Natasha Brown-Wainwright, 41, still calls it The Twitter. She doesn't upload photos to Facebook without her 16-year-old daughter's help. Her grasp of the Web is fuzzy.
But last summer, she decided to get a clue and join the latest, buzziest social media bandwagon around, Kickstarter, a site that connects entrepreneurs with small-scale donors. Her brittle business, barely making a profit after four years, needed a lift, even if it came from a source she still found baffling.
"I think people in their 40s are beginning to realize their future is on the Internet, on Twitter, on Kickstarter," she says. "We just have to go with it, not be intimidated by it any more. It's a learning process, and you roll with it."
Formerly a fundraising platform for young, web-savvy creative types, Kickstarter is graying, increasingly discovered by some late adopters who are not pushing sexy projects like short films or art-rock albums.
Across the country, they are pitching to Kickstarter's vast network of donors everything from peanut brittle and artisanal ponchos to long-unfinished novels and even a documentary about "moms who rock," hoping that by harnessing the strength of a giving online community they can complete unfulfilled passion projects.
Since its start nearly three years ago, Kickstarter been greeted with near unanimous adulation, taken both as a sign of the Internet's aptitude for good, and as a petri dish for innovation.
By encouraging donors to donate only as much as they could, it's also made philanthropy into something anyone could do regardless of wealth.
The process is simple: hear a pitch, donate as little as a buck to help someone's project come to fruition. The larger the donation, the fancier the reward – in order to set up a project on Kickstarter, entrepreneurs have to offer some kind of incentive to donors.
The most common among these donations — pledges, in Kickstarter-speak — is $25, which suggests that people are embracing a more active way of consuming.
"When you go into a store, it's a very transactional experience," says Justin Kazmark's, Kickstarter's director of communications. "With Kickstarter, it's more emotional. You get to be part of this creative process, and you get to enjoy in the spirit of generosity."
For up-and-coming creatives and entrepreneurs, the site has become a massive resource. Nearly $100 million was pledged last year, according to the site's annual review, which was released last week. Since 2009, over $125 million has been raised over all for more than 10,000 projects.
The site's been especially useful for artists and entrepreneurs who wanted funding for non-blockbuster projects, the type that wouldn't yield huge dividends. Instead of relying on one powerful foundation or donor, they could straight to the site's army of small-scale Medicis and angel investors.
The Baltimore filmmaker Matthew Porterfield raised over $42,000 for his next movie, "I Used to be Darker." The actor James Franco tried to raise $5,000 for another one of his conceptual art projects. A Chicago designer raised nearly a million dollars for his project converting iPod nanos into watches. Even NASA, strapped for government cash, used the site to raise over $45,000 for its online video game, Astronaut.
The site's early adopters came from the network of friends of the three founders, who all came from creative, design and Web backgrounds.
But as things tend to evolve online, Kickstarter is slowly being discovered by those outside the immediate networks. The number of projects launched doubled between 2010 and last year, according to the just-released annual report.
The site doesn't have insight into who its users are beyond geographical location, but more and more often, "we're seeing it used by all sorts of people not just in New York and Los Angeles, but in cities and suburbs across the country, from people who are young and old," Kazmark says.
By now, Kickstarter has entered its kitchen-sink stage, as an avenue not just for the hyperconnected, but for those mature Internet users who are just now coming aboard Twitter and those who still haven't grappled with Tumblr, another microblogging site.
Looking around the site, there are scores of projects with little star power and modest goals, that are more likely to find praise at a PTA meeting than on Wired magazine.
Larry Poncho Brown, a 49-year-old Edmonson Village artist, is seeking $8,000 in pledges to fund a clothing line of "poncho artwear"; he's raised over $1,300 so far. A Silver Spring woman successfully raised over $1,500 to self-publish a romantic young adult novel. Halsey Frost, a Butchers Hill 45-year-old father of four, is seeking $35,000 to build a more perfect Hibachi grill.
Irene Smith, 38, who runs a Baltimore soup truck, found Twitter just last March, and has come to use it as a valuable tool in the promotion of her business. In November, she successfully launched a $10,000 campaign to re-launch the Woman's Industrial Exchange.
And it's not just in the region. The Los Angeles-based photographer Gerd Ludwig, 64, had originally thought only young people could benefit and exploit the site. But he launched a campaign anyway and raised over $23,000 for a photo series on the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. He's since launched an app for the series thanks to the Kickstarter pledges. A Portland filmmaker raised $10,000 for a documentary on "three indie rockers/mamas who strive to follow their creative dreams."
In the past, Steven Parke, a 48-year-old Baltimore illustrator, had gone through traditional financial venues to publish his last books. But he went on Kickstarter to fund a book project that, while exciting for publishers, was also costly.
With the $17,000 he raised on Kickstarter, Parke has been able to attract publishers who have agreed to distribute the book if he foots the printing costs.
As a father holding down a regular job, he found the relentless promotion needed to make a project successful the most difficult part of the campaign.
"I just realized that Facebook is the kind of thing you have to use. You have to know how to work it a little bit," he says. "It really was a second job for me."
Brown-Wainwright says mastering the technology was her most serious hurdle, initially anyway.
Creating a Kickstarter campaign isn't as simple as placing a Craigslist ad. It requires coming up with a pitch that is clearly spelled out — so that the campaign can be approved — and some creative muscle, like incorporating a video, to make it stand out among the thousands of other projects.
Brown-Wainwright's first campaign, launched in July, was turned down for being too simple. She hadn't shot a video because she didn't know how and the pitch was not specific enough.
"I didn't know how to do the URL and submit pictures," she says. "I had to sit down and do my homework." It took her three months, she says, to relaunch her latest campaign, which seeks $20,000 in less than 60 days.
Brown-Wainwright started her brittle business four years ago as a hobby, something to do for the kids in her day care. It's since become a source of pride for the single mom.
"It would really be a huge relief to get this money," she says. "I really wanna leave something for my daughter. Something she could say, 'My mom did this.'"
So far, she hasn't drawn many backers — just $60. But even if the campaign isn't successful, she says she's become a Kickstarter convert — she's started donating to other campaigns as well.
"I don't have a lot to contribute, just about $10 every time," she says. "But, I think every little bit helps."