Worrying about crowdfunding

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 02, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Having just submitted one book, I'm considering crowdfunding my next. That means I'm spending a lot of time reading about crowdfunding, and worrying about what could go wrong with the idea.

In the past, I've pointed out that the success rate for crowdfunding is low for projects related to free software -- less than ten percent. I've also worried about what happens when donations reach saturation level, and everyone who might contribute is already contributing their maximum.

Recently, however, I've been adding to those lists of concerns.

Worry #1: Saturation and potential donors
To start with, Paul Brown and several others have suggested that saturation is unlikely. They point out that free software is becoming more popular, so that the pool of donors is always growing. They may have a point, but I am not sure that wider use necessarily translates into more potential donors. After all, many people are unaware of how much free software is running their appliances these days.

Anyway, even if the donors are increasing, are they increasing fast enough to keep ahead of saturation? So far as I can find out, no one can reliably answer this question, or even suggest how to begin doing so. For all anyone can tell, the demand for donations could exceed the number of potential donors at any time. All we can do is place our faith in the idea in the same way that some people place their faith in progress -- it's a nice thought, but not a well-supported one.

Worry #2: Everyone loves a winner
Did anyone here contribute to Veronica Mars? Con Man? For those who don't know, Veronica Mars was a movie continuation of a a cult TV show that set records for fundraising a couple of years ago, while Con Man is doing the same as I write, raising money for a web series loosely based on the events around Firefly and starring Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion.

Now, both these fundraisers caught my attention. I enjoyed Veronica Mars, and I expect to enjoy Con Man, if only for the pleasure of watching Nathan Fillion subvert Americans with his Canadian accent.

Yet while I don't want to sound ungrateful for the entertainment, part of me wonders whether these are the kinds of projects that crowdfunding is supposed to be about? Although both these projects were turned down by traditional sources of funding, they would probably have the same chances of finding private investors as Monty Python did years ago with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Instead, though, they chose to crowdfund instead. It's an obvious formula for success, and I have to admit that the tag-line, "your best chance of seeing Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion in a space ship again" is a lure that works for me (and, obviously, thousands of other people as well)

Yet are these projects with alternatives succeeding at the expense of others that are less well-backed? Or, to put the question into more relevant terms, do free software projects require backing from prominent projects or developers to succeed? Do such projects, in funding themselves, ensure that other projects with less backing fail? Is a time coming -- if it hasn't already arrived -- when backing of famous or influential people will be needed if a project is to have any chance of success?

Worry #3: Crowdfunding vs.Volunteerism

I've been around free software long enough to remember a time when free software related jobs were the exceptions. Volunteerism was the norm. People worried what full employment in free software might do to corrupt the movement.

Those fears were exaggerated, but although for several years the Linux kernel has been built more by professionals than volunteers, the spirit of volunteerism survived. Now, though, crowdfunding seems to be having the same effect as the promise of jobs once did, creating a hope of being able to work full-time doing work you enjoy.

Please don't mistake me -- nothing is wrong with this hope. Having made money from free software for over a decade, I'd be a hypocrite if I condemned someone who wanted to work full-time on free software. I understand, too, that while university students might not mind volunteering, as contributors get older, they have relationships, children and mortgages to fund.

What concerns me is how realistic those expectations are. How many of those whose crowdfunders fail continue to build their own software, and how many are too crushed by failure to do anything except drop out? Remember that these are not empty questions, since some 90% are going to fail. Instead of being a boost to free software, could crowdfunding be undermining its spirit?

I have no answers. Increasingly, free software seems to be rushing to crowdfund, but  all I can do is ask questions.

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