After spending a week reading about the Kickstarter for potato salad— once topping out at $70,000 but now just above $40,000 after some pledges were canceled and seeing its creator at once decried and lionized, one can only walked away depressed. Bemused, maybe, but certainly depressed.
It’s a silly joke—and certainly not entirely original. People have had joke Kickstarters before, people have made money off stupid ideas before, and people have made money off stupid jokes before. What eventually becomes of Zack “Danger” Brown and the tens of thousands pledged to his side dish isn’t that important, at least on the surface.
So why does it feel like the end of something great? Kickstarter has always rested on a somewhat tenuous yet agreeable legitimacy, attempting to divide the power of production amongst the general public (a privilege formerly only held amongst venture capitalists and angel investors). Kickstarter and similar sites like Indiegogo aim to connect the supply directly to the demand, instead of relying on suits and CMOs to judge how deserving a project is based on false intuition and tone-deaf studies of the public’s values.
These are good goals for Kickstarter, and it has fulfilled them with few exceptions (such as celebrities abusing this mission to make projects without dipping into their own considerable wealth). But when attempting to see where Brown and his starchy enterprise fit in, I can only see damages to the legitimacy of Kickstarter and future KIckstarter-funded projects.
Far more than the many scams that have plagued the site, the success of what is clearly a joke raises serious questions about Kickstarter as both a tool and a community. Far from simply being a machine that makes your dreams come true, Kickstarter is a serious business initiative. People entrust you and your production with money—no matter how small or large the amounts—and trust you will deliver. You, in turn, bet on their generosity with a tiered gift system. Each failure to fulfill your promises not only damages your legitimacy but the legitimacy of the format, as well.
Brown is no different with his delectable dairy-infused root vegetable conglomeration. He has since offered such prizes as hats, t-shirts, single bites of his salad, as well as a promised party and cookbook. In all likelihood, however, his promises are not very viable; he has also pledged to ship individual bites of different potato salads “based on every country” to his highest backers.
And despite the cries of some that he should donate his funds to a good charity, Kickstarter’s rules explicitly ban fundraisers for charities.
What this means is Brown is now stuck with $40,000 and thousands of backers waiting for hats, shirts, and other goodies. What started as a joke will soon be a major financial responsibility. Because his costs are relatively low (the original goal was for a mere $10), very little of that money will be deductible or devoted to the actual costs of delivering on his promises. According to The Tax Foundation, after local, state and federal taxes, he could be forking over a third or more of his earnings to Uncle Sam, a sum of nearly $15,000 (assuming he doesn’t rise above his current level).
Actual Kickstarters present investors with risk assessments, production goals, deadlines; Brown admits he hasn’t even made potato salad before this. He and his tubulous cultivar collection is making a not-harmless mockery of a system that looks to change how anything from crafts to music to comic books are created. It’s legitimacy rests on the seriousness of being trusted with other people’s money. Once we abandon that trust for the sake of a quick laugh, we endanger the entire system of becoming a joke itself.
Kickstarter and sites like it can bring about the true freedom of creation artists and business owners have dreamt of for the better part of a century. It opens the lungs of capability to breathe in the real demand of enlightened consumers. All this joke is doing is loosening the bowels of cynicism to drop the self-aware deuce of irony, smearing itself upon the already-besmirched record of Kickstarter and crowdfunding at large.
That’s why it’s so damn depressing. That, and it’s not even that good of a joke.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons