Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

The roles of community, altruism, and reciprocity in crowdfunding in the creative industries.

  Liz Dowthwaite (2012 cohort)   dowthwaite.wordpress.com


Webcomics are comics made by an independent creator and posted online for free. Those that make money do so through selling books and merchandise, advertising, and ‘patronage’ through crowdfunding. This PhD focuses on how artists use their online communities for this latter purpose. Using a grounded, mixed methods approach, it is hoped that the results can be applied to other creative groups and individuals trying to make their living in similar ways. This research has been presented at several workshops and symposiums over the past year.


The basic webcomics business model is “to offer free-to-the-consumer, ad-subsidised content, which then trades on audience loyalty by selling books, t-shirts, merchandise and original art” [1] p.121. This audience loyalty is cultivated through social media. Interviews and questionnaires have been carried out with both creators and readers of webcomics to investigate their interactions within online communities and social media, and how beneficial interactions are fostered. It was found that a vast range of websites and tools are used to continually interact online, leading to relationship building between creators and fans.


As well as advertising and merchandise, a third, related business model is emerging which could be termed ‘patronage’, where creators use crowdfunding platforms to raise money for projects or to elicit subscriptions, whilst their comic content remains free-to-view. A questionnaire on crowdfunding use in webcomics was carried out, along with an extensive scrape of over 5000 webcomics and comics campaigns. A picture of what crowdfunding looks like in this community has begun to emerge. Two models of crowdfunding have been compared: reward-based (Kickstarter) and subscription-based (Patreon). Differing behaviour on each has been observed, leading to theories on why this might be the case.


The current studies aim to discover why people choose to donate or back creators on crowdfunding platforms, using theories of altruism and reciprocity, and looking at the relative value of tangible and intangible rewards. The interest lies in the fact that webcomics creators give away their main product (the comic) for free, and yet they are still able to attract donations from their readers. The most obvious reason would be that the reader gets items in return, for example a printed book or signed artwork. But there are other forms of return that may appeal to readers, such as gratitude and the concept of warm glow, or good standing within the community. Likewise, the promise of extra content or additional comics for all readers may be another draw that points to the importance of community to webcomics’ success.


  1. Guigar, B., Kellett, D., Kurtz, S., and Straub, K. How to make Webcomics. Image Comics, Berkeley, CA, 2011.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/G037574/1) and by the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute (RCUK Grant No. EP/G065802/1).