By Peter Moskovitz for Wired.com
EMMA HOFMAN, A kindergarten teacher in New Orleans, needs your money. In the past two years, she has set up six fund-raising campaigns on the website DonorsChoose.org. Her goal isn’t to fund expensive field trips or even a new computer. She just wants her kids to have books, pencil sharpeners, and a few blocks to play with.
Scrolling through your Facebook feed on any given day, you’re bound to find friends and colleagues asking for cash. If it’s not a creative project or a revolutionary new gizmo, it’s someone beseeching you to sponsor their dream trip abroad. But something different is going on when teachers have to resort to crowdfunding to pay for basic school supplies.
Constricted education budgets being what they are, the explosion of Kickstarter-esque platforms might seem like a welcome bit of salvation. Certainly these services have proved useful for people like Hofman, who’s now able to ask for help to keep her classroom functional. But crowdfunding is not the answer. In fact, when it comes to supporting the public good, crowdfunding will only make matters worse.
In a new study, Daren Brabham, an assistant professor and crowdsourcing consultant at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, compared the language used in the press to describe crowdfunding with the rhetoric of politicians who support cutting funding to “superfluous” programs in areas like the arts. He noticed a disconcerting amount of overlap: Both were chock-full of buzzwords like empowerment, bootstrapping, and efficiency. “If you want to cut funding to something,” Brabham says, “what better way is there than to point to a Kickstarter that made it and say, ‘If the people really want it, they’ll pay for it’?”
Crowdfunding could become an excuse to leave basic services up to the crowd.
Hofman is already seeing this happen. “I hate the fact that I have to use DonorsChoose,” she says. “It gives administrations and politicians an easy way out. They don’t have to worry about giving their teachers what they need anymore, because other people will.”
The trend appears to be extending beyond bankrupt schools, if the sudden rise in funding platforms for once-public initiatives is any indication. On Ioby, a platform focused on public infrastructure, organizers have bankrolled recycling facilities and public art displays. At civic crowdfunding site Citizinvestor, a large chunk of the proposals come from departments that have recently had their budgets slashed—as in Central Falls, Rhode Island, which needed to raise $10,000 to clean up a park.
The scope of these projects may seem limited now, but it won’t stay that way forever. Once we start privatizing what was once squarely public, governments will all too eagerly push those expenses off their ledgers. The effect snowballs, and crowdfunding becomes an excuse to leave more and more basic services up to the crowd.
That is not what crowdfunding is for. Since the idea took off a half decade ago, its biggest successes have had one thing in common: They’re awesome! A 3-D printer you can use at home. A RoboCop statue in Detroit. Rebooting Mystery Science Theater 3000. Public necessities, by contrast, are not awesome; they’re essential. Roads, health care, education: These are not the kinds of things that go viral and raise $2 million in less than a week. But if crowdfunding for the public good is allowed to continue unchecked, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which everyone votes on public works with their dollars—distorting priorities and giving those with deeper pockets more of a say.
Brabham points to a parallel phenomenon in academia. Some professors are now encouraged to crowdfund a portion of their research expenses before they can qualify for a matching grant. What this does, of course, is privilege proposals that are sexy or flashy—the ones people are most likely to contribute to, in other words. You and I are suddenly in a position to vote on what gets researched, even if we have no idea what’s best for society.
The same logic applies to civic development. Helping a teacher pay for pencils, or donating $10 to support the construction of more composting bins in public parks in Queens, is kind. But in the long term, those actions are not altogether harmless. As Rodrigo Davies,1 who has studied civic crowdfunding at MIT, puts it: “It’s a bit of a Pandora’s box.” Let’s keep it closed.
Peter Moskowitz (@ptrmsk) is working on a book about gentrification and inequality.
First appeared in Wired.com