Kickstarter: The Project Based Discourse Community

Blog » Kickstarter: The Project Based Discourse Community

Posted on 13 Apr 2013 02:14


In his research, John Swales defined a discourse community as a group of people who share six characteristics relating to communication, membership, and shared goals (Swales, 1990, p. 21). Other researchers such as Tony Mirabelli and Sean Branick have performed substantial research on discourse communities. Specifically, they focused on communication styles and literacies associated with communication in the food service worker (Mirabelli, 2004, p. 143) and football coach (Branick, 2007, p. 1).

Online discourse communities, however, have never been studied before to see how communications and literacies work within the community. My research focuses on an online discourse community called Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a crowd funding site where people come to exchange project ideas and monetary support (What is Kickstarter, 2010). Specifically, I seek to answer the question of what makes a person an expert project creator by studying the elements of successful projects and naming the different literacies required by expert project creators.

My research methodology involved studying a subsection of a subsection of the larger Kickstarter discourse community; I studied project creators in the context of design/technology projects. Specifically, I used one tech project and its creators – The Pebble Watch – as the basis for my research because it was extremely successful. I studied how people communicated, the aspects of the project that made it successful, and the way the project was designed.

I found that being an expert project creator in the Kickstarter discourse community only entailed playing the role of a project creator effectively. To that extent, project creators must use six main methods of communication to achieve four tasks: target an audience, convince the audience to fund a project, earn peoples’ trust, and maintain transparency. Three literacies are associated with completing those tasks well: visual presentation literacy, marketing literacy, and connections literacy.

Kickstarter Literacy

Author: Brian Wang
Date: April 12, 2013



A discourse community, as defined by John Swales, is a group of people who share six characteristics: commonly agreed upon goals, methods of intercommunication, communication used for feedback and participation, one or more genres for its use, specific lexicon, and members of varying expertise (Swales, 1990, p. 24-26). Essentially, Swales claims that discourse communities only function as a medium for people to enter, leave, communicate and achieve some goals at will.

Swales also mentions literacy as important parts of discourse communities. He states one must develop literacies in order to become an insider in a discourse community while Gee claims that one is born with the necessary literacies. Two authors, Sean Branick and Tony Mirabelli, have done research on literacy within discourse communities according to Swales’ definition. Branick sought to reveal the complex literacies football coaches have (Branick, 2007, p. 1) while Mirabelli analyzed the literacies food service workers used when working with menus and customers (Mirabelli, 2004, p. 143).

However, no one has studied the role literacy plays in an online discourse community with a more heterogeneous group of members – Kickstarter. Since Kickstarter meets all six characteristics of a John Swales discourse community, this piece has been written with the assumption that Kickstarter is a discourse community.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is a website based around the idea of projects. It allows people to share their project ideas and make them into reality by crowd funding, or gathering resources from the masses of people who visit the website. Essentially, people are not only funding projects but also a person’s goal/dream (What is Kickstarter, 2010). All projects must meet a set of guidelines outlined on the Kickstarter website. People show their support for projects by “backing” or “pledging,” or promising to pay a certain amount of money if the project reaches its funding goal.

Kickstarter is unique in that members are differentiated by the roles they play. People who come together to put creative project ideas are called project creators. Project creators encourage people to back their projects through the use of various forms of communication and rewards. There are no set criteria on who can become a project creator; it’s just a role that anyone can play within the community. People who come to see others’ ideas and help fund projects are called project backers.

What’s so interesting about Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is an online discourse community, so traditional definitions of a discourse community may not all apply. For example, the goal of Kickstarter isn’t to advocate for some issue. Rather, Kickstarter seeks to provide a forum for project backers and creators to talk about projects. One aspect that Kickstarter does have, however, is a separation between experts and newcomers.

It’s interesting how Kickstarter members seem to only judge project creators on how well they play their roles. Backers rarely get flak for what/who they choose to back. What makes a “good” project creator, then?

My project seeks to answer that question. I have studied what makes a person an expert technology or design project creator by looking at: 1) The elements of a successful Kickstarter design/technology project and 2) The different types of literacy project creators need in order to find success in those fields.

Methods of Research

I intended to study both successful projects as well as failed projects in order to draw conclusions as to what worked well in terms of communication and literacy. I also wanted to interview project creators/backers to fill in missing information.

I ended up only studying one successful project – The Pebble Watch - on Kickstarter (Pebble, 2012). I chose to study the Pebble Watch because it has been referred to as the most successful project on Kickstarter. Furthermore, its creators have also been lauded. To summarize, the Pebble Watch is a so-called “smartwatch” that is to be used in conjunction with a smartphone. It receives information from a user’s phone via Bluetooth, such as the time, new text messages/emails, and notifications. It is also capable of running certain apps, such as fitness trackers.

The project creator is a company called Pebble Tech. Pebble Tech had worked on smartwatches for three years before bringing the Pebble to Kickstarter (Pebble, 2012). The company essentially thought that conventional watches were too outdated; since most people own smartphones, it makes sense to have a watch that’s a natural extension of something one uses frequently.

Since that project was extremely successful and had very competent creators, I had an overload of information. I realized that studying other projects and conducting interviews would make my midterm unfocused. So, I decided to save those steps for further revision/focusing/expansion of my midterm project.


For a community based around the idea of monetary pledges, communication is vital, especially to project creators. If a project creator communicates poorly, he/she will neither have his/her project fully funded nor build connections with backers. To talk more about communication, I will first have to detail the six most important forms of communication used by project creators:

  1. Project Description: Usually gives an overview of the creator and the project. Pebble Tech talked about what the watch was made for, its features, its specifications, and a little bit about the company
  2. Project Video: First item people see when they go onto a project page. Pebble’s video basically put the contents of the description in video form.
  3. Pledge Rewards: Show potential backers what they may receive for pledging varying amounts of money to the project. Pebble’s only rewards were different colors/amounts of its watch.
  4. Project FAQs: Just as the name implies. Pebble answered questions mostly about specific parts/functions of the watch.
  5. Project Updates: Allow creators to add new information without changing the description. Pebble uses this space for updates on software changes, shipping updates, and manufacturing updates.
  6. Project Comments: Allow backers to provide feedback and ask questions as well as project creators to respond to backers’ feedback.

Some of those methods of communication matter more than others, however. Those can be classified as genres. A genre is some form of communication regularly used that follows a template. To that extent, project videos, project descriptions, comments and pledge rewards can be considered genres. Project backers have a general idea of what to expect from those genres, so a project creator who uses them well might be regarded highly and vice versa.

For all project creators, communication essentially serves three purposes: soliciting support, providing feedback, and responding to feedback.

  • Soliciting support: Pebble talks about its credentials first to gain trust. Then, it talks about its product, why it’s revolutionary, what features make the watch a must-have, and the benefits to funding now (lower price!).
  • Providing feedback: Comments are used to provide feedback on a project to creators. For example, project backers on Pebble’s comments asked questions about when the watches would be delivered.
  • Responding to feedback: Comments, project updates, FAQs, and emails serve to respond to questions concerns over the project. Pebble Tech had over 20 FAQs and 35 updates to provide response to feedback.

Some important words and phrases specific to Kickstarter (lexicon) that will come up in later discussion of literacies are as follows:

  • Project: “something with a clear end…something will be produced as a result.” (Kickstarter Basics: Kickstarter 101, 2010). Ex: Pebble
  • Creator: person/group of people who start projects. Ex: Pebble Tech
  • Backers: people who pledge to projects. Ex: The author of this piece
  • Backing/Pledging: supporting a project with money.
  • Rewards: anything that a project creator promises to give to a project backer if the project reaches its funding goal. Ex: The Pebble Watch
  • Goal: amount of money a project creator wants to raise. Ex: Pebble Tech wanted to raise $100,000 (Pebble, 2012).
  • Stretch goal refers to any amounts of money above the goal that the project creator wants to raise, usually resulting in more rewards. Ex: Pebble had a stretch goal of $1,000,000 for waterproofing the watch (Pebble Tech, April 12, 2012).
  • Early bird rewards are rewards available at a lower pledge level/ship date that creators place to convince people to back a project quickly. Ex: Pebble’s early bird reward was $50 off retail price for a Pebble Watch.

Newcomers and Experts:

Since Kickstarter is an online discourse community where members may never have to meet each other in person, it is very difficult to determine who is an expert. Kickstarter is special in that a person may be either an expert or a newcomer for each of the roles the person plays.

A basic but ineffective way of telling if a project creator is an expert is looking at how many projects he/she has successfully created. By the above definition, however, Pebble Technology would be considered a newcomer because the Pebble Watch was its sole project. That is obviously not the case because Eric Migicovksy, one of the founders of Pebble Tech, had experience working with startups and investors before turning to Kickstarter (Shaw, 2012).

Likewise, it’s also difficult to determine if a project creator is a newcomer. It is possible to look at the date that the project creator joined Kickstarter and say that he/she is a newbie if he/she recently joined the community. However, that person may have simply made an account late; he/she may have been a longtime browser of Kickstarter. For example, Pebble Tech worked on smartwatches for three years before bringing the Pebble to Kickstarter (Pebble, 2012).

A trend that can be seen is that looking at data alone is a very ineffective way of determining if a person is an expert or a newcomer. Rather, we must look further into a project to see how effective use of communication and other aspects of projects make a person an expert at playing his/her role as a project creator effectively.

Essentially, being a successful project creator means knowing that you will always succeed before creating a project and succeeding early on. Any lucky person might be able to successfully fund his/her project, but it takes an expert to be confident in having success and actually have success each time.

Finally, it’s important to note that being an expert project creator does not necessarily make a person an expert at other things. For example, Pebble Tech may have been an excellent project creator, but it does not seem to be very competent at production and distribution management; some people still have not received Pebble Watches that were promised to be delivered six months ago.

Analysis of Communication:

From looking at Pebble Tech, I’ve decided that an expert design/tech project creator should use communication to perform the following four tasks:

  1. Target a specific audience. Not everyone will be interested in a certain project. For example, people who don’t own smartphones won’t want the Pebble Watch.
  2. Convince the target audience that the product is a must-have right now. State a problem, present a solution, show why people must have the solution, and convince them to fund the project immediately or very soon. Bonus points if people are also convinced that their money is going to help the creator realize his/her dream.
  3. Earn the person’s trust. Even if a creator’s project is extremely useful, innovative, and affordable, people will be hesitant to fund the project if they no nothing or little about the creator and his/her background.
  4. Be transparent. Tell people where their money is going. Tell them the history of the project. Tell them about the creator. Make sure that all questions people have are answered well. Why? Even an impulsive spender like me would have second thoughts over funding a creator who doesn’t reveal what the funds would be used for.


Mastering all methods of communication is critical to becoming an expert project creator. That said, the most important methods are: project videos, project descriptions, comments, updates, and pledge rewards.

A literacy associated with those methods of communication is visual presentation literacy. Presentation literacy essentially means being able to convey all of your information in an engaging and interesting manner. Having presentation literacy means meeting all the goals of communication listed in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

The most important parts of presentation literacy are creating good project videos and project descriptions. Project videos are the first thing people notice and look at when they visit a project page. Since it’s much less work to watch a video versus reading a project description, many people may decide whether or not to fund the project just after watching the video.

Pebble Tech’s video gives a great, no-nonsense overview of the project, its history, and what funds will be used for. It shows plenty of pictures and demonstrations of everything the Pebble can be used for. For example, the video showed a cycling tracking app as well as the iTunes controlling capabilities of the watch (Pebble 2012). Pebble’s project description is simply the non-moving version of its video. All headings are labeled clearly, no large blocks of text are used, key points are bolded, and lots of pictures are used to show people what the project is all about. While watching the video and reading the project page, I never felt confused or misled about everything. In fact, the questions I came up with afterwards were all answered by the FAQs!

Another literacy to note is marketing literacy. At its core, Kickstarter is a website where project creators come to make money. Backers have all of the money, so marketing literacy is about being able to quickly convince people that your project is worth funding immediately. It’s not just enough that a project creator presents his/her project in a nice-looking way, he/she needs to know how to cast the project in an appealing light.

Having marketing literacy essentially means being able to complete the first and second tasks of communication in a short amount of time, a Shark Tank-esque pitch. A project creator must be able to play up the project to a certain group of people, talk about why people must have it, and provide incentives for people to fund the project quickly. To those extents, project descriptions, videos and rewards are critical to marketing literacy.

As far as project videos and descriptions go, they simply need to pick out an audience (Pebble targets smartphone owners), show visual presentation literacy as well as advertise the great features of the project. Project rewards are where things get interesting. When some people find a project interesting, they may be tempted to back the project immediately (me, for example). Other people, however, may be more careful with their money and need more convincing. This is where terms like early bird rewards and stretch goals come in. Pebble Tech had both – it gave early backers a $50 discount off retail price and promised to make the watch waterproof at $1 million and give public access to a Software Development Kit (SDK) at $2 million (Pebble Tech, April 13, 2012). The creators were basically giving the message that, “hey, if you fund us quickly, not only will you get additional benefits from being an early backer but you’ll also get more stuff if we go past our goal!” Effective use of these incentives along with good presentation literacy will make a project creator have some amount of marketing literacy.

The final literacy expert project creators have is connections literacy. Connections literacy simply entails building personal connections with other Kickstarter members (the third task of communication), using transparency as a method of doing so. Besides being a breeding ground for projects, Kickstarter is also a breeding ground for personal goals and dreams, so building relationships and communicating personally is essential.

A project creator might have a snazzy looking project page and video as well as good marketing techniques, but if he/she can’t earn the trust of a potential backer or show people that he/she is human and has ambitions, the project probably won’t get funded.

From my observations, I’ve found the following three aspects important to connections literacy: hiding nothing from people, telling people about yourself (the creator), and communicating frequently and effectively with backers. Project comments, updates, and FAQs are important to this kind of literacy.

For a project as large as Pebble Watch, it’s extremely difficult to keep track of tens of thousands of comments. Pebble Tech did a good job in referring questions/feedback to Pebble’s own website. Furthermore, Pebble still keeps up with its Kickstarter page, having provided 35 updates in the past 11 months and answering over 20 FAQs. Pebble hid nothing from its backers, telling people everything from the fact that they wanted to bring a 21st century watch to the market to updates on their manufacturing schedule and delays with colors (Pebble Technology, 2013).

Closing Remarks

I enjoyed researching this project every bit as much as I enjoyed writing about it. In fact, I found several projects that I backed myself and dozens of others I’m keeping my eyes on in the process. While I hoped to have been able to provide a guide on becoming expert Kickstarter project creators, I’m still satisfied at what I presented. For further research, I’d like to explore one of the literacies I presented in depth and provide examples on how my peers can achieve those literacies and what real world applications those literacies have.

Works Cited

Branick, S. (2007). coaches can read too: an ethnographic study of a football coaching discourse community. Student Writing in Progress (pp. 557-573).

Kickstarter basics: Kickstarter 101. (2012). Retrieved from

Mirabelli, T. (2004). Learning to serve: The language and literacy of food service workers. In J. Mahiri (Comp.), What they don't learn in school: Literacy in the lives of urban youth (pp. 143-163). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Pebble Technology. (2013, April 9). Color pebble production + 12/24 hour watchfaces. Retrieved from

Pebble Technology. (2012, April 13). Developer SDK availability. Retrieved from

Pebble Technology. (2012, April 12). We’re waterproofing pebble. Retrieved from

Shaw, G. (2012, April 16). Vancouver-born entrepreneur’s pebble smartphone breaks kickstarter record. Retrieved from

Swales, John. “The concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32. Print.

Leave a comment

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License