Crowdfunding In Freedom

Sun, 25 May 2014

Crowdfunding has become extremely popular over the last few years. I suspect that most people wanting to start a crowdfunding campaign think choosing a crowdfunding platform is a simple task and decide to go ahead with the well-known options such as Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, RocketHub, Crowdfunder, Crowd Supply, etc. All of these and many others cater to a broad range of projects. Kickstarter is perhaps the most recognizable of all and many people have run successful crowdfunding campaigns there for music albums, independent films, charities, software and lots of other things.

There are some extremely appealing benefits to crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Due to their popularity it's possible for unknown people to fund projects by offering rewards to donors or simply by selling them on the brilliance of the concept. Crowdfunding can be categorized as a type of social networking, albeit one where the goal is to raise money. Indeed, utilizing other social networking is one of the primary ways that crowdfunding campaigns are publicized.

The downside to these crowdfunding sites is tied in with their very popularity. What could be more attractive than a low cost way to raise money? Almost overnight, the internet has been inundated with people, companies and organizations starting new crowdfunding campaigns. This has created an extremely competitive place, and one that favors the technologically savvy, well connected and/or well funded. Ironically, the whole idea of crowdfunding was to enable those without such resources to fund their projects. Now, however, it's easy for smaller projects to get lost amidst the many thousands of flashier offerings on crowdfunding sites.

Despite their popularity sites such as these should be scrutinized, especially for those of us in the free software and free culture movements. It's important to consider the terms of service and privacy policies that you and your donors would be required to agree to. In addition, these typically use proprietary software: The software that runs the system itself is not available, and proprietary JavaScript is usually needed as well. I'm reminded of Github: Many people use it despite the fact that you can't set up your own instance on your own machine. Although we was talking of development systems, I think Mako's arguments in Free Software Needs Free Tools also apply to crowdfunding systems.

I like that, when GNU MediaGoblin did their crowdfunding campaign, they partnered with the FSF who used only free software for the campaign. I understand that they used CiviCRM although there are other options like Selfstarter and Crowdtilt. I understand that it's also possible to use Bitcoin for crowdfunding through assurance contracts. With free crowdfunding software, you don't have to compete directly on popular but proprietary crowdfunding sites. You can run your campaign directly from your own website in software freedom.

Free software also eliminate the possibility of people having their projects declined. Kickstarter, for example, does not automatically approve every project. As crowdfunding becomes ever more popular, it's a safe assumption that vetting will become more stringent, further narrowing the field. These free software programs are designed to be user-friendly so that anyone can get a campaign started, even those who are not tech savvy or who don't have a substantial design or marketing budget. If I ever had the need to start a crowdfunding campaign I would use one of these free programs.

Crowdfunding using free software is not a panacea for all of the potential pitfalls of the crowdfunding model. For one thing, the mere ability to easily launch a campaign does not guarantee that anyone will actually visit the site, much less make a donation. The network effect of the established proprietary crowdfunding systems can be strongly felt here but it's important resist that. Despite their popularity using proprietary software to run a crowdfunding campaign can't be the answer.

To succeed with any type of crowdfunding campaign planning is essential. It's important to have an appealing website, the ability to optimize the site with the search engines and some ability to leverage social networking. In other words, free software crowdfunding does not actually eliminate the intrinsically competitive nature of crowdfunding. It simply shifts the focus. Rather than competing with other projects on a single site, one is competing on the entire internet.

The whole crowdfunding model is comparable in some ways to the widespread phenomenon of self-publishing in the book industry. It has become ever cheaper and simpler for authors to self-publish their books. Statistics, however, indicate that only a very small percentage of self-published authors sell more than a handful of books. As with crowdfunding, self-publishing offers many options. Authors can choose to sell their books on popular websites or to stay completely independent and sell only from their own website. Either way, a viable plan is essential to achieve even a moderate degree of success. The same is true for crowdfunding. It can provide a financial lifeline for people where traditional ventures fail. However it requires extensive planning as well as constant interaction and attention, in order to be successful. A poorly managed campaign, especially if the the organizers take on too much responsibility, is unlikely to succeed.

Being able to run a crowdfunding campaign using only free software is extremely important. It gives people the chance to create crowdfunding campaigns without having to agree to a terms of service or privacy policy for themselves which is unfair, or to expect their donors to. Free software crowdfunding programs offers the freedom, privacy, and autonomy that is missing with the leading crowdfunding sites and I hope to see more free software and free culture crowdfunding campaigns using them.