If you get enough burners together in a room, they will probably (A) throw a party that involves at least partial nudity, or (B) create a sculpture installation that involves at least partial nudity. Because … well … really, is there a better option?
But if you get a lot of Burning Man regional representatives from around the world together into one room, they will probably end up having a panel discussion on best practices – and it will involve serious note-taking.
I mention this to set the stage for the Burning Man Regional Network Summit, where I found myself surrounded by many of the people who are absolutely essential to Burning Man at the state and local level … and geez, were they taking notes. What I’m saying is: data was compared. Best practices were rocked. Flow charts flew. Did they have fire? No – but they had mad fire safety tips. There were no DJ’s … which is kind of a blessing, once you’re in the middle of a nice conversation with a woman from Prague and you actually want to hear what she’s saying … but there was a lot of talk about how to integrate people who want to DJ into your volunteer structure. Because, Christ, a lot of you want to DJ.
It clearly takes all kinds to Burn a Man, and one of the first meetings I attended was about how to reach out to your local burner community and keep everyone in the loop. This is essential, not just because it helps them know what Burning Man is up to but because it also makes people more likely to come out of the woodwork and explain how they can help. Because, goddamn, those of you who don’t want to DJ often have incredible skills no one saw coming.
But with such a diverse community (or at least a community with such diverse interests) … how exactly do you keep everybody in the loop?
The most common tool, quickly identified as ubiquitous, was Facebook. From sea to burning sea that’s where regional communities now create their information hub … a community that goes off the grid physically assembling on it virtually. And that’s great, as far as it goes. But then somebody asked:
“Some of the most talented people, the ones I most want to reach, don’t do social networking at all. How can I keep them active in the community if all the conversation goes online?”
There was silence.
Everyone said “Great question.”
No one had an answer.
Or at least a compelling one. There are ways , but they’re inconvenient. I mean: phone trees? Seriously?
Yes, seriously. Where Burning Man once started out as a word-of-mouth event (“Hey, Larry’s burning this wooden stick figure on the beach! You know – Larry! Wears a hat! Nothing? Well, he’s burning shit on the beach!”), and grew as an event mentioned in underground letterpress newsletters by semi-secret societies dedicated to advanced pranksterism, in the 21st century Burning Man’s communications network has gone thoroughly mainstream. Burning Man has a blog, an email newsletter, and a press team (although it’s largely staffed by volunteers who I handpicked, so: fuck you, media!).
Many regional networks now use Facebook as their primary information distribution system. And why shouldn’t they? We have nothing to hide: in fact, we’d very much like it if people knew more about us. It’s not just that Burning Man’s communication strategies have changed with the times: they’ve also changed with Burning Man’s ambitions. We genuinely believe that we can change the world. To do that, we have to talk with it. Talking to the mainstream in a way it can process is a strength, not a weakness.
But Burning Man has never lost its love of eccentrics … and most of the really interesting things that happen there are still powered by brilliant oddballs and mad geniuses. If we lose them, we’re lost. And they’re exactly the sort of people that some of the regional reps worried were being missed by our migration onto social networking as the locus of community. Nonconformists, strange polymaths, and offbeat angels are exactly the sort of people to say “Facebook? Doesn’t do anything for me.”
The trouble is that if we want to reach the eccentrics … and we do … then we need to reach out to them in meaningful ways, and that’s labor intensive and inconvenient. We’re all busy people: we’ll habitually avoid extra work if we think we can get away with it.
As our communities get bigger we need to retain the personal touch. Phone trees, letters, and community get-togethers … lots and lots of community activities … are a better gauge of our comity’s health than Facebook likes or blog comments or even email lists. Not only are they more likely to reach hard to reach people, they are also a manifestation of the new kind of community Burning Man tries to be.
There is no “virtual” Burning Man – and there cannot be a virtual Burning Man in any meaningful sense. Virtual abstraction is a step away from immediacy, a movement towards “watching” as opposed to participating … or at least a dumbing down of “participating” to “clicking on something.” The more we depend on efficient, cheap, virtual communication to reach our community the more people who are driven by the visceral exploration of their humanity will find other things to do.
Efficiency is only a virtue up to a point, and that is the point when it starts shaping the culture we came here to be part of. A mostly volunteer-run culture is at serious risk of slipping into convenience … but it’s also the best positioned to put its foot down and demand better of itself.
As we organize and grow we must utilize mainstream communication without becoming defined by it: we must embrace inconvenient communication strategies to find inconvenient people, just as we utilize the best logistical practices in order to better embrace the logistical nightmare of the Black Rock desert.
If the medium is the message … if we are how we talk to each other … then there is no substitute for raw, human contact.
To reach the all kinds of people we need to make Burning Man what it is, we should be proudest of the efforts that are most antiquated, inconvenient … and human.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are not statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com