Potential implications of crowdfunding in the field of fan studies and academia

Bertha Chin's picture

Crowdfunding as a potential academic research project began for me with the announcement of the Veronica Mars movie campaign on Kickstarter in March 2013. The subsequent success Rob Thomas, the creator of the TV series and the Veronica Mars cast and producers had with accruing US$5.7 million (of the US$2 million that was originally crowdfunded for), and the speed with which they reached their funding goal with contributions from fans who donated to the project at the time raised interesting questions pertaining to media, digital culture and fan studies.

As a digital culture and fan studies scholar, these were also questions that were becoming extremely pertinent to the academic field. The growth in popularity of crowdfunding, especially within the entertainment media industry, raised questions related to the monetisation of fans, to the ever-evolving relationship between media producers/content creators and their fanbase, and to notions of fan labour, whereby fans are not only actively courted and co-opted into the media industry’s promotional strategies, often performing labour for free, but are now also expected to contribute financially to crowdfunding campaigns, leading to accusations of (and concerns for) exploitation.

As one of the editors of the New Media & Society special issue and an edited collection on the topic of crowdfunding, Lucy Bennett, Bethan Jones and I raised concerns about ethical considerations and notions of accountability with crowdfunding campaigns, particularly when crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter provides no guarantees nor protection to funders from bogus campaigns or content creators who are unable to fulfill the pledge to funders after a project has been funded.

A fervent criticism of crowdfunding, particularly within the context of celebrities taking to this platform to raise funds for pet projects, is the return to the notion of fans as cultural dupes as they help fund projects which critics argue celebrities are more than well-equipped to fund themselves. This also raises questions of free labour, which I alluded to earlier, as fans are no longer expected to merely consume indiscriminately, but also to help fund these pet projects of their favourite celebrities all in the name of altruism. Given that crowdfunding extends beyond the media entertainment industry to other fields such as journalism, gaming, civic society, and even academia, I would contend that these questions of ethics, accountability and free labour also apply.

Is it appropriate, for example, for academics to turn to crowdfunding on sites such as Kickstarter in search for alternative funding and would it affect the integrity of the research? For that matter, how is this different from applying for research funding with established research councils, universities and industry partners? With funding from research bodies, we are not required to send out rewards to contributors who pledged money for the campaign, but we are equally obligated to produce desirable and effective results that would satisfy the funding bodies.

On the other hand, given that academics are already performing many labour for free, and the increasing precarity of academics in higher institutions, would a turn to crowdfunding for academic projects give university institutions further excuses to not support academic research? My aim here is certainly not to provide answers, nor do I have any. However, given the practice of crowdfunding has raised certain concerns in the field of fan studies – a field of study that is often slighted for being frivolous – and given that these concerns extend to questions of labour, ethics and accountability, it is perhaps time to contextualise these issues to academic research and practice.


Jamie Henthorn's picture

I want to thank you for a

I want to thank you for a great post trying to unpack some of the issues with the concept of crowd funding and academia. I think that your post and Jennifer de Winter's both look at the ways that academia and crowd funding are not natural companions in similar ways.

As I was reading your post I was really interested in the idea that if we as academics must turn to these popular avenues for research, how does that affect the kinds of research that can happen at the university. On a platform where attention is integral to getting one's message across for more monetary support, projects cater to popular topics and marginalized research can become even more marginalized. Not to sound overly optimistic, but this seems to run counter to what academia is supposed to do.

I am likewise interested in how platforms like Kickstarter benefit from the fact that many fans see themselves as experts who would be able to discern what would be a good project. In many ways, Kickstarter might be a good way to gauge public opinion on pet projects, in the way that Lego Ideas does.

All this is to say that I do not have a lot of answers either. I've seen several fan and academic projects come out of Kickstarter, but more projects that were either failures or much more work than the creator imagined.

David Gehring's picture

Money Will Talk

On the other hand, given that academics are already performing many labour for free, and the increasing precarity of academics in higher institutions, would a turn to crowdfunding for academic projects give university institutions further excuses to not support academic research?

How can crowdfunding insert itself productively into the insitutional frameworks which legitimate academic work? Can crowdfunded research outside of insitutional frameworks legitimate itself via other means? There already seems to be a very selective (if not arbitrary) character to what academic journals are considered "worthy" of CV's, and digital publishing (something the MediaCommons is specifically interested in) has an even more difficult time being recognized as a new platform for rigorous scholarship. Indeed, there have been many questions swirling about regarding how to navigate this environment and utilize these technologies for academics. Although, I feel that what needs to be in place is an institutional recognition and embracing of new modes of research and funding. Importantly, this has to involve finding a way to incentivize academics to remain inside the institution while still exploring new ways of pursuing academic goals that can revitalize the process. The excerpt I pulled from your post, I believe, is an important aspect of this discussion. The music industry was very slow to acknowledge and embrace what peer to peer file sharing symbolized, i.e. a shift in how music fans consumed and experienced music. Universities should not make the same mistake. Perhaps universities should match crowdfunding up to a certain point and still sponsor the research which would allow for it to remain embedded in the peer review process? Ultimately, academic culture (Universities and those who teach, research, peer review, etc.) should welcome crowdfunding into the fold and utilize it as a tool that can reach new publics, all the while continuing to provide the support that nurtures a secure space (i.e. job security and financial support) where attention can be focused on academic work.