Kickstarter wasn't intended to be a platform for elaborate, participatory jokes. It's a Web site where entrepreneurs seek funding help from the public. You watch a video or read a pitch about a project, and then, if compelled, you donate a few bucks—not because you're investing (you're not) but just to show your support, maybe to feel like a part of someone's quest.
In July, Ohio resident Zack Brown started what may have been the silliest Kickstarter project ever. He set a fundraising goal of $10—to make a potato salad.
He didn't even bother with a video. His entire pitch was: “Basically I'm just making potato salad. I haven't decided what kind yet.”
The Internet loves a good joke. Within a couple of days, this one went viral. Thousands of Web surfers thought of the same punch line: contribute to the absurd campaign. The media picked up on the gag, too; next thing anyone knew, Brown's potato salad quest had racked up more than $70,000 in pledges.
Brown isn't a snake oil salesman or a huckster; he was absolutely transparent about what you'd get for your contribution: pretty much nothing. (For $1, he'd say your name aloud while making the salad. For $3, he'd mail you a bite.) The Internet, in other words, makes possible a scheme that has never existed before: get rich quick through sincere goofiness. We, the public, get to be part of the high jinks; they, the gagsters, get the profits.
It had happened before. The Million Dollar Homepage was a 2005 experiment by a British college student. He offered to sell individual pixels of his Web site (a 1,000 × 1,000 pixel grid) to advertisers for $1 each. He sold every last pixel.
Then there was also One Red Paperclip. Canadian Kyle MacDonald asked what someone might trade him for the red paper clip on his desk. Someone offered a fish-shaped pen. MacDonald bartered the pen for a doorknob, which he traded for a camp stove, and so on—until, after 14 trades, he had himself an actual house.
See? Sincere public goofiness. But the reactions to each case suggest that there are some rules to making these farcical schemes successful.
First: you can't repeat the viral success of a nutty Internet stunt. There were, inevitably, other “million-dollar home page” attempts—and at least a dozen copycat potato salad campaigns on Kickstarter. They failed. (One, called “I'm also making potato salad,” earned a whopping $10 in contributions.) Only the original idea thinker gets the loot.
Second rule: don't stray from straight goofiness. You'll ruin it. Case in point: Brown appeared on Good Morning America, vowing to figure out how to “do the most good” with the money. The goofiness was gone; now he was a do-gooder.
Final rule: stay sincere. Next Brown began promoting other stuff—a local restaurant, a photography studio, a radio station—on his Kickstarter page; now the earnestness was gone, too. “This is outrageous!” said one commenter. “Stop plugging businesses,” said another. “It's really lame, and takes away from the tongue in cheek fun of the whole ‘potato salad’ kick.”
Shortly thereafter, the pledges actually dropped by $30,000, leading to rumors of an anticommercialism backlash. (Kickstarter says that, instead, it canceled three large donations that seemed to be phony.) By the time the campaign was finished, Brown had raised more than $55,000.
The Web's short history of silly fundraising campaigns demonstrates that the public loves a good, pure, zany stunt. Yes, there will be some who begrudge any get-rich-quickers—especially those who succeed based on a little online joke. Others will disparage the apparent frivolity. But if your joke is good enough, a lot of the (paying) public will enjoy coming along for the ride.
Just remember the prime directives: Be original. Stay sincere. And stay goofy.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
The greatest crowdfunding disasters: ScientificAmerican.com/oct2014/pogue