Thank You Project: An Experiment for Online Workers

Innovative projects require the synthesis of a great idea with the appropriate funding. Progressive initiatives need to be adopted by our culture in order to both continue and challenge the agendas relevant to our society like digital worker exploitation.  Sometimes projects can’t reach actualization due to lack of funding, but that does not mean that the project was not endorsed by public interest. Today, the internet has enabled us to combine public interest with revenue growth. This concept is addressed in crowdfunding. Crowdfunding websites work by distributing the total financial cost of a project’s production to a large number of internet backers. Backers pledge a campaign by agreeing to donate just a small fraction of the total project’s cost. If enough people pledge a campaign, then the goal is reached and the project begins production.  Although the backers get no stock in the final product or business, they are knowingly sold-off for incentives. Digital worker exploitation takes on a new form in crowdfunding. This connection is worth exploring.

Patronizing a project as a crowd using the web became possible when indiegogo.com launched their website in 2008.  Today, kickstarter.com is known to be the most popular internet website dedicated to crowdfunding in America. Kickstarter and similar services can seen as a new patron of our era because these sites has become enormously popular since its induction. Significant differences can be made between the way artists and inventors have sought funding in the past. After all, the concept of patronage is not new. It dates back to the Roman Empire.

Before the 19th century, individual patronage was one of the only forms of funding expensive projects involving art and architecture. Patron means “father” in Latin and it’s true that a patron of the arts is someone who births and protects the arts.[1] Not only did the patron end up owning the art he funded, he often dictated its form and content, sometimes having themselves portrayed somewhere in or on the work. The reasons behind individual patronage are clear; patronage was a sign of wealth, status, and power, and the projects commissioned could serve the purpose of both propaganda and entertainment. The subject of the work was approved by the patron in a contract outlining the entire project in detail including the costs, materials, methods, and timeline. [2]  The patron played a very active role in the project, but this is not true for crowdfunding. When capitalism swept in, arts-patronage turned into a type of exploitation by facilitating publically supported arts. Small collections of money from lots of different people are used in order to pay back the investments of creating a museum or theatre, and funding the films, exhibitions, and performances.  Although the museum or theater attendee knows the film and theatre are profiting from their support, they are okay with this. When consumers are unaware they are being exploited, they become upset like in the case the sale of the Huffington Post in 2011, a monumental event for the public’s growing interest digital worker exploitation.[3] The Huffington Post is a website dedicated to online articles written and uploaded by unpaid bloggers. When it was sold to America Online (AOL) by Arianna Huffington for $315 million, outrage quickly ensued. Jonathan Tasina, a media labor activist, filed a class action suit for $105 million on behalf of the unpaid bloggers who made the website a success.  The Internet is nearly accessible to everyone. However, simple operations on the net can unknowingly raise revenue for other larger entities.

Being a backer among an entire crowd does not allow for the same status of influence and wealth that comes with traditional patronage so incentives are offered in exchange.  Although uneven, incentives are the driving force behind crowdfunding campaigns. They range from thank you cards to one of the physical items produced by the project, and far beyond. Users often pledge to the incentive that they find most valuable. The mastermind of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, warned that “the role of new technology under capitalism is to intensify the exploitation of workers,” and I think that can be true in crowdfunding. [4] Motivations behind backing a project need to be assessed in order to come to an agreement between exploitation and personal satisfaction. Crowdfunding seems to be more than the humble charity it advertises itself as. It’s an exchange that must meet the goals of all both parties involved.

But just because a patron is required to have a personal motivation to decide to back a project, is not to say that all crowdfunding patrons accept exploitation.  The motivations behind the decision to back a project can vary widely. This allows the participant to construct his own meaning. I have identified five different styles of backers; philanthropy-driven supporters, consumer-driven supports, credit-driven supporters, guilt-driven supporters, and connection driven-supporters.  Philanthropy-driven supporters believe in the overall mission of the project and look at their support as somehow improving society. Consumer-driven supporters are motivated by the various incentives. Crowdfunding becomes a sort of online shopping. It is this exchange that lays the foundation for crowdfunding exploitation. Credit-driven supporters could exist in cases where the backer feels as if his contribution is a bragging right. Also, campaigners sometimes offer to include the names of their donors on the project’s website as incentives. What I mean by guilt-driven supporters is that too often a campaign does not have a large enough fanbase, so the main donors are the friends and family of the campaigner. The last style, connection-driven supporters, see their donation as a unifying action. They give to feel like they are apart of something. I imagine that there is lots of overlap between these different styles of supporters, but they are all giving money for the revenue gain of others, knowingly or unknowingly, they are caught in the trap of their own motivations. My motivations for using Wikipedia are not raise revenue for Google, but in fact it can when I use Google to find the page. Google collects my information in a process known as data-mining, and begins to make generalizations about me, marking certain products related to my interests, and in return receiving revenue for my simple search.

Attempting to data-mine participants on kickstarter campaigns can end early because their motivations are not clear based on which pledge they agreed on.  One to ten dollar pledges are often rewarded with a mere thank you, and are not the most popular incentive chosen. So while a consumer-driven supporter would not ever waste their money on a small donation for a thank you card, a philanthropy-driven, guilt driven, credit-driven, or connection-driven funder might. A three thousand dollar trip to NYC to meet the artist might appeal to a consumer-driven supporter, credit-driven supporter or even philanthropy-driven supporter, it probably won’t to a guilt-driven or connection-driven. Backers currently have an ambiguous voice at best. The options are simple, either pledge or not pledge. Then choose the incentive that corresponds with your motivation.

What if patrons were given a voice in the project they funded? What would they say? And what intentions might this reveal? My kickstarter campaign, The Thank You Project, turns data exploitation around by giving backers a part of the product they fund. It honors the patron’s voice. It allows each backer to have input, in this case on a set of greeting cards. Each backer emails the campaigner their instructions for whatever text or images they want to see on the cards design. It’s digital worker exploitation in reverse in the sense that backers now consciously pay, but, they provide their own information, and are rewarded a thank you card that displays all the data they provided.  Similar to the way the patrons of Holy Cross, each patron or backer is given the opportunity to have representation on the card, but motivations are no longer for wealth and influence. All the submissions are incorporated into one card design and then distributed to the network that made the project possible. In this project, the backer funds a project that regains control of his voice that is normally viciously collected by corporations. Rokeby says in his article, “The artists’ role is to explore, but at the same time, question, challenge and transform the technologies that they utilize.”[5] My project does this by creating a system of rules in which each participant creates his own meaning for how data collection should occur and investigates

John Cage, American composer and influential artist removed himself from the compositional process. This is what John Cage calls ‘indeterminacy’. What this means is that the rules for the audience are intentionally ambiguous. I believe this open framework can allow for a peek inside the identity and intentions of a contributor. David Rokeby writes about interactive works that are considered a ‘Transformative Mirror’. Interactive mirrors offer us the tools to construct identities and a sense of self in relation to the artwork and the world. 1 Significant interactions only take place when the spectator and the artwork are in some way changed forever or pull some quality enrichment from the project. My project causes could be a transformative mirror in the sense that the process of exploitive data collection takes on a new liberated form that can then be compared to one another. Participants are liberated by the unknowing eyes of corporations looking to boost retail , and are instead empowered by having the ability to share the data that they want known, and want others to see.

In this project, the backer is essentially being asked to assert some sort of presence among the crowd by his emailing of instructions. Whatever the backer chooses to add will speak to define himself, however he’d like. This may be interested considering that he probably won’t provide information detailing his birthplace, marital status, or data that is normally considered valuable to large corporations like Facebook. This is true even if the there is a lack of instructions provided. Rokeby continues to say in his article that, “It is often said that interactive artworks blur the line between the artist and the audience. The audience becomes creator in a medium invented by the artist. The artist enables the interactor to express themselves creatively.”  This is certainly true in the case of The Thank You Project.

The card causes the participants to examine their part in a whole. If the contributor is not a connection-driven supporter at the beginning, he may be when he receives his card and finds his contribution among a collage of entries. The project requires a very active process of the participant. This campaign forces the backer to think about what they want others to see themselves as, in the context of being a anonymous internet user, since their contribution will affect the overall design. My project will reveal itself in different ways to the different style of backers. Myron Krueger says, “the interactive artist anticipates the participant’s possible reactions and composes different relationships for each alternative.” Different styles of motivation will likely offer their data in various ways that will be indicative of how they assert their presence. If a philanthropy-driven backer sees my campaign as a project that expands boundaries or of kickstarter or promotes change he may think it’s important and agree to pledge. Consumer-driven supporters will like receiving a physical card or art piece. Credit-driven supporters could have a great time ‘signing’ the card. Connection-driven will enjoy the project because they already see themselves in a unified whole, and visualizing that may appeal to them. Guilt-driven supporters are excluded from the group because they never had a vision for the project to attach a real motivation.

It’s important to represent the project in a way that keeps this appeal open to all the styles and that’s difficult to do. Because of the style and conventions of the crowdfunding sites, a video is most necessary. The script for the video will be essential in creating a project with appeal to all styles of givers with a clear message. I will give the audience clear choices to avoid a ‘creative block’ in order to as Rokeby puts it,“ guide the inexperienced hand of the interactor.”  The choices are to add text, add images, or have no contribution.

This project, in a way, glorifies crowdfunding despite its true nature as a capitalist-run exchange. David Rokeby warns that, the projects “must carefully avoid becoming merely public relations devices for government and industry. The artists’ role is to explore, but at the same time, question, challenge and transform the technologies they utilize.”  The open nature of my project allows the piece to take on it’s own meaning. Although the final product may work to promote crowdfunding, it doesn’t necessarily have to. What if there are no submissions? What if the submission are shocking, or boring. It doesn’t matter.

Patronage has been around for a very long time but recently it has taken on a new form with it’s own features that redefines the meaning of giving. Creative projects funded using this new patronage can gain funds but at the same time the artist retains his integrity by eliminating the hovering voice of the patron. At the same time, project initiators need not completely forget about their click funders. They must provide meaning for potential backers that match their motivation. Forcing people to evaluate their role in the process of crowdfunding has the potential to create change for both the participants, who in my project are the artists, as well as any future spectators after the campaign. Although unpredictable, the results will say something specific about the motivations and nature of the backers relationship to the overall project, as well as their contemplate their identity as an anonymous online worker.


[1] Erlandson, Charles. Arts Reformation, “The Lost Art of Patronage.” Last modified 1992. Accessed November 26, 2012. http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/ce-patronage.html.

[2] Edward J., Olszewski. Answers, “Gale Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World: Artistic Patronage Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/artistic-patronage

[3] Andrew Ross, “In Search of the Lost Paycheck,” Digital Labor, ed. Trebor Scholz (New York: Routledge, 2013), 13.

[4] Scholz, Trebor. Cheaper by the Dozen. Net Works. Edited by Xtine Burrough. New York: Routledge, 2012.

[5] Rokeby, David. “David Rokeby: Transforming Mirrors .” (1996). http://dev.stg.brown.edu/projects/netart/documents/Rokeby.pdf (accessed November 26, 2012).

 

One response to “Thank You Project: An Experiment for Online Workers

  1. I think I understand what your going for. I’m really interested in learning more about it as your site progresses.

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