of local currency has morphed towards crypto-variations designed for profit (and hoarding), instead of the original New Economics ideal of community-building and abundance, crowdsourcing has shifted as our politics have. And yet its roots remain the same, if paid attention to.
There are projects that help us all, and those that help a few. Do the “creators” help all? That’s a new question, with few answers once one applies the idealism of ethics to it.