The closest I’ve ever come to “crowdfunding” something was asking a room to tip generously. But I’m told that web 2.0 and the “sharing economy” have revolutionized the process of funding theme camps and art for Burning Man.
Granted, we live in a time when “revolutionized” can apply to the way people shop for car insurance, so the word doesn’t mean what it used to. But the number of successful camps and cars at this year’s Burning Man that used Kickstarter or another crowdfunding platform couldn’t be ignored.
And why should they be ignored? These are all volunteers trying to create amazing things for the community’s enjoyment: anything that makes their lives easier is all for the good.
But let’s play Indiegogo show-and-tell and see if something comes up, like a body floating to the surface.
Most of the premiums offered for supporting projects the Burn are of the “have a t-shirt!” or “get a piece of the art for your home when we’re finished” variety, and there’s really nothing to see here.
But when you reach the upper echelon of donations, a different kind of premium reward often emerges. Can you spot the pattern?
- From the 2013 funding campaign for the art car Abraxis:
$999USD – Champagne on the Throne
Thursday sunrise champagne throne ride on the top of the Dragon. A champagne toast for four on the throne as we ride to greet the sun. Sunrise parties are legendary on Abraxas and with you as our honored guests, we will be committed to bringing your fantasies into reality! You will also receive four white Abraxas bandanas to enhance your ensemble during this yearly white procession!
- From the 2013 Cuddledome funding campaign:
$300USD – One Night in Cuddledome!
You and a friend will have free rein of Cuddledome one evening on playa. Enjoy a homecooked meal and relax in the lighted dome. Invite the Cuddle Pros in for some Olympic-level cuddling, or keep it private, your choice! This perk includes two pendants to celebrate your status as certified Cuddle Pros and a framed, numbered 8×10 Cuddledome photo from Roger Kobeska to commemorate the occasion!
- From the 2013 funding campaign for the More Carrot Farmers Market:
$125USD – Very Important Carrot
All the above plus be a guest at our VIC (Very Important Carrot) dinner where we’ll ply you with delicious food and yummy drinks.
Among many, many, other projects.
Now I need to emphasize that all of these are great projects and wonderful causes, which are put forward by hard working people who do terrific work. And that all they are doing is following generally accepted best practice in crowdfunding. They’re not doing anything wrong by default world standards. At all.
But what they are doing with these premiums – what was happening all across Burning Man this year – is that people are selling experiences on playa.
Through this system, if you spend money off playa, you and you alone (or with a limited number of others) get special rides on art cars, access to special dinners, and use of space that you have done nothing on playa to attain.
You might say “So what?” Spending money off playa in preparation for Burning Man always brings benefits. You can have an RV instead of a tent, or a big RV instead of an RV, or a small townhouse with a generator instead of a big RV. Isn’t that what Plug-and-Play is?
Sure … and that’s problematic enough. But the selling of experiences creates a more insidious problem.
Plug-and-play camping, for all its issues, does not deprive others of opportunities to experience anything at Burning Man. It may create issues with commoditization (especially when it brings hired help, creating a potential class of non-participants), and it may be a problem for our community when plug-and-play campers wall themselves off from the rest of Burning Man, but it doesn’t actually impact my or your ability to do anything there is to do at Burning Man.
The selling of experiences on-playa, however, does: the more dinners a camp prepares for funders … people who contributed in no way but throwing in dollars … the less a camp will have to offer all the other citizens of Black Rock City. The more spaces on an art car are reserved for funders, the fewer people will be able to hop on the art car out in the desert. The more space in a camp is reserved for funders on certain nights, the less space there is for the brilliant freaks who are drawn to the camp because they’re participating in the here-and-now.
Selling experiences on the playa creates, to some extent, a zero-sum game. The more experiences you gear towards donors, the less geared you are to the community, and the less it can participate in what you’re doing.
Some degree of exclusiveness for camp and crew events is of course acceptable, and even desirable. A volunteer appreciation dinner, for example, is beyond reproach. But by no stretch of the imagination is contributing to a Kickstarter campaign “volunteering” – especially when it’s in exchange for a sweet premium. A donor’s help may have been crucial for a project, but are they actually more deserving of a special dinner or a spot on an art car than people who directly engage with the community on site and gift their own creativity and sweat?
“Participation” is one of the 10 Principles. “Patronage” is not.
Nor is it possible to have a gift economy if many gifts are reserved for people who offered donations. Denying someone an experience because they didn’t click “donate now” for the proper amount is the opposite of “Gifting.” Isn’t it?
The person who creates an amazing costume and wanders around giving people unusual experiences, or who helps wash dishes, or who helps fix a stranger’s car because he just happens to have tools and time, is more worthy of getting that golden seat at the banquet hall or ride on the mutant vehicle – at least within the Burning Man ethos – than someone who opened their wallet off-playa. If that’s not true, then what could “decommdification” and “participation” possibly mean?
If the selling of experiences in exchange for patronage were an isolated phenomenon, happening only here and there, it wouldn’t be a big deal – but crowdfunding has “revolutionized” art. It’s everywhere, and it increasingly means that not only can people throwing a lot of money at their Burning Man experience bring nicer accommodations during the burn (not such a big deal), but they can have a fundamentally different type of burn than people who can’t (or don’t) spend big sums off playa – welcomed as VIPs from camp to camp, car to car, getting experiences that are simply not offered or available to people who merely participate in-person.
That’s a big deal. That’s a stratified society.
One solution, of course, is always Art Vikings. But I’d hate to go there with this. Because, seriously: I love Abraxis. Cuddledome sounds awesome. Who doesn’t want more farmers markets at Burning Man?
Unlike with plug-and-play, where the problem is a lack of engagement with the community, these are groups who are very much working to make a better Burning Man for everyone – who are trying very hard to give of their time and their own money, of their inspiration and sweat. They’re the good guys – and frankly we should all donate to support their efforts. This is a problem without a villain.
But it is a problem. Fortunately there’s another solution: just don’t offer on-playa experiences as premiums.
I know, I know, it’s can be effective way to get big donors. But come on: if you were really being practical you wouldn’t be building an Art Car in the first place.
By all means, ask “the crowd” for money. And offer premiums. Other kinds of premiums are great. A thank you card? A piece of the art? A craft item? A token of appreciation? Or an experience off playa? Brilliant. Bring it.
But if you’re running a crowdsourcing campaign, the best thing you can do to contribute to Burning Man’s non-commoditizing ethos is not to make premium experiences of your camp, vehicle, or art available to high bidders. Keep that outside the trash fence.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man writes to escape the white hot pain of existence. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com