in podcasting

How Ain’t It Cool’s Kickstarter Reveals a Major Flaw in Kickstarter’s System

Harry Knowles’s Ain’t It Cool News helped inaugurate the modern era of film fan sites. With its enthusiastic reviews, its incredible scoops, and its roster of talented film writers, Knowles helped create the template for a lot of what fans read on the internet today (including the film site I currently work for). While AICN has fallen on hard times as of late, it’s still going strong with boatloads of readers.

Recently, Knowles has taken to Kickstarter to try to raise money for his web series, “Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles.” That show aired on the Nerdist network for 30 episodes but was turned down for a follow-up season, so Knowles is now hoping his fan base will kick in some cash to keep the dream alive. I have a lot of thoughts on the show itself and its viability as an ongoing concern, but that’s not the focus of my post today. Instead, I wanted to highlight how Knowles’ Kickstarter project reveals one of Kickstarter’s major flaws.

When Knowles posted on his website about the Kickstarter, he was inundated with comments, the vast majority of which were nasty and vitriolic. That Talkback thread has now spawned over 16,000 comments, a massive number even by the site’s standards. The top-voted comment reads partially as follows: “WHY SHOULD ANY ONE FUND THIS? The ‘first season’ was just a vanity project for you – all about you, starring you, about you and your fabulous toys which you have and no one else does and we’re supposed to envy you. Any guest who came on who had accomplished more than you from humble roots you shit on.”

On a fundamental level, it’s fascinating that so many people who are regulars on Ain’t It Cool seem to vehemently hate the person who created it all. The Kickstarter talkback is a murderer’s row of users who have built up a lot of bitterness and resentment for what appears to be decades. The high asking price on the Kickstarter project is just their latest excuse for unleashing a verbal beatdown on Knowles. Reading through the comments, it’s difficult not to feel bad for Knowles, despite the potential veracity of the accusations hurled at him.

I was also struck by another realization. To my knowledge, Kickstarter has no (public) answer to the following question:

How do you stop people from manipulating Kickstarter in order to actively destroy your project?

If you visit the comments section of the AICN Kickstarter, you’ll find even more hatred from some of the project’s “backers.” In fact, at least one of the backers is clearly pledging massive amounts of money (i.e. in the thousands) with the clear intention of retracting that pledge later. 

Why is this a problem? Here’s a graph of Pledge Distribution over of the life of a project, which Kickstarter itself generated:

According to Kickstarter, “As the graph illustrates, funding tends to cluster around the very beginning and very end of a campaign. There’s a logic to this. When a project launches the creator’s most fervent fans rush to show their support. And as time runs out, people who have been sitting on the sidelines are motivated to finally take action.”

Users who pledge massive amounts of money may seem totally legitimate at first. But Kickstarter gives them the option to retract those pledges or lower those amounts at any time. By pledging with the intention of retracting, users can effectively sabotage the Kickstarter by significantly lowering the urgency for people to pledge.

With less than 48 hours to go (and a project length of 30 days), Knowles’ Kickstarter hasn’t even reached its 2/3rds funding point, meaning he likely will not come close to his goal. Thus, the prospect that some of Knowles haters could significantly influence the outcome is pretty unlikely. Nonetheless, if the project had come closer, then a pack of his detractors could have easily led this project to a different outcome.

There aren’t really any easy fixes on Kickstarter for this, but one that jumps to mind is the ability to “lock in” pledges a certain amount of time before the project has expired. This way, if people are going to play the retraction game, at least the project owners still has a significant amount of time to get the money they need. But no solutions are optimal. As Kickstarter starts to experience more diverse “user scenarios,” I hope they’ll move quickly to solve problems like this.

Update: Scott in the comments points out that protection like this is already in place, but it is only for the final 24 hours and only if the pledge reduction doesn’t drop the project below its goal. I don’t feel this is adequate given the gaming that we are seeing here, but at least it is something.

Update 2: In a fairly stunning turn of events, the Kickstarter project is now fully funded. The project received over $60,000 worth of funding in under 48 hours. That is staggering. Worth noting: Average donation was $166/pledge (average across Kickstarter = $75/pledge). Plus, based on the rewards that were claimed, we can calculate that around $42,500 was donated by 10 people.