THE BLOG

Crowdfunding: A New Horizon

24/12/2013 09:55 GMT | Updated 22/02/2014 10:59 GMT

You might have already heard of Crowdfunding - the phenomenon by which an idea for a project or invention is relayed to the public, usually via the internet, in order to attract funds and become a reality. This year it has hit the mainstream with a bang - with celebrities such as Zach Braff and James Franco using it as a way to attain revenue for their own movie projects.

For its advocates, Crowdfunding is the latest in cutting-edge. They see it as destined to change the world. Others, however, remain a little more demure, pointing out that - on a certain level - Crowdfunding isn't particularly innovative or new. It has been around, in one guise or another, for quite a while in fact.

They are right, of course. A quick perusal of the historical record shows that similar schemes have been in play for centuries: from the book trade of 18th century Germany where firms used money secured from clients in advance to then publish an item, to legendary newspaper man Joseph's Pulitzer's appeal to the American public in order to finance a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty at the tail end of the 19th century.

But though the Crowdfunding phenomenon has been hovering in the background for some time, it is only of late that it has really come into its own. The great French novelist Victor Hugo wrote that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come; in the case of Crowdfunding that might well prove to be true - partially because of the co-incidence of two broader factors in today's social reality.

First, the technology of the internet has given us an almost instantaneous link to a vast pool of information - circumventing the rigmarole of writing letters or posting adverts in a local newspaper as a way of offering or collating support. Second, the global-economic crisis suggests an increasing lack of faith in the traditional institutions one might visit in order to attract capital. Generally speaking, the small businessman or woman will find it more difficult to gain a viable loan because of a precarious economy and the reluctance of banks to lend; new business propositions, therefore, run the risk of being strangled at birth by the noose of high interest - with entrepreneurs ever keener to explore alternate avenues.

But it is not just business interests who are willing to consider Crowdfunding as a potential source of revenue. In the high-end and notoriously stuffy art world, Crowdfunding provides one possible way of breaking the grip of the circle of sleek, moneyed investors, patrons and councils whose commissions are restricted to an increasingly narrow and conservative remit. As a result of Crowdfunding, several more radical, experimental or politically charged endeavours have seen the light of day.

It is difficult to imagine, for instance, the plan to create a vast blown-up papier-mâché head of Queen Elizabeth II and float it down the River Thames only days before her actual Diamond Jubilee - ever coming to fruition otherwise; but thanks to Crowdfunding, we were treated to the spectacle of Her Majesty's gigantic noggin protruding above the water, leering out across the waves, much like an enraged Godzilla. 2013-12-23-queen.jpg

On a more sombre note, Crowdfunding has already provided an important impetus for ethical journalism; when writer and photographer Daylin Paul wanted to write about the stigma of HIV in a small mountain tribe in Thailand, he felt certain that it wasn't the type of up-beat story his editors would typically endorse - but, thanks to Crowdfunding, he was able to raise the money in order to produce an in-depth investigative piece.

Crowdfunding has its critics of course. They tend to point out that that it can be used for 'perverse ends' like a recent campaign to raise the money to buy the video of scandal ridden Canadian mayor Rob Ford smoking crack - as a way to better promote the services of drug-dealers. Also the lack of professional accountability; the people running the Crowdfunding sites and campaigns are often 'amateurs' without the relevant experience.

It's interesting to note such criticisms are identical to the ones levelled against cyber currency Bitcoin; it too was seen as a way to promote the illegal drugs industry, and was as well excoriated for its lack of professional involvement - especially with regard to the fact that the Bitcoin currency was unregulated by any central or state apparatus.

But this appeal to 'professionalism' carries a loaded political content. Yes, Bitcoin was created by enthusiastic amateurs, and yes, it was not overseen by a central body which offered professional regulation, but its originality and its relevance lies in precisely that; it is not a currency tainted by the small network of bankers and investors whose 'professional' activities have helped facilitate the global-economic crisis.

It seems to me that phenomena like Crowdfunding and Bitcoin represent more than just technologies; they are the symptoms of a panoramic shift in social and political awareness - the recognition of a fundamental failure on the part of the elites, and the need for a more active and democratic intervention on the part of the majority; a majority no longer prepared to turn over key political, cultural or economic issues to a small cabal of 'professionals'.

Bitcoin and Crowdfunding are both categorized by the fact that they help cut out the middle man - the banks or the movie studios or the art patrons; in the language of another contemporary innovation - Occupy Wall Street - they are things which speak to the ninety nine percent rather than the one.