The potato salad Kickstarter hit $40,000 yesterday,* and The Verge’s editor-in-chief Josh Topolsky wanted to talk about it.
"Isn't it a gross abuse of Kickstarter? Doesn't this run counter to what they're trying to do?" he asked. "Is this the kind of business Kickstarter wants to run?"
This is a common reaction, but I think it’s a misunderstanding. First, there’s always been a place for jokes on Kickstarter. Second, this particular joke is especially fitting given Kickstarter’s current goals.
People tend to have a lot of opinions about what belongs on Kickstarter
People tend to have their own ideas about what "belongs" on Kickstarter. Veronica Mars didn’t belong on Kickstarter because it was a big studio project, people said. Zach Braff doesn’t belong on Kickstarter because he’s rich and famous. My boyfriend objected when I backed a chocolatier in New York whose project is just to make a bunch of truffles. "That’s not what Kickstarter is for," he said. He may be right — if you look at the data, Kickstarter is actually for wallets.
Sure, Kickstarter has a reputation for attracting and nurturing certain types of projects. If you want to know what type of project belongs on Kickstarter, just picture a person who lives in Brooklyn and rides a bike. Would this person be into the project? Then it belongs on Kickstarter. An indie film that makes it to Sundance is the pinnacle of Kickstarterness. Anything else belongs in the sprawling ghetto of Indiegogo.
A new Kickstarter: help me buy up all of the potatoes in the area where Zack Brown lives in the days leading up to his potato salad event— Joshua Topolsky (@joshuatopolsky) July 9, 2014
Kickstarter’s co-founder and CEO Yancey Strickler is definitely into indie films — the company’s new office has its own movie theater so they can host screenings. But Strickler also wants everyone to feel like they belong on Kickstarter. Recently, the company announced major rule changes in order to make the site "friendlier" and added new categories like mobile games, space exploration, and vegan food. "Kickstarter's a global community of millions of people who fund projects of all shapes and sizes," a company spokesperson tells The Verge. "There's no single recipe for inspiration." Basically, if a project gets funded, that’s a strong sign it "belongs" on Kickstarter.
All this potato salad-related press is a great way for Kickstarter to signal that it’s more open now. What’s funny is that the new rules probably didn’t have anything to do with it. Jokey projects have always had a place on the site. Strickler’s own "This is not a Kickstarter shirt" project, which was just a T-shirt printed with the amount of money raised by the campaign, was arguably in the same nihilistic spirit. Kickstarter's head of public relations, Justin Kazmark, raised $270 on a goal of $50 to "Open Source my Great Uncle Harry's Glögg Recipe." In March, Chicago design student Noburu Bitoy asked for $8 to buy a Chipotle burrito and "graph its deliciousness." He got $1,050. Bitoy’s project was ridiculous, but it was resourceful and social. By the end of the campaign, he was eating a burrito while skydiving. "Lighthearted projects like these only demonstrate that creative thinking, exploring new territory, and not taking yourself so seriously can lead to success," Bitoy tells The Verge.
Meta T-shirts and burrito deliciousness graphs belong on Kickstarter, it seems. So what doesn’t?
Jokey projects have always had a place on the site
A friend of a friend recently raised around $7,000 on another platform to pay for her tuition to coding school. It made sense for her to use crowdfunding. She’s a minority in a male-dominated field, and she has a lot of friends who want to help her out. But that’s exactly the kind of campaign Kickstarter doesn’t want. If I had to reduce the Kickstarter spirit to just one word, it’d be creativity. And potato salad's got it.
Kickstarter’s new rules may have been motivated in part by pressure from the less scrupulous Indiegogo, but it was also an attempt to isolate what really makes something belong on Kickstarter. The company boiled it down to three basic principles:
Projects must create something to share with others. Projects must be honest and clearly presented. Projects cannot fundraise for charity, offer financial incentives, or involve prohibited items.
It’s safe to say the potato salad will involve no prohibited items, unless Brown decides to mix in pages from a pickup artist manual. He doesn’t offer financial incentives, and he’s aware of Kickstarter’s terms of service regarding charity — he’s now soliciting ideas for how to do something good with the money without violating his agreement with backers. The project was also clearly packaged as a tongue-in-cheek piece of commentary. "It might not be that good," he writes under "risks." "It's my first potato salad."
Finally: did the potato salad Kickstarter create something to share with others? Well, how about the internet-wide inside joke we’ve all been participating in for the last week?
Will Kickstarter be taken over by Dadaist potato salad spinoffs?
You may be worried that Kickstarter will be completely taken over by Dadaist potato salad projects and their spinoffs. "This project set a precedence for crappy meme projects," one potato salad backer commented before canceling his pledge. "[It is] ruining what was once an awesome website for people who actually had unique products to bring to the market."
While there has been a rush of potato salad copycats, like Potato Salad Art (a painting of potato salad) and I see your potato salad, and raise you BACON! (what it sounds like), I’m pretty sure this trend will die out soon. These jokes only last as long as people are willing to fund them. The gag just isn’t as funny the second, third, and 100th time around, and it wasn’t that funny to begin with.
In fact my biggest complaint about the potato salad Kickstarter is that it was not a well-conceived joke. Brown starts out offering to "say your name out loud while making the potato salad," which is kind of funny, but soon he got into actually verifiable rewards: hats, photos, potato-salad-themed haiku, at which point I think you’re just lying to people. And unlike Bitoy, who maintained his ironic veneer throughout his burrito campaign, Brown flipped rather gracelessly from cheeky to earnest. And it’s too bad. He was so close to the perfect Kickstarter parody.
*The project actually hit $70,000, but three $10,000 pledges were canceled after Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety team determined they did not pass verification review. The users were suspended.