If you’ve been paying any attention to the bizarre pockets of the news this week, you’ve likely seen the Kickstarter campaign that dude from Columbus, Ohio launched to make potato salad. Zack Brown, (whose middle name is probably not, as he lists, “Danger”) started a page seeking $10 to “basically just make potato salad.” At the time of this writing, he has raised $70,000 from almost 5,000 backers. Somewhere, Zosia Mamet is weeping.
Kickstarters for cooks aiming to make macaroni salad, coleslaw, and homemade spaghetti instantly appeared. Business reporters and finance experts rushed to explain why the campaign did so well. Was it the deadpan humor Brown used in his FAQ, where he repeatedly assures his audience of his culinary incompetence? Was it the modest goal? Was it the concept itself, one that could have been ripped from McSweeney’s or The Onion? Sure, partially. It’s a funny idea. It’s a joke about the kinds of projects that are on Kickstarter and the culture of crowd sourcing, a nudge in the ribs of the over-earnest artists that populate the site. It’s the logical end for the type of people who use “Kickstart” as a verb.
It’s also a joke at the expense of the people who are funding the project. It’s that same old story: You may think your mustache is ironic, but to other people, it’s just a mustache. Paying $500 for a bite of potato salad is hilarious until you realize that you just paid $500 for a bite of potato salad.
It also points to the way that Kickstarter actually functions these days, less as a platform for up-and-coming artists to get their projects off the ground and more as pre-ordering system for merchandise. Once his campaign went viral, Brown collaborated with Homage T-Shirts in Columbus, Ohio. Backers who pledged $35 or more get a limited edition potato salad-related t-shirt (and also a bite of potato salad, a thank you posted to the website, and a photo of Brown making the potato salad.) That means that the potato salad Kickstarter is now essentially a clever and very effective marketing campaign.That’s a fine and fair function for Kickstarter to have, but it’s worth being aware of the forces at work behind the potato salad campaign. As a black metal musician once sagely told me, “A lot of the things you think are jokes are not.”