[UPDATED] Does Kickstarter Care About Scams On Its Service?

Business / Editorial / Tech
Kickstarter Scam

Kickstarter is an excellent platform. It allows people with ideas to connect with people who like those ideas in order to help fund and support the very same ideas. Some really great stuff has come along as a result of Kickstarter. Everything from games, to books, to music, hardware, and plenty of other categories have been funded successfully on Kickstarter, allowing creators to live out their dreams. It’s a real way to let the market decide what is, or is not worth their time.

UPDATE (7/13/2015, 11am CST): I was able to speak with Kickstarter regarding the Staff Pick badge in order to clear up any confusion. Kickstarter does recognize select campaigns as Kickstarter Staff Picks, which are promoted via curated e-mails and front page real estate on Kickstarter.com as I mentioned in the original article. The “Kickstarter Staff Pick” Badge is not a creation of Kickstarter, and is not a graphic that they provide to their chosen Staff Picks or to anyone else.

Additionally, Kickstarter Co-founder and CEO Yancey Strickler responded to Joanie’s original post with Kickstarter’s official response, which can be read below.

Hi Joanie —

Yancey from Kickstarter here.

I’m responding, in part, to thank you for the attention you’ve paid to the Holus project. We’ve seen a lot of debate and strong feelings around the project, and we’ve heard a lot of questions about our policies and how we enforce them. I’d love to clear up a few things about how we did so in this case.

Part of the issue we’ve seen with this project revolves around words like “hologram,” “holographic,” and “holographic experience,” which people have come to use in so many different colloquial ways. Some of our most-discussed “holograms” — Tupac Shakur’s appearance at Coachella, CNN’s election-night guests — aren’t holograms at all. Even Microsoft bills its HoloLens as a holographic product. There’s an odd lack of clarity involved in what many people mean and understand when they say the words.

So in this case, our approach was to focus in on how Holus actually worked. We asked the Holus team to post an update that demonstrated, clearly and openly, exactly what they were working on. They responded with a public update that outlined the technique they use. That update was emailed to backers of the project, to help make sure everyone involved was fully clear on what they were supporting and what they could expect.

Then there’s the question of our rules for hardware projects. First, we require creators to show prototypes of their work. Second, we prohibit them from using photorealistic renderings.

Holus satisfied the first rule, posting a number of demo videos and documentation showing working prototypes. But when the project originally launched, it included CGI renderings. We informed them that this was strictly prohibited; they promptly removed the material. They also emailed backers to clarify their process, including a video demonstrating their iterative prototypes.

And last, there’s the question of the staff pick. Holus was originally selected as one, until we spotted and received reports about CGI renderings. We immediately removed the staff pick status, and asked the Holus team to remove the badge they’d added to their project image. (Staff pick badges aren’t a part of our system; we don’t create them or provide them. Actually, we strongly advise creators not to use them at all.) They promptly did so.

In other words, the project conformed to our stated rules, added more information on request, and made a transparent, good-faith effort to thoroughly inform backers about the nature of their work. Based on that, we continued to monitor it, but allowed it to remain on the site. The question then became: were people interested in backing it?

And this is the part where you — and the broader Kickstarter community watching these projects — become invaluable. One of the reasons Kickstarter uses all-or-nothing funding is because it gives everyone involved in a project time to really research what the creators are doing, discuss it with others, and come to a collective decision about whether it’s still worth supporting. Ultimately, it’s backers who decide what gets funding, not us.

That’s why we’re always grateful to anyone who joins in the public debate about projects, asks tough questions about the claims they’re hearing, and shares their expertise with other backers. That kind of discussion is crucial, especially when it comes to new technology. It helps our Integrity team monitor projects for problems or violations of our rules — as we did throughout the Holus campaign. It helps backers vet ideas and make the most informed decisions possible. It holds creators to a high standard, and helps them build stronger communities. It does all these things no matter what action Kickstarter winds up needing to take, and whether projects succeed or fail.

And that’s why I’d like to thank you — and to say that, if you’ve chosen not to get involved in any more projects, we’re sad to hear it. The role you played in this one is incredibly important. Members like you are welcome in this community any time: you make things better for everyone involved.



Kickstarter warns from the outset that even funded campaigns may fold – and some have – leaving backers out in the cold with little recourse. They even go so far as to take a very hands-off approach in those instances. From Kickstarter’s FAQ:

Who is responsible for completing a project as promised?

It’s the project creator’s responsibility to complete their project. Kickstarter is not involved in the development of the projects themselves.

Kickstarter does not guarantee projects or investigate a creator’s ability to complete their project. On Kickstarter, backers (you!) ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it. 

They do have rules in place to help ensure that creators will follow through on their promises if a project is funded, but there have been plenty of high profile examples where the creators did not have a solid plan, did not follow through, or even simply cancelled the project after raising significant amounts of money. Unfortunately in these instances the backers suffer – both monetarily and by losing something that they were excited about (why else would they choose to back a project?) with little or no warning.

These things unfortunately will happen, and there’s very little that Kickstarter can do once a project has been funded and money has been transferred to the creators.  But what about when a project has yet to be funded, and warning signs are raised well in advance? Unfortunately it seems as though Kickstarter maintains their hands-off approach here too.

On Friday morning, a Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. That on its own isn’t anything all that out of the ordinary, it’s the fact that the campaign was not being exactly truthful with its backers (or Kickstarter) that is cause for concern. The project was Holus – The Interactive Tabletop Holographic Display. Pretty cool sounding, yeah? Though what they were promising was not what they were going to deliver because actually, what they were promising isn’t possible.

Joanie Lemercier, a visual artist and engineer who has worked very closely with what she calls “unusual displays” for the better part of 10 years, came across the Holus Kickstarter campaign pretty early on in its life. She was excited by the idea until she watched their video. According to Lemercier, the Kickstarter video for Holus broke several of Kickstarter’s project rules, including “photorealistic CGI, misleading language and obfuscation techniques to make their product appear considerably more impressive than it can ever hope to be.” Here’s what Holus was promising:

Holus is a tabletop holographic platform that converts any digital content from a computer, tablet or smartphone into a 3D holographic experience. To put it simply, whether it is a board game, DNA structure or the solar system, your content comes alive – view it from four different angles and interact with it in ways that have never been possible.

What they were actually demonstrating (when not using CGI to boost their own results) was something more akin to a 2D image projected onto a pane of glass. A technique that’s been in use since the mid 1800’s called Pepper’s Ghost. It’s a trick used everywhere from haunted houses, to theater, and even quite recently at concerts to bring deceased artists “back to life” to perform: Tupac at Cochella 2012, Easy E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 2013, even Michael Jackson in 2014. While the resulting display is impressive, it’s not even close to what Holus was promising.

Potential backers weren’t the only ones spoofed, several high-profile technology blogs wrote up Holus, touting a lot of the same speech outlined in the product page itself. Many of those sites have since (as of 7/10/2015, mostly) updated their articles to reflect the confusion over the viability of the project, and whether or not backers and Kickstarter had been duped. The quick burst of media attention quickly propelled the project over its relatively modest funding goal of $50,000.

The CGI images and videos stayed in place until well after the project was successfully funded, at which point they were switched with images that may have more accurately depicted what backers might actually get. Raphaël de Courville – another artist/designer – provided quite a few good examples of some of the problems with the initial images and video via a post on Medium:


For his troubles, de Courville did manage to get a response from the developers behind Holus, where they backpedalled from many of their initial claims, which he continued to refute in another Medium post.

Lemercier contacted Kickstarter about the project from the beginning – via site forms, e-mails, tweets, even meeting several employees at a music and multimedia festival and still came away with nothing. Most recently, she penned an open letter to Kickstarter and Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler where she outlined many of the ways that Holus seemed disingenuous at best, and a complete scam at worst. The letter was shared across social media before the Holus campaign had completed but received no response.  One thing she did learn through her research, which would have to make one re-think support of any Kickstarter project relates to the “Kickstarter Staff Pick” badge that is emblazoned across quite a few projects… might just be completely fake.

Kickstarter Staff Pick badge2-940x266Why wouldn’t Kickstarter strive to “pick” only the projects that their staff truly finds worthy? I receive e-mails from Kickstarter with popular picks and “Projects We Love” so I’d assume that some sort of curation is happening behind the scenes, but if anybody can simply add the image above to their campaign for an extra bit of attention that is problematic to say the least.

Kickstarter obviously has financial reasons for wanting projects to get funded.  The nearly $300,000CAD raised by Holus will net Kickstarter just shy of $15,000 after they take their 5% cut. They’d get nothing if the project either weren’t funded or if it were cancelled. It’s possible that if cancelled and re-opened with a more realistic description of what they were providing that Holus would still have received the tremendous response that their overstated project did, but the publicity of having to cancel and re-start their campaign might also be the sort of thing that drives people away in droves.

So here we sit. Nearly 500 backers pledged money to Holus, at least some of whom did so under false pretenses. Hopefully they’ll at least get SOMETHING for their troubles, though not necessarily what they were expecting when they pledged. Kickstarter campaigns have always had a sense of “Buyer Beware” and some questions that could cause unease for backers – Will the project be funded? Will it be delivered on time? Now it seems we need to add a few more serious questions to that list: Is this campaign a scam? Does Kickstarter even care?

  Source: Joanie Lemercier
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