The Revolution Will Not Be Crowdfunded

(or What Perks Can I Get Out Of Liberty?)

The Pebble Time smartwatch (one of which, as a disclosure, I totally own), from well-established wearable-tech juggernaut Pebble, has reached $8.1 million of funding on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Nearly 40,000 individuals have funded the device out of their own pocket, helping the venture-backed and profitable company produce its newest entry into the smartwatch arena. According to Greg Kumparak of TechCrunch in his article “Pebble Time Smashes Through $6.5m On Kickstarter In Half A Day,” the massive success of Pebble on the crowdfunding site have industry analysts asking whether the company is “too successful” to continue turning to the democratized movement. Has the success of Pebble finally signaled the dilution of the crowdfunding movement, much as lifehacks signaled the dilution of contemporary hacker culture?

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites now face the same dilemma that many “grassroots,” tech movements that spawn from a rejection of industry-practice have faced: what to do when your counter-culture becomes the status quo? Hacking faces this dilemma to this day, as the term “hack” has come to be applied to a plethora of different functions (e.g. lifehacks, biohacks, foodhacks, etc…). Ultimately, the original meaning of the term becomes so far-removed from the intended function, that the term loses meaning to the very community it was meant to serve. Case in point, many contemporary hackers feel the need to create for themselves sub-genres of hacking, such as “crackers” to denote criminal activity, so as to create distinction in a crowded field.

Facebook employs “hackers” to come work for their large, corporate, data-mining entity, which is in essence against the spirit of hacking movements which sought not to further a single corporation’s goals, but to learn and better all corporations and users; phone phreaks sought to better Ma Bell, not help promote her tyrannical ways. However, as the term is thrown around so casually it has come to lose its meaning beyond “buzzword” status. This “buzzword” status has come to infect crowdfunding, once seen as the successor to the grassroots movements started by groups like Community Memory.

The issue lies in the fact that Pebble, as a venture-backed company that sells its products in stores like Best Buy, should be able to afford to produce its devices either by raising capital or through sales. However, since this company continues to run to crowdfunding, it comes to suck away what made crowdfunding so great. Crowdfunding, typically portrayed as an individual with an idea who makes an appeal to the public in order to fund their idea, used to be the story of the individual fighting the system. Independent filmmakers would get funding from people, when studios would reject their ideas. Small tech startups would get funding from people, when VCs didn’t believe in their business plan. However, Pebble changes all of this, much as Facebook changes the term for “hacking.”

As Issie Lapowsky of Wired explains, in her article “Pebble’s Insane Success Proves That Kickstarter Is Now A Marketing Tool,” the fact that a company on Pebble’s scale continues to use a crowdfunding platform is indicative of a more diluted use for the service. It no longer becomes simply about promoting the strength of the individual, but about jumping onto a trend that as many people as possible can get behind. Just as hacking came to be adopted by as many groups as possible to describe all terms, crowdfunding is now being adopted by all groups as general practice of business. When crowdfunding enters the boardrooms and marketing agencies as a method for “generating capital,” then can it still be considered a democratic, grassroots movement?

Hacking faces the same question today. If everyone is employing “hacking” methods as a method for accomplishing their goals, and the definition is being applied by corporations to fit their goals, then hacking cannot exist as the movement that it once existed as. The democratization of the individual’s Internet experience is destroyed by the popularization of such a movement. Crowdfunding has reached a critical moment today, one that has set the tone for its use as a tool of the individual. No longer can it simply be seen as the new form of fighting the status quo, but, as Issie Lapowsky puts it, as “a marketing tool.”