Does your gift make the playa less lonely?

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Is it a pony?
Is it a pony?

I recently told an incredible artist and doer how much I envy her skill set.  People who can build art cars or set up great camps … or even use tools … are heroes to me when they do it for the common good.

“Well,” she said, “we really value what you do.”

“What I do?”  I asked, genuinely confused.  I am so useless on the playa that … this is true … some Media Mecca volunteers once got drafted to set up my tent.

“Well, yes,” she said. “You write these blogs.  You gift us with your writing.”

I nearly choked on my whiskey.

What followed was 10 minutes of one of the stupidest “YOUR contribution’s more important!  No YOUR contribution’s more important!” arguments I’ve had in years.  Because while I yield to no one’s estimation of just how talented a writer I am, writing blog posts from the comfort of my own home, (often) drunk and (usually) naked, is not a gift or sacrifice on the order of dragging a massive construction project to the playa and laboring to set it up in 100 degree heat while alkaline dust whips at your eyes, and then getting drunk and naked.

How is this even close?

It’s nice that we all appreciate each other, I suppose, but I think many of us are a little too easy on ourselves.

The notion that everybody’s contribution counts, that it doesn’t matter what you can do so long as you share your gifts, is a good one when it encourages people to step up to the plate and discover a capacity to give that they didn’t know they had. To find ways to engage with their community that they otherwise wouldn’t, or think they couldn’t.

Too often, however, it’s used as an excuse to half-ass a commitment we don’t really want to make.  To say “I’ve done enough” when we’ve hardly done anything we’re capable of.

Here are some activities that don’t actually qualify as “gifts,” no matter how much you think of yourself:

  • Taking photographs that nobody asked for, even implicitly.  That’s really not for them, is it?
  • DJing.  I’m sorry, but except in rare circumstances, it’s true.  If you help build a radio station for the entire playa, okay, but otherwise you’re on extremely thin ice.
  • Dancing.  Which, for the record, is also not an “art” contribution, unless you’re in fact an artist who has been asked to perform a shift of some kind as part of a ceremony or event – or you’re creating a ceremony or event.
  • Wearing a revealing outfit.  I know you look great.  I too would like to fuck you.  But narcissism just doesn’t count as a gift.
  • Hugs.  I don’t mean standing outside surrounded by traffic to make sure that every person entering BlackRockCity is personally welcomed, like the Greeters do.  I mean just hugging people and saying it’s your gift.  In which case that had better be one hell of a hug.  So good or interesting that whoever received the hug will still be thankful for it a month from now.  That kind of hug is a gift, and I would like one please.   Anything less doesn’t meet the bar.
  • Fucking with other people.  Look:  I love fucking with people too.  And I think it’s well worth doing.  But even if we can justify it by saying that it makes everyone’s life more interesting and they learned a valuable lesson (which they didn’t really), let’s not get self-righteous about it.  In fact, anyone who fucks with other people and thinks it’s “gifting” deserves to be severely fucked with.


These are not gifts – they are excuses not to give.

But while the camp builders and art car runners are the heroic pinnacles of the gifting world, it’s a mistake to think of gifting in material terms.  Their efforts are heroic because of all the blood and sweat they put into it, but it’s not about the stuff:  whoever hauls the biggest truck in doesn’t win.  It’s about the experience of the people receiving the gift.

Gifts are always about the recipients, right?  Not the givers.  What’s in it for them?

As I’ve written previously, the best gifts are often the ones that create new connections between people – give them a shared experience that they can use to create friendships … and more shared experiences.

The gift culture, then, is most useful because it is a social lubricant – a legitimate way of reaching out to our fellow human beings that is non-exploitive and establishes a connection between people who have no other reason to talk to each other. It has nothing to do with an “economy” but everything to do with breaking down the barriers that isolate us as human beings.

Once you realize this, it ought to change the way you think about what a good “gift” is. An appropriate gift is not a trinket, a glow stick – or even food and water (though … thank you everyone who has kept me alive out there). An appropriate gift is tied to an experience: something that gives someone without friends a community, that connects unrelated biographies, that provides a story someone new can add to.

The people who hand out trinkets are better than nothing, but that’s weak tea. They’re thinking about *the things* they’re giving rather than *the people* they’re giving it too. It sort of serves the purpose, but it absolutely misses the point.

Gifting should inspire us to find new capacities to give that we didn’t know we had, and to use that to make more, and better, connections.

Perhaps the best slogan for great gifts is:  “make the desert less lonely.”

“Make the playa more interesting” is close, but I think misses the most human element.

Either way:  if you can do that for people, whether through your theme camp or your art car or your art, you’re doing it right.

If that little necklace you made yourself, if that hug, if that (ugh) DJing makes the desert less lonely and the playa more meaningful for someone – not for a crowd, but for a specific  person – then … you’ve got it.  But that’s a high bar.  Is your necklace in fact part of an experience you’re sharing with someone – or is it just a thing you use so that you don’t have to share an experience?  Are you connecting with people you don’t know through your DJing, or are you just isolating yourself for a while?

So many of you get this right and thank you so much, in advance, for all the wondrous things you are going to show me out there.

If on the other hand, you’re “drive-by gifting,” saying “here’s your glow stick, I’ve got someplace to be,” or “hey, I danced:  what else do you want from me?” –  if you’re using “gifting” as an excuse to be a part of the culture without connecting to human beings – then I’m sorry, that ain’t it.

Gifting is an aspiration, not a duty.  A challenge, not a task.  An opportunity – no matter how much we’ve given (or not) – to make the desert less lonely, the playa more interesting.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is an art project on the run from Burning Man’s secretive “Area 12.”  His opinions are in no way 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

30 Comments on “Does your gift make the playa less lonely?

  • cosinezero says:

    I really, truly feel sorry for you if you’ve never been on a dancefloor and felt like you were sharing a communal, spiritual experience.

    DJs (such as, yes, myself) work super fucking hard to gift you that experience, and for many people a dancefloor is the least lonely place to be. It’s a shame you can’t see that.

    Am I connecting with people? Come watch me watch the crowd and select the next song I want to give them from my heart. And then watch them receive it with a huge smile on their face.

    I kinda want to tell you to fuck off over that sort of asinine comment that completely misses what we do, but really? I just feel kinda sad for you that you’ve never felt that connection with people… that you’ve never had that *experience* we gift to you.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    Yeah, I admit I threw that one in there just to piss off some DJs, who I feel have an overdeveloped sense of importance and no sense of humor.

    But you’ve clearly proven me wrong.

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  • Mr. Mackey says:

    He took the bait.
    Thanks for the gift of laughter, Caveat.

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  • another angry dj says:

    Apparently dj’ing is still just as misunderstood on the playa as it is anywhere else.

    It ain’t easy schleping thousands of dollars of sensitive electronic equipment out to a dust bucket in the middle of no where. Then you get to set up the complicated mesh of wires and machines in the blistering heat, only to risk destroying every last bit of it. Don’t forget the countless hours that DJ spend honing their craft and cultivating their art that no one ever sees or hears.

    Even though it seems like everyone and their mom is a DJ these days, it’s not fair to undermine the talents of those truly dedicated to the craft. If dj’ing isn’t a gift, I can’t image how you would consider blogging one.


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  • Amber says:

    I take *instant* pictures… and hand them to whoever I took them of. I think they are nice gifts.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    @Another angry dj

    Blogging? A gift? Oh God no!

    I absolutely don’t consider blogging here to be a “gift” in the sense I’m talking about. Nowhere close.

    It’s a gig – a volunteer gig – something I’m asked to do and spend time doing. To the extent it’s helpful, I’m glad. But a gift? Oh no.

    If I walked around the playa saying “I’m a blogger! I’ve done my bit!” Someone would have every right to call me on it. And should.

    If you’re a true artist, I absolutely sympathize with the plight you feel when crowds of people who once saw a clip of Bassnectar on YouTube start calling themselves “DJs” and pulling the bar down for everybody. It’s a terrible fate for someone who cares about his craft.

    But you can’t deny the rest of us the chance to mock it. I mean, it’s so, so, mockable.

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  • Adm. Fiesta says:


    As a (sort of, sometimes) DJ, fuck DJs.

    I think you’re spot on with your assessment of gifting (although there are some photographers here in AZ that are so diligent about documenting and posting photos from events that I’d consider that a legit gift). If you think playing a set of music for a crowd is a “gift”, you should probably spend more time in the yoga workshops – as it turns out, there are much easier ways to suck your own dick than presuming the moral high ground on DJing.

    Part of the problem with dj’ing as a gift is that it can’t stand in isolation – you need a hell of a lot more than a DJ to make a DJ’s gift connect with people (you know, like a stage, power, a PA, lights, and all the people who support those bits of infrastructure). Some random dude wandering the playa with a turntable coffin and a record crate isn’t any good to anybody until someone gives him a venue…

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  • Chango says:

    If you had any idea, how much time that I spend on the music that I share with the playa, you would take back everything that you thought that you believed about dj’s.

    What a self-absorbed, piece of garbage this blog post was.

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  • lemur says:


    i would say that the DJ’s are coming out of the woodwork.. but this being burning man that might not be so true.. considering you can hardly throw a rock without hitting one.

    it feels like people are saying that how long it takes to prepare something is directly proportional to the amount that something is a “gift”

    what if mr Paul Addis spent 200 hours planning his Tuesday night Gift so long ago?

    does that make it a good idea?

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  • Tree says:

    This year I was trying to think of a “gift”, something service-based but the opposite of sacred crystal aura reiki totem readings, and came up with the idea of cleaning people’s camp kitchens. I decided to do it en masse, rub some French Maid costumes on it, and I anticipate an amazing, fulfilling adventure for all involved.

    This post reinforced the reasons I’m doing it. Thank you.

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  • loxocele says:

    i usually find most “how to do burning man” essays/posts to be *extremely* annoying and off-putting, at best. the majority of the ones i’ve encountered have been so painfully self-absorbed and/or utterly misguided that they’ve made me stab-ranty for hours (if not days) at a time—especially a chain of them a few years ago about “how to be an introvert at burning man” that basically boiled down to “stop being an introvert.”

    your post, however, is a rare exception, and i thank you in particular for recognizing the difference between creating a large event where people “feel connected” (aka, experience what Durkheim called “collective effervescence”) versus helping individual humans to form new connections. sure, some people will form new personal connections in the middle of a dance floor, but a good many others will never feel more alone than when they stand in a crowd with no one to talk to—whether that crowd is a thousand people on a dance floor for a night or tens of thousands of people in a city for a week.

    the advice you give—that a gift should ideally make the recipient less lonely, and failing that should at least make their life more interesting—is just as applicable to life off-playa as on it. it is advice i will keep with me, and advice i will share.

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  • Greed says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more about photographers. I’m sure I’ll take shit for this, but I wish people would just leave their fucking cameras at home and live the experience. At the very least, ask people before you shoot. Asking before you shoot would be a gift, in my opinion.

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  • Azalea says:

    My favourite favourite “gift” I ever gave was water on Sunday morning. From about 4am – 9am on burn night I repeatedly loaded myself up with water from my camp (’cause we’re good little burners we always have gallons and gallons left over) and walked the Esplanade, filling empty water bottles of the all-night party people, and letting those without water bottles (silly silly people) drink from my cup. I’m not able to make the burn this year, but if anyone reading this is wondering what they can gift, I highly encourage water. But also, carry more damn water, people!

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  • Jesse says:

    I think food is always a nice gift to share on the playa. I bring dried nuts, granola, etc. I take part in workshops and be wide open to hearing others’ experiences and be totally honest in sharing my own.

    I’m not into electronic dance music and I see it’s ubiquity at BM as a weird paradox to our notions of diversity. There is very little music to be had at BM besides DJ’ing that *thump thump thump*, and that is terribly sad. So much sharing of something I can’t stand for more than 30 seconds.

    Hugs: Well, that depends. I’ve been honored to meet people at sunrise at the Temple. Crying their eyes out. I give out a hug, a long genuine caring hug without saying anything, and they sure seem to appreciate it. I remember those encounters and it made me feel useful among my fellow human beings, a rare occurence. And I know I’ve been caught crying my eyes out at sunrise and been on receiving end. I made a good friend my first full day at my first burn through that exact situation: Gabriel. I brought him breakfast as thanks.

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  • Icee Hot says:

    As far as hugs as a gift. Well, like most things in life, BM or not. It all has to do with the present moment and perspective. Sure, not all hugs should be waranted as gifts. Although, I was gifted an ‘Ice Cold Hug’ out in the Playa last year that was just, faaaaaaantastic! I can still see it in my minds eye. I’m hoping for another this year! As far as me gifting, I always seem to draw individuals that need some type of immediate help w/ something mechanical. Troubleshooting art car wiring, generator issues, AC unit down, shave ice motor malfunctions. Everyone has a gift. Tap into what you do best, recognize it and then be it. Being open and willing to help will allow this energy to surface. Then your days wil be full of gifting. I think if your intentions are pure, then it we be received as pure. Hell!, I love swag and DJ’s and blogs and instant pictures and …….. It’s all interconnected, just getting you to the next connection. I do think this blog is a gift. It’s made people think more about how to gift. And fueled the fire for some to do it more bettah!

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  • No Face To Save says:

    Extra! Extra! Aging blogger phones in false dichotomy after false dichotomy with alternating creepy and hostile overtones! Thinks cars are “breaking down the barriers that isolate us as human beings”!

    Huge lulz.

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  • Mary says:

    Caveat (at) says ” I am, writing blog posts from the comfort of my own home, (often) drunk and (usually) naked. “I wonder, IS THAT WHAT”S MISSING FROM MY WRITING???

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  • Red says:

    I gifted Chapstick in 2009. Fascinating how many people were so happy and grateful, but equally fascinating how many people thought it was poison even though the tubes were sealed. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

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  • Oh Caveat

    Why is it many of the DJs don’t realize what it takes to make the places where they do their thing? And, spending time to edit together other people’s music (oops, I mean sample) and pre-recorded percussion and synth loops into an few hours of music doesn’t really equate to building an art car or theme camp.

    I’m a fan of electronic music and I have been for 20 years now (I have a Distrikt podcast playing now, as I do all year. Sometimes it’s BMIR or the 7,000-plus songs I have on iTunes) but, like with other music, just because someone can assemble some music doesn’t mean they’re automatically good. And, the ones who whine the most about their importance are probably the the shittiest ones.

    OK, let’s pick on something close to home for me: photographers. Yup, there are too many of them. There is or was a Burning Man blog or thing on the website about how to do photography on the playa and it was fucking ridiculous. How many posed, crooked, HDR pictures will there be on Flickr, Facebook, Google Plus and wherever else?

    Yes, I always have a camera or two, but I’m not posing anything. I’m not in people’s faces. I’m not obnoxious about it, but I’m also not one of the people with a huge lens sneaking pictures of naked girls. I don’t see it as a gift … giving someone a print I printed in a real darkroom may be close to a gift. (Yes, I still use film, and develop it in my kitchen. I often have a small film camera in my pocket).

    This blog is a gift, even if tangentially so. As one commenter above noted, you’re getting people to think about gifting, although it’s not really a verb. You’re getting the whiners (who don’t use real names) to make their anemic attempts to justify themselves.

    You’re getting us to think, which is a very valuable thing to do. You’re getting us to communicate, which is equally valuable.

    Maybe some of the better photographers help us see things in a different way, or maybe from a different point of view. The writers of various stripes who are apt enough to break away from reciting the obvious provide the same alternate viewpoint.

    If we return to the DJs briefly, other than the music, what purpose do they serve? When I was in Robot Heart or Distrikt, I wasn’t thinking about the DJ. I didn’t consider what time it took to put it all together. They’re isolated behind their gear (and increasingly behind laptop screens) and behind visual effects and dust. Do the people who assemble Opulent Temple praise themselves in the same way? What about the BMIR people? Does anyone from Media Mecca walk around boasting how it keeps the relationship between the media and Burning Man from getting crazy, while fighting commercialism of Burning Man imagery? Probably not. What about the commissary people? Do they strut about saying how they keep everyone fed very well? (although, I think they’re contracted, so maybe that’s a moot point).

    In DJ’s defense, we can’t hear if they spend hours playing and recording instruments, finding the right voices for vocals and walking around with recording gear for other audio. We can’t hear if they really put hours and hours into each movement, crescendo and climax. Or, maybe they’re just engulfed in the lazy trappings of a very low bar and artistic laziness.

    The low bar of DJs on the playa can be related to the photographers with new digital cameras set to full automatic taking cliche, posed pictures of the cliche posed 20-something woman. I like naked girls as much as any guy, but it’s the same damn thing over and over and over and over. It’s those photographers compared to the guys who made tintypes on the playa. It’s the documentary team who makes the gigantic pinhole pictures one can see in Media Mecca.

    I’m sure all of the DJs aren’t the same, just as all photographers and writers aren’t the same. All of the theme camps aren’t the same and most certainly all burners aren’t the same.

    (Spending money on gear means simply you spend money on gear, it’s not even related to a gift.)

    Let’s whine about how poorly people ride their bikes, especially the ones who only ride in Black Rock City and not the other 52 weeks of the year. Let’s discuss the people who firmly believe in conspiracy theories or who shit on the playa or toss garbage about.

    If one is a DJ insistent on their craft being a gift, they really need to make it obvious that it is a gift and not the ubiquitous thumpy techno one can hear everywhere.

    Pedicabo dies tuus

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  • Lei-Lani says:

    As someone who has never been to Burning Man I loved this post. I have been struggling with the idea of gifting. I am coming from Australia and I hate plastic crap. So the principle of making the playa less lonely is great.

    As for DJs and techno. I’m not that excited by the notion. Only techno I hope not.

    Thanks for the post and the comments.

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  • Zhust says:

    To reiterate part of what I read in Caveat’s writing to every naysaying commenter: “I spent a lot of money/effort” does not make a gift.

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  • Travis says:

    Man, I have to laugh at some of the huffy DJ’s getting all justified, too funny!

    I DJ too, and sometimes at the Burn, but the real gift is done by those dancing – they bring the music alive, without which all I’d be is some guy playing all his favourite tracks to himself, really loudly.

    Thin skins don’t last in the desert and the DJ ego thing is…so urban.

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  • SadPhotographer says:

    As a photographer myself who has recently set down the camera for a good chunk of time so I can fully participate in life vs feeling like I am just documenting the participation of others in events I attend, I can agree in some cases that photography is not a gift. It is not a gift when someone takes photos of others without their consent in an exploitive manner.

    I do feel however that photography can most certainly be a gift. As someone who was rarely in photos growing up because I was always *behind* the camera, I almost always consider it a gift when another photographer comes up to me and shows me an amazing candid photo of myself with a loved one having a good time and giving me a tangible piece of my memory that I can hold dear to me for years to come.

    To say that photographers who truly wish to document memories of their camp or friends are not giving a gift is honestly a bit hurtful to those who do it for that. Offering to capture photos for a friends performance or of a friend’s wedding on the playa, offering to give a portrait to a stranger or a loved one after that super memorable night turning into sunrise…In my opinion those are gifts

    I know some photographers/”tourists” are annoying, but don’t hate on all of us. True professional photography is an expensive and time consuming service and I am thrilled that there are still other friends who wish to document our camp since I am no longer interested in doing it. They are giving us the gift of tangible memories. And I hope I am not alone in feeling the importance of that.

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  • Billy America says:

    I am a musician and will be attending Burning Man for the first time this year. I planned on brining a pretty solid AMP & PA hoping that there may be some interesting / spontaneous music to be made by musicians, singers, etc who don’t have gear on the Playa.

    Never really thought of that as a gift. I just thought I might as well provide extra capacity to accomodate some additional artists who play good old instruments and sing. Personally I love an impromptu session that comes together out of nowhere and assumed this would be appreciated on the Playa.

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  • Audrey says:

    This is an interesting topic for me since I haven’t yet been to Burning Man & am fascinated by this idea for the economy. I have always wanted to go to Burning Man, mainly because I studied belly dance for many years with Fat Chance Belly Dance, which always has a contingent of performers/participators @ Burning Man. I also have known people who have gone there for years & love it. (I haven’t made it there mainly since I’m a teacher, & Burning Man coincides with the start of the school year — also was a problem when I was in grad school). I also do/have studied many other forms of dance & have performed at local venues. So it is with some dismay that I see that this blogger does not consider dance a gift (though he does stipulate that it could be if you create some sort of event — though that does not leave as much room for spontaneity). I also am a yoga teacher, which I think he would approve of. But some people would see a yoga class as work & would prefer to watch a dance performance whether it was an event or an informal improvisation. Also, I enjoy photography. I personally would like to receive pictures of myself & my friends/family documenting an event. Of course this might depend somewhat on the talent of the photographer. But wouldn’t that be true of the quality of any gift? If Annie Leibovitz wanted to gift me with a photo, it would be something I would forever cherish. Cookies could be a nice gift if they were made well (not burnt, etc.), but someone who was diabetic or vegan might not agree. I think this blogger meant well, & probably does want to just give a heads up to people who aren’t very thoughtful about their actions. It does seem like a good idea to think about how to build community and make people less lonely. I just don’t agree with the way whole art forms are discounted here rather than discussing the quality of the work. (Really, wouldn’t you rather have a great Mapplethorpe photo than a crappy painting — even realizing the “crappy-ness” of paintings is somewhat subjective — or some burnt cookies?). And creating a bunch of rules just doesn’t seem very counter-cultural to me. As someone who grew up in Berkeley, I have seen how communes, co-ops, and other alternative communities start out very idealistic but can be taken over by people who want to be in charge/control things and make rules. On the other hand those people are often responding to the equally annoying people who just want a free ride while others do all the grunt work. [Speaking of grunt work, that gift of cleaning kitchens sounds great, but you might not want just anyone in your kitchen — say they were on speed & talking a mile a minute, or breaking things, or there while you & your partner were trying to make love. I’m just saying: It’s All Contextual.] How to achieve balance and harmony in life & in the Burning Man economy? At least this post raises that issue.

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  • Sueno says:

    Wow, so many great gifting ideas! I like the kitchen cleaning, french maid idea a lot! Also, water??! That’s so easy and so useful! I’ll probably bring ten extra gallons next year and gift to whoever needs a drink something nonalcoholic.

    This last year I gifted necklaces I made. I made about fifty and each one took me about forty minutes to make. Their creation gave me an excuse to create something. I sawed the wooden pendants from tree limbs in my yard, sanded them and shaped them, carved into them a phrase that I thought apt for our time there “We are not here for long, but long enough,” put an orange oil and beeswax finish on them so that they would not be toxic against bareskin, and gave them out when it felt appropriate. It was a lot of fun and I was able to do something I otherwise would not have done. I am excited to gift in different ways and in larger scale ways in the future.

    I’m toying with a new gift. To pretend to give out drugs at dj events to draw the attention of undercover cops, so that we know where they are. However, I don’t want to get arrested. We’ll see :)

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  • RL BUTCHER says:

    OMG! Ain’t this one huge playa of shit??!!

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  • Pierrot Activatus says:

    I think I like the message once one looks through the snark. :) I really like most of Caveat’s posts, he’s quite often spot on… I’m right now brainstorming for a standard world reachout project by a regional group of burners, and this really inspired me in terms of how the spirit of gifting could be applied in many different ways…

    That said, if I’m to distill the lesson from this one, I’d focus on the positive message as opposed to telling people off. The whole ‘burnier than thou’ thing is so deeply ingrained in this culture that it’s far too easy to hurt others. Gifting shouldn’t be considered to be about putting a check in a box somewhere, like ‘yea I gave A, B and C, so i’m a proper burner now, not just a useless sparkle pony’. That said, it’s too easy to imagine that unchecked checkbox for everyone else other than ourselves, and go around judging.

    I’m sure everyone in this culture started out so overwhelmed, that gifting or even dancing or DJing was far beyond their capabilities for some time. And if the community hadn’t welcomed and inspired them (maybe through dancing, or DJing, even), they would have just left, feeling useless and unwelcome.

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  • Alexander F says:

    Thank you for showing us how to be less lonely by gifting.
    That is a beautiful and relevant gift for all at all times, not just at a burn.

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