You can’t Burn on Facebook

By Maxo. [GFDL ( via Wikimedia Commons
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.

We can’t.

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)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

18 Comments on “You can’t Burn on Facebook

  • harinama says:

    If my group wants information regarding updates, they get it through FB. If they are not checking FB very often, they don’t get them.

    It’s as simple as that. I refuse to jump through as many hoops as i did in teh past to keep someone in the loop whether in person, via phone, email, messaging, etc. They just have to get with the program and get on FB and deal with it.

    And I’ll deal with the massive work getting my camp prepared and setup at BRC for THEM.

    With that in mind, i also try to have a few camp facetoface get togethers for everyone to catchup, get acquainted, etc.

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  • Mirno says:

    facebook sucks. end of story.

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  • Kristalicious says:

    Wow, Harinama…I am glad that I do not rely on YOU to keep me informed…so much for radical inclusion…

    I despise FaceCrack, and find it pretty repugnant that anyone would exclude those Burners who agree with me, based solely on convenience to one person…good thing that packing up all of your shit and moving it to and from the Playa is convenient…

    I peronally am thrilled to see that BM is understanding and addressing communication on many fronts…Thanks!

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  • Aron says:

    Facebook is multifaceted. There’s the mindnumbing, endless updates that are mostly pointless. But there’s a huge amount of relevant data on there. Want to know what bands are playing locally? Got a better place to look than facebook? Really? Where is it?

    Think of it as a public pegboard. You don’t like some of what’s posted so don’t read that. But there’s good information that you can grab then move on.

    Planning sucks and facebook can make it easier. And it doesn’t ring at 5AM from a wrong number.

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  • Trilo says:

    Another great post, and I do agree nothing beats face to face communication… but I can’t help but point out that indie message board we’ve got, the one that won’t sell your personal info to the highest bidder or give it to the CIA or ….ePlaya.

    I also have got to point out that there *IS* a virtual Burning Man. It’s called Burn2, takes place in October in the virtual world of Second Life, and our very own Danger Ranger is the virtual regional contact. It’s a bunch of fun, but since it requires more technical savvy to download and install the software and get going in Second Life, it has a steeper learning curve. But yeah, you can build your own virtual camp, walk around in it, build stages and design clothes (or walk around virtually naked), and you can even DJ.

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  • harinama says:

    Kristalicious-good for you. Facebook is very good at some things, group and event planning being one of them. I completely understand, however, your aversion to it.

    I was a little hardcore in my response, only because i always bend over backwards to make sure everyone has all the information they need. My back hurts from all the bending!

    But of course, I will continue to make calls, and send emails and have face to face meetings so that folks get the important info they need and feel included.

    Camp mates have so few requirements, i figure it won’t kill them to check out fb 1x/ wk for updates, or to give me a call with questions.

    Heck, i already had to fork out $3500 to reserve their tickets!

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  • Poetic Justice says:

    Thank you for thinking about us that are not on facebook.
    I think it’s cool on your part. I could list a dozen reasons why I’m am not on
    facebook, but I don’t think you need it.
    I do want to mention that my camp sends me info from time to time from their facebook page group, when things are important, or they need me. I wanted to convey that to you, that alot of us that are too cool for facebook, are still networked in communication with our groups. I can’t wait to see everyone on the playa again this year. Much love

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  • Chris says:

    Something to think about is that while it would be nice to find and reach all these people wouldn’t also a venue able to hold them all be somewhere on that list? Outreach is great and all but, if roughly 25% of the interested parties get to attend it feels like that kind of outreach is best saved for a later time.

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  • BurnerGirl says:

    Keep talking.
    I am the newly elected Comm Lead for our community and would love to glean all the info I can from this post/comment thread. We are morphing our communication venues for sustainability, and *this* could add to our plans.
    Thanks to all.

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  • Thermal says:

    Facebook is so last decade. I hate FB and only re-activate my account on the rare occasion to reach a far-away friend or two if their cell phone or email changed. Its invasive and filled with junk. Invasive… did I mention how difficult it is to actually close your account permanently, that’s the only reason why I’m still “there” at all. Good luck finding something useful on it, its like wading through a pile of junkmail in the middle of your living room, searching for that one letter you actually need.

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  • Will Chase says:

    Hi Frank, not sure what your comment has to do with this post, but you can email whatever complaint you have to … they’re the right audience for it. Thanks.

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  • Thermal says:

    For all the people who avoid facebook like the plague, as I do, I should think that email communication should suffice as a means of notification. No snail mail, that’s for sure. No reliance on facebook or some other similarly stupid “networking” site. (networking must be a word for wasting time)

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  • Michael Duffy says:

    Wow. Sounds like Burning Man has devolved from a really cool art event that I would have enjoyed to a really sad attempt to hold onto something that has mutated out of control. Can you spell OFF THE RAILS?

    What a great lesson in social history.

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  • darthppringles says:

    the camp i camped with last year sent out an email the first day of the month, every month, up until the burn letting all of the members know what was up. It was up to everybody to check their mail and see what was going on. I thought that was a good and simple idea. FB is too mainstream and while there are some benefits, for me, its not enough. Im just waiting for the day when Burning Man closes their official fb page. It attracts the wrong kind of energy, especially during the ticket process. It was a place for people to go and complain and be nasty towards each other and the org. That is not was burning man is about.

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  • Mercedese Witty says:

    I got on Facebook just so I could keep informed of what was going down with my Burner Friends. Facebook is for everyone nowadays and it is a great way to keep informed of what is going on.

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  • DB says:

    Facebook ONLY exists as a way to commodify people and sell their data to advertisers. It is an extremely commercial anti-burner site. Most burners I know would never consider getting a Facebook account. Using e-mail and a website is fine; Facebook is not. Facebook does not believe in privacy or humanity; only in commerce and narcissism.

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  • Paul Dominic Lopez says:

    Facebook is what you make of it…think of it as an extension of the playa, another camp, a community to share and embrace information, ideas and thoughts. We take what we need and give back with knowledge or links to support our community. Now Facebook should not be our only reference point to collect information about HOME, but it’s one of the many places to meet new people and community. As they say there is no cookie cut out for a burner, we come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life, and every one of us are individuals that appreciate and respect others or I would hope. The one thing for sure that we all have in common is we burn.

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  • WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for

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