Originally published in Fast Company

You’ve probably heard about the latest Kickstarter darling, OUYA: “a new kind of video game console” that connects to your HDTV like an XBox but allows anyone to publish games like the Android Marketplace. The company behind the device raised their $1 million target in eight hours, and have reached $5 million with more than three weeks left in their campaign. Proponents of Kickstarter’s populist commercialism see OUYA as an unmitigated success.

The notion of “success” for a Kickstarter project has evolved. According to Kickstarter’s stats, 44% of projects succeed–but “success” in this case refers to reaching their funding goals, not completing the proposed work or thriving in the marketplace. Only 25% of funded projects are delivered on time, according to research conducted by website entrepreneur Jeanne Pi and Wharton professor Ethan Mollick, and even after an eight month delay only 75% of successful projects deliver at all. That’s just delivery, never mind viability–a matter some industry critics have found unconvincing in the case of OUYA. As games industry critic Ben Kuchera put it, OUYA is “selling a dream, not a solution.”

Kuchera is right, but for the wrong reasons. Kickstarters are a dream, and that’s their strength rather than their weakness. People back projects on Kickstarter to fund the development of a new creative work or a consumer product that might never see the light of day via traditional financing. But what if Kickstarter is more about the experience of kickstarting than it is about the finished products? When you fund something like OUYA, you’re not pre-ordering a new console that will be made and marketed, you’re buying a ticket on the ride, reserving a front-row seat to the process and endorsing an idea. It’s a Like button attached to your wallet.

The fact that OUYA raised so much money so fast speaks more to our fantasies than the market reality. Whether or not OUYA will disrupt the console business is beside the point–no one could predict such a thing anyhow–the pleasure we get from imagining that possibility is highly valuable.

Author Souris Hong-Porretta, who has backed 31 Kickstarter projects, told me she enjoys supporting friends and strangers who she believes deserve creative encouragement as much as (or more than) the financial support. “Moral support is always reason number one,” says Hong-Porretta.

Entrepreneur Tod Kurt agrees. He’s backed dozens of Kickstarter projects, and recently launched one for his company’s programmable USB status light, blink(1), which more than doubled its goal of $29,000 in less than three days. Describing his “Kickstarter habit,” Kurt backs projects he wants to see exist, “even if I don’t get something physical in return.” For Kurt, the unrealistic aims of most Kickstarter projects, be they films or consumer electronics, don’t reduce his satisfaction, since the product was never the point anyway: “Sometimes the product being developed is too expensive for me, or I don’t really need it (I have many gadgets already).”

That was also the case for me with the Pen Type-A, a slick stainless-steel enclosure for Japanese gel ink pens that I first saw on Kickstarter but pre-ordered shortly after their campaign raised more than 100 times its goal in August of last year. I finally received mine in May. It’s five inches of machined metal with a pen in it. It’s nice, I guess, but I’m still using a $2 roller-ball to sketch notes in my Moleskine. Yet the Pen Type-A is more than a $100 metal pen that never gets used, it’s a memento of the excitement I felt after first seeing the product.

When faced with the reality of these products, disappointment is inevitable–not just because they’re too little too late (if at all) but for even weirder reasons. We don’t really want the stuff. We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.

published July 18, 2012