Are we teaching kids about Kickstarter? Probably not, I’m guessing. After all, though it’s an important part of the media landscape these days, U.S. schools generally don’t feel that the media landscape is worth addressing… except of course in cases where students plan on “going into media” as a vocational choice.
Yet Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms connect with young people and their outside-of-school lives in a way that’s meaningful to them and increasingly crucial to a range of media from comics and film to pop music: through fandom.
Generally I’ve been quite supportive of crowdfunding efforts, even in the case of the recent record-setting campaign for the Veronica Mars movie, which would directly benefit the decidedly non-indie business entity known as Warner Brothers. Such efforts seem like a natural outgrowth of today’s participatory ethos, and help dissolve creator-audience barriers in ways that feel positive—despite how other agendas might be furthered at the same time.
The other day, though, I got a request from an established for-profit comics publisher asking for support on Indiegogo for a proposed adaptation of Julie Kagawa’s popular YA Iron Fey series. Just how popular is this series? In case you didn’t know, the pledge request tells you: “Each book (all six!) in the series spent several weeks at the top of the New York [sic] best seller list.” But this kind of vast, built-in audience begs the question, doesn’t it? After all, this isn’t a hand-stapled mini-comic on some esoteric topic that’s published out of a basement in Portland. So I kept reading, looking for the rationale for crowdfunding—not for adaptation itself, but for this particular method of financing—and all I found was this: “Your support will fund the comic creators, printers, shipping costs, project management and the army of magic little elves necessary to bring the novels to life and get comics and rewards to your door.” In short, the typical expenses of any comics publisher, right, minus the rewards fulfillment? Now, I’m not saying the lesson to be taught and learned here is one of cynicism, though I won’t blame you for drawing that conclusion from the raised-eyebrow tone I’ve been using. And I’m not sure why this particular campaign has made me question things more than in the past. Maybe it’s because of that conspicuously absent lack of rationale.
In any case, I had to stop and think why some publishers were going this route even if traditional funding avenues had worked just fine in the past. And the answer I came up with applies to all such crowdfunding campaigns, the ones we like and the ones we don’t like: it’s not just dollars that are getting invested in the process, but fans themselves.
Consistent among the perks provided by many such campaigns, including the one for Veronica Mars, seem to be “updates” on the project. Let’s forget for a moment that disseminating news of this type is usually a part of PR which fans are now paying for the privilege to receive—just as we’ll ignore the fact that T-shirts, stickers (like the ones pictured at the top of the post), and other assorted paraphernalia effectively turn fans into marketing agents. We’ll put all of that to the side not because it’s not worth helping young fans become more media literate in this regard, but because those are standard tactics of any pop culture promotional campaign. It’s known as leveraging the fan base, pure and simple.
Yet when fans come to see themselves as part of the extended team bringing a media product to market–the comics publisher mentioned here will draw you into the book, and most indie film outfits will provide a “producer” credit–then that’s different altogether. It’s no longer just about the fannish ardor of wanting to see any new release of the fan object succeed on multiple levels. Now the fan is directly involved–or at least that’s the perception, which is all that really counts–in the fate of the media product. Just ask students whether they’d be more likely to organize a group outing to a midnight screening of a film to which they donated, or to buy a bunch of comics as gifts or keepsakes if they themselves appeared in them. However, in the end it’s not even such concrete actions as these that represent profound investments of oneself, but simply all the added talk and thought–discourse both external and internal–that one engages in after this tidal feeling of inclusion.
Teaching students about how Kickstarter and Indiegogo work, how they’ve affected indie culture and culture more broadly—that’s media literacy. Teaching students to become aware of how participation in fan-targeted media marketing affects their decisions and feelings, and aligns them with interests not necessarily their own—that’s critical literacy. And, as the name would imply, it’s critical.