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Why Is Zach Braff's Kickstarter Campaign Causing Envy?

Braff's Kickstarter campaign is a prime example of the diffusion of innovation

For some reason I’ve been championing Zach Braff’s film on Kickstarter ever since the project was announced yesterday. Zach Braff, if you don’t know of him, starred in the successful sitcom Scrubs for a number of years, and in 2004 wrote, directed, and starred in the successful indie film Garden State

By the time I post this, fundraising for his new film, Wish I Was Here, will probably reach its $2 million funding goal. Good for him. 

On Twitter and other forms of social media, plenty of indie filmmakers are pretty bitter. Here's a pretty typical example of some of the criticism that Zach Braff has gotten:

You're ruining it. I don't blame you for using @kickstarter, but your privilege is hurting upcoming indies. Please stop.

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An independent filmmaker, Zach Braff, is hurting indies! I can understand the initial reaction from Jared Caldwell; what he’s engaging in is called upward/downward social comparison. Think of “upward comparison” as what happens when you look up and compare yourself to people who are better off than you. Sometimes, as in when you focus on what you have in common with those better off than you, this can make you feel good and give you an inspirational point of reference; but often, especially when you are focused on the differences, it can make people feel worse off and defensive.

Downward comparison, by contrast, is often a reaction to protect the ego. It’s the classic “hey, at least I’m not doing as poorly as the other guy!” It’s also what kicks in when you’re told that you performed better than others.

The problem with making these kinds of comparisons was demonstrated in new research in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. In the study, subjects were given a series of questions to measure aspects of their personality along with a few inkblot cards, and asked to give responses to the cards. They were told that the results of the inkblot test would measure “their results on three dimensions—intelligence, sincerity, and creativity.”

Some students were told that they passed with flying colors—96th and 97th percentile—while others were given scores in the mid-20s; a control group wasn’t given and social comparison information. A few days later, all participants were given an online survey as part of the follow-up, where they were measured in empathy and prosocial behavior.

As a result, the researchers wrote, “We suggest that these findings—combined with the fact that participants in both comparison conditions reported feeling significantly less empathy toward their peers than did the control group in the days following the manipulation—support the notion that social comparison can cause less prosocial behavior because it reduces empathy.”

Social comparison reduces empathy! Right now, we don’t know all of the exact variables at work. But one thing that strikes me in looking at the negativity towards Zach Braff is how much of this anger is coming from potential filmmakers. It's possible that they are subconsciously making an upward social comparison. By contrast, the people who are really excited about Braff’s project (anecdotally, judging from Tweets as well as comments left on the project’s Kickstarter page) are people who simply enjoyed Garden State and want to see another film like that. They’re too dissimilar to Braff to make that quick, spontaneous comparison, and they don’t feel like money is being diverted from their own projects to Braff’s.

So what is the actual effect of Zach Braff being on Kickstarter? You’ll be surprised to hear that this is the same effect that Starbucks has on mom and pop coffeehouses: it helps them.

“Ward Barbee, the recently passed founder of the coffee trade magazine Fresh Cup, saw this happen scores of times. "Anyone who complains about having a Starbucks put in next to you is crazy," he told me. "You want to welcome the manager, give them flowers. It should be the best news that any local coffeehouse ever had."
Why is this? “New Starbucks doesn't prevent customers from visiting independents in the same way Wal-Mart does,” writes Taylor Clark in Don’t Fear Starbucks.

Starbucks helps independent coffee owners? Zach Braff helps independent coffeehouses? Absolutely. What’s going on here is the distribution of innovation: Braff isn’t take away any of the funding from other independent filmmakers, he’s simply making the pie bigger.

Detractor Jared Caldwell tweeted:

No disrespect. I appreciate your passion project. @kickstarter has its own community, and ... has been the first online tool to fund filmmakers that could never get it otherwise. A celebrity shakeup could hurt us.

True, Kickstarter has its own community—it has innovators and early adopters who have known about Kickstarter for a long time, support each other, and have backed multiple projects. But that assumes that Kickstarter’s community and resources are finite and limited. I can guarantee you that the amount of money being diverted because of Braff’s project is minuscule in comparison to the number of people being introduced to Kickstarter right now. If your goal is to raise money on Kickstarter, the logical wish would be to make the Kickstarter community as big as possible. (Of course, it people were 100% logical, this magazine wouldn't exist.)

This project drove more traffic to their amazing website and enrolled more backers than ever before. I humbly disagree.

 

Jared and other frightened upstarts are afraid that celebrity power is going to detract traffic and attention from their own projects. What really happens is that the presence of celebrities opens up Kickstarter to a new, less innovative crowd that is unfamiliar with the idea of crowdfunding. What it does is legitimize Kickstarter to the grandmas, grandpas, discerning professors, skeptical parents, and neighbors of the world—and there are a lot of those. What's happening right now is the diffusion of innovation: Kickstarter's audience is growing.

  

And that's good for all of us—provided you don't spend too much time comparing yourself to those who appear to have more. Because then you'll just feel bad, have decreased prosocial behavior towards others, and will be less inclined to help them. Science says so.

Karla Starr is a writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, former books editor of Willamette Week, and former books columnist for Seattle Weekly.

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