Crowdfunding

Aggressive Sex Tips and Fake Beef Cause Headaches for Kickstarter


Kickstarter co-founders Yancey Strickler, Perry Chen, and Charles Adler in 2012

Photograph by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Kickstarter co-founders Yancey Strickler, Perry Chen, and Charles Adler in 2012

Kickstarter has been dealing with a bit of a creep problem lately.

Today the crowdfunding website apologized for allowing funding to go through for a “guide for seducing women” that turned out to be more than a little aggressive. Among the proposed guide’s tamer tips, as discovered on Reddit by blogger and comedian Casey Malone: “Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances.” The complaints began flowing in the final hours of the campaign this week, at which point Kickstarter acknowledged that the book seemed offensive but let it go forward.

In its apology, the company said that it couldn’t recoup the money that had gone to the project. But it is taking the rather specific step of prohibiting seduction guides in the future, and said it would donate $25,000 to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization.

The episode comes soon after a group of documentary filmmakers uncovered a fraudulent Kickstarter campaign claiming to be making Kobe beef jerky. The company was asking for $2,374 for a refrigerator; it had raised pledges for over $120,000, and Kickstarter shut the project down before any money changed hands. The company declined to comment on either case.

Misogyny and financial fraud are common on the internet, but not, historically, on Kickstarter. The company says it vets projects before it hosts them; it receives 150 to 200 campaign proposals daily, and it rejects about one in four. Scammy or offensive projects present a not-insignificant threat to the company’s credibility and wholesome self-image—one of the few things that set it apart from competitors in the crowdfunding industry, which raised more than $2.7 billion last year, according to Massolution.

The footsteps of its competitors could be part of the reason why Kickstarter was so much quicker to reverse course on the offensive content. It’s a stark contrast with Facebook (FB), for example, which let pages featuring rape jokes to fester for years under the flag of free speech, until they began affecting its relationship with advertisers.

Kickstarter can handle offensive content and apologize for a lapse in its editorial judgment. Its users may be less forgiving of scams and even projects that fail honestly. Such projects are rare. The company relies on its users to be smart enough not to fund campaigns that don’t pass muster, and a study by a professor at Wharton also found that fewer than 5 percent of successful Kickstarter campaigns fail to deliver—although three-quarters of them don’t ship on time. About 44 percent of campaigns reach their funding goals; those that fall short don’t receive any money at all.

Jason Cooper and Jay Armitage, the filmmakers who rooted out the beef scam, say this is generally an effective strategy. “The crowd also usually stops fraud before it gets too far,” they wrote on their blog.

Last fall, Kickstarter tightened its policies to protect people backing projects on the platform from unrealistic promises from entrepreneurs. At the same time, it reminded people that crowdfunding is not the same as shopping, and projects aren’t promises—not even those that get a Kickstarter seal of approval.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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