- 1 The Crowd
- 2 Network Forming and Maintenance
- 3 Friends, Followers and Going Viral
- 4 Existing Networks
- 5 Circles of acquaintance
- 6 The Six Degrees of Separation
- 7 Vulnerability
- a large number of people gathered together typically in a disorganised or unruly way
Crowd funding is not only reshaping our understanding of the flow of economies, but also our interpretation of ‘the crowd’. The ‘crowd’ in crowd funding is misleading, unlike than the unruly, disorganised mob that the word conjures, within the context of the online crowd funding platform the crowd is a temporary network of varying intensity, made up of individuals gravitating towards an idea, personal connection, or interest which they share. In The New Spirit of Capitalism (2007) by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, they summarise the contemporary conditions of network formation and relations, pointing out the shift in trends towards ephemeral networks forming around specific projects becoming much more prevalent, gathering together briefly before disbanding after a short period of time.
‘Social life today is no longer presented in the form of a series of rights and duties towards an extended familial community, as in a domestic world; … In a reticular world social life is composed of a proliferation of encounters and temporary but reactivatable connections with various groups, operated at a potentially considerable social, professional, geographical and cultural distance. The project is the occasion and reason for the connection. It temporarily assembles a very disparate group of people, and presents itself as a highly activated section of network for a period of time that is relatively short, but allows for the constitution of more enduring links that will be put on hold while remaining available.’ (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007, p.104)
Network Forming and Maintenance
The primary goal of crowd funding is of course to raise funds in order to realise a piece of work or project, however as many of the artist’s I spoke to discovered it was equally a marketing tool. Anne Krinsky described having felt uneasy with having to ask for money at the beginning of her project; ‘When I started out I wasn’t comfortable with the whole thing, but as it went on I realised that you aren’t just asking for money, you’re building an audience.’ As Krinsky describes, crowd funding draws an audience around a project, composed of a diverse group of people connected, however tenuously, to the initiator or the idea.
Post-Project Rhizome Relationships
The increasing Neo-Liberal emphasis on entrepreneurialism is changing the way we view our personal networks without necessarily positive effects. User friendly technologies and social media sites enable the easy maintenance of long-term connections with vast networks of acquaintances with whom in previous years connection would have been severed or naturally eroded. These open-ended acquaintances become a form of currency and opportunity to be further capitalised on. Post-project, initiators are unlikely to use crowd funding again; aware of the ‘use once’ nature of this kind of economy. In conversation all the artists I spoke to were extremely wary of using crowd funding more than once, however the network which was developed through the project was not entirely discarded. It was common for these artists to have used crowd funding to build an audience for their project as much as gather funds, and after the campaign was finished many maintained low level contact with this new network. Jane Moore used her crowd funding campaign as a way of making new business contacts, and Jessika De Wahls used it to transform a personal network into an audience of friends and fans for her artwork. Continued contact is generally fostered unsurprisingly by the internet, using emailing lists, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online contact, these forms of communication combine the personal with the corporate. Paul Verhaeghe is highly skeptical of the immorality inherent in society's demand that any individual (including the artist) is an entrepreneur who sees every friendship and acquaintance as a networking opportunity.
Social media has hugely expanded the potential of network forming and maintenance. Social media sites like Twitter enable us to contact total strangers and share our thoughts, ideas and even ask favours. Social media is now one of the most popular routes for customer complaints, because it is such a public form of communication, organisations are more likely to respond positively and promptly for free of ‘looking bad’ online. Although unsuccessful, Simon Gwynn used Twitter to approach celebrities to support his project, in the hope of connecting his Kickstarter campaign to their much larger networks and adding their seal of approval to his project by way of virtual status by way of a ‘retweet’ or a ‘like’ off the right person.
Ask the Audience
Unsurprisingly, when subjected to crowd funding the creative process becomes shaped by the crowd to a varying extent. The artist becomes dependent on the legitimisation and validation of their practice and project from the crowd whose interest needs to be inspired in order to translate interest into investment. Especially in cases such as Jane Moore her crowd became shareholders in Moore’s artistic career, and a risk of investment is taken on by both parties involved. The impact that the crowd’s influence has on creative output is inevitably a concerning distortion of the creative process, running the risk of diluting criticality in favour of homogenising popularism. That is not to say, however, that engagement with these platforms is not necessary and essential, their populism makes them a defining aspect of the conditions under which we live, the question remains of how to engage critically and appropriately.
Friends, Followers and Going Viral
Since the 2008 financial crisis, amongst increasingly unstable global conditions, there has been growing concern about the shift in society from the idealism of a meritocracy, towards increasing institutional nepotism. Within the arts and cultural spheres this situation is especially damning, since the sector has always been known for it’s exclusivity and fickleness; career success can be down to who you are friends with and how fashionable you are. Crowd funding appears to be a counter-reactionary force against these contemporary circumstances - a potentially democratising tool. Yet the irony of crowd funding is that ultimately it's success remains dependent on the value the initiator’s personal network. The realisation of an initiator's goal is subject to who they [the initiator] know, how many people they know, and moreover, how wealthy the group of people they are drawing upon is.
There are rare cases, such as that of Lucy Sparrow, where a project goes viral, these are the most well-publicised projects like the ‘Potato Salad’ project which raised an astonishing $55,492 in response to a project which stated its aim as, ‘Basically I'm just making potato salad. I haven't decided what kind yet.’ These projects, for whatever reason resound with people, trying to understand what made projects like Potato Salad a success, Simon Gwynn initiated the ‘Money for Nothing’ campaign, presenting a parody of the platform’s purpose. However, Gwynn soon realised the complications posed by crowd funding platforms, how much work a crowd funding project is for an individual, despite the illusion of it being a source of ‘easy-money.’ Musician Amanda Palmer was successful because not only was she drawing upon a personal network, but an already well established fan based, with whom she is known for having an exceptionally close relationship. Simon achieved his goal, but with only two backers, in comparison to Lucy’s 361 and Palmer’s staggering 24,883 backers, followers and fans, the process revealed to Gwynn the hidden maze of unsuccessful projects lurking at the bottom of crowd funding sites and the reality of the rarity of ‘going viral’.
Virtual Connections = Material Exchanges?
Having a wide network is still not an assurance of financial support from those in your network. Therefore having hundreds of friends on Facebook, or thousands of followers on Twitter may not be as productive as having fifty work colleagues. The average project, using information surveyed from 66 Successful Art Projects in London during 2014, had 69 backers, a number which I was surprised by. However this information was confirmed by Melissa Sueren whose expectations of backer responses had not been met during her Kickstarter campaign: ‘There is the preconception that if your project is on Kickstarter and you have a great video then it will go viral by itself, but it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t have five thousand Facebook friends to share the video with it is super difficult to get the money. … Luckily I had lots of people sharing my project on Facebook but, ultimately it is one thing to share it on Facebook and another thing to actually donate money. So we had lots of ‘shares’, but very few donators.’ Melissa’s description confirms the stark and risky reality of these platforms as Simon had come to realise, especially on Kickstart where an initiator can lose all the money raised so far if the goal isn’t reached. However unlike Simon, Melissa’s project ran much greater risk if the project didn’t reach it’s target as she was seeking £38,000 in comparison to Simon’s goal of £10.
Aside from the appeal of her project Big Swinging Ovaries, and her careful efforts to approach people individually, one of the things which made Jessika De Wahls so successful was strangely enough her part-time job as a self-employed hairdresser. Working freelance in a line of work known for it’s friendliness and informality, Jess had access to a wide pool of people with which she had regularly contact and direct exchanges with. In conversation, we discussed the importance of her work as a hairdresser and it’s positive impact upon her campaign; ‘Through hairdressing I see a lot of clients more regularly than they might even see their friends. And, because I work in a basement it is word of mouth only, it is up close and personal, I have known these clients for years, I have been to their weddings!’ As De Wahls describes, her job is uniquely suited to the formation of friendships, not limited to strictly professional relationships; you would be unlikely to go to the wedding of your accountant for example… Also, as Jess acknowledges, her job means that she often sees people regularly, evoking Edda’s words: ‘You know, if you have a friend, In whom you have confidence … And frequently pay him visits’. Jess’s network was transferrable, suited to both her roles and relationships with her networks, as she explained, ‘I think what the project changed for me was that previously people knew me as Jess who was a hairdresser who also makes art. Now that has completely turned around. People now know much more about what I am doing, and the more people that know you and your agenda, the more likely you are to be successful.’
Websites like Kickstarter provide a means to formally capitalise on personal networks; this is an predictable extension of the changing mass-networks to which many of us belong to on social media, where numbers of connections operate as forms of social and emotional capital. Despite no longer speaking to a person, it is common for them to remain ‘friends’ on Facebook, sites like Instagram and Twitter more explicitly suggest the currency that these connections have become, referring to connected individuals as ‘Followers’. ‘Crowd funding platforms usually say that you bring one third of the funders, another third is friends of friends and then the crowd funding website brings the rest. I think that worked for me, but I don’t think you can generalise it like that, I think it is a huge personal effort to keep people interested.’ (Jessika De Wahls) As Jess describes, two thirds of the people backing average project are people that the artist knows personally, or are a friend of a friend who has most likely seen the project on social media, sympathised and wished to donate. This places the artist in the hand’s of their network, especially since, if the project doesn’t quickly amass support it will disappear to the bottom of the crowd funding site and therefore be even less likely to get any support from random potential backers scrolling through the site.
An Institutional Advantage
Ironically, despite the rhetoric of crowd funding freeing the individual from dependence on the Institution, it is precisely how vulnerable to their network that crowd funding makes an initiator, which makes it an ideal platform for use by Institutions. Fellow researcher Aurella Yussef remarked after her conducting interviews that the only person who seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the pressure of the experience crowd funding was a marketing assistant crowd funding on behalf of an institution. The gravity that an institution can bestow upon a project remains powerful, and the average project listed at least one supporting institution or organisation, despite sites such as Kickstarter supposedly freeing the artist from the restrictions of the museum.
Circles of acquaintance
‘Significant Personal Connections’
As M.E. Luka pointed out in his survey of crowd funded films (2012), many of the backers had ‘significant personal connections’ to the initiators of the projects. Early on in my research I borrowed the data collected by Luka to visually map out how these groups might look (see diagram below).
This clearly indicated that the relationships between the crowd were not as disconnected and random as is often suggested. In my graph following Luka’s findings I gave the generous assumption that these networks centred around the project initiator alone as a way of ‘cleaning up’ the data. However, we know that in reality acquaintances are much more tangled and in fact there are likely may shared connections. Facebook makes us more acutely aware of these shared connections through it’s ‘Mutual Friends’ feature, allowing you to view overlaps in your circles of acquaintance.
Dunbar’s Circles of Acquaintance
In his research on the sizings of human and primate social groups Dunbar noted the correlation between the size of the species’s social group and the measurements of the relative neocortex. The findings were distinct and consistently confirmed that human social groups have clear and ordered sizings with little variation. The average human social group consisted of a maximum of 150 acquaintances of varying affections: ‘Intriguingly, 150 is also the average size of the human social network, where this is defined as the main circle of friends, relations, and acquaintances with whom one keeps regular contact.’ (Dunbar, 2008, p.9)
Within this network Dunbar distinguished four key groupings of people:
- The support group (those closest to the individual) – made up of 5 people
- The Sympathy group – made up of 15 people
- The Close Network – made up of 50 people
- The Clan – the entirety of the network, made up of 150 people
Accordingly, I found that 60 of the 66 art crowd funding projects I surveyed had been supported by 150 or fewer backers, suggesting that the initiator is much more dependent on their existing networks than many crowd funding platforms imply.
Even the outer-edges of our circles of acquaintance are not exempt from a sense of obligation, which can be intensified due to kinship. It follows that a more distantly related cousin may feel more obliged to support a relation’s project, especially after seeing that other people unrelated are supporting it:’…this sense of obligation may also be socially constructed in the outer reaches of the network: I am told that so-and-so is my second cousin, and therefore I ought to support him or her when in difficulty because of the obligations I have to the individuals that intervene between us in our pedigree.’ (Dunbar, 2008, p. 9)
Such a sense of obligation may extend also to those one identifies with: I am an artist, therefore I understand the difficulties this artist is going though and I want to support them. An individual may feel obliged to a sense of sympathy as they might feel they can relate to that individual’s position. Interestingly, this idea is supported by the tendency to refer to ‘artist’s communities’. Using the word ‘community’ emphasises the sense of obligation, support and imagined kinship between those working in similar fields.
The Six Degrees of Separation
As mentioned previously, social media platforms allow a continued international connectivity which has not before been possible. User friendly social media sites encourage a diaristic interaction online which blurs the public and private spheres. Twitter in particular enables individuals to reach out directly to people that would normally have been inaccessible (Simon Gwynn approached celebrities to gain support for his campaign through social media) making the world feel increasingly a much smaller place.
Originally, the theory of the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ was established by Frigyes Karinthy, it has since contributed to ‘small world’ theory and is prevalent in discussions regarding the effect that the internet is having on social relations and networks. The theory is based on the idea that everyone is connected to anyone else by an average of six ‘steps’ or six connections/friends of friends. In the 1960s Stanley Milgram set out to test this theory, asking whether strangers from different parts of the world could have enough common acquaintances to be easily connected. Milgram recruited a stock broker in Boston and a lady in Michigan to act as ‘targets’. Then Milgram sent packages to randomly selected people in Nebraska and Kansas with basic information about the targets and postcards to send so that a trail might be formed. Milgram published his findings in Psychology Today (1967), surprising even himself, to find through a series of similar experiments that the average chain of acquaintances between people living on a continent inhabited by 200 million people was only 5.5 intermediaries. (Evans, N. 2005, p.140) Evans is optimistic when reflecting on the possibilities of Six Degrees of Separation chains:
‘Six-degree chains do not reduce the number of strangers on our radar screen, but rather shrink the perception of vulnerable space by finding pockets of benevolence in places far from the home base, beyond the territory of groups with ties of legality, identity or self interest to motivate them. Perhaps we could see six degrees of separation as an idea and a practice by which we familiarize ourselves with strangers, a mode of resizing the world upwards, rather than downwards, turning networks of conspiracy into connections of conviviality and enlarging the spaces of the world into which we are moved to enter and in which we might feel safe.’ (Evans, N. 2005, p.146)
These interest surrounding these connections is not limited to science, statistics and anthropology, but has been consumed by the popular imagination and even instigated the creation of a humorous board game The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. ‘If six-degree chains render large worlds small by making them more interconnected, they also make small worlds large by bringing more people into our mental imaginary, enriching our perceptions of the kinds of people with whom we might be sharing a connection.’ (Evans, N. 2005, p. 142) The interest in these mutual friends, connections and acquaintances is exacerbated by the ways in which social media translates relations into a circulating currency, similarly to the project Where’s George? (www.wheresgeorge.com) which allows people to track their money by marking dollar bills, allowing people to map the journey of financial currency.
The online crowd funding platform forms a ‘work group’, an artificial kinship of individuals temporarily united behind a particular cause. Online platforms accommodate and enable the increasing formation of these transitory relationships, allowing them to form quickly and dissipate just as quickly. The potential connecting power of the internet promises the possibility of by-passing the additional connections in the chain of the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. ‘Popular discourse frames crowd funding as a way for those locked out of financing opportunities to leverage the connectivity of the internet to widen their reach beyond their immediately accessible networks and secure funds for a wide variety of projects.’ (Roei Davidson and Nathaniel Poor) Connecting and communicating doesn’t ensure exchange, the steps themselves in between people in relationship chains are often important legitimising connections. When stepped over any credibility is lost as there is no shared relation to vouch for the character of an individual. Friends of friends are essential to the expansion of a network, without weakening it, as they act as guarantors. Contacting artists became easier as my series of conversations progressed, because the evidence of previous successful exchange and a new network connection helped to validate my work and also gave me permission as a researcher. The series developed a new netowk in its own right and I have stayed in contact with all the participants since, mostly through social media.
Of course, putting yourself in the hands of your network is always a risk. As Amanda Palmer (2013) described, it was like crowd surfing; she had to throw herself at her network and hope that they would catch her. Crowd funding is a test of your existing relationships, and a test of your ability to Network build.
‘I fell into these thousands of connections that I’d made, and I asked my crowd to catch me.’ (Amanda Palmer, 2013)
Crowd Funding embodies a new form of network creating, that reorganises our understanding of the local from a geographical description to a gravitational local. This gravitational locality is a network of people; still comprised mostly of the 150 acquaintances, but briefly gravitating towards an individual and a specific project at a moment of excessive pull. Though the internet’s surrogacy, relationships are fostered, networks formed and disbanded, but due to the always-on mentality they are always-on hold, rather than entirely severed for good. We are more connectable than ever before, but our capacity to maintain relationships has remained the same and through crowd funding we test the strength of our existing networks as well as our capacity to expand them.
Research by Zara Worth
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