Experiments in Radical Gifting and Ticket Sales

PresentRight now a Bay Area group consisting of a number of past and present Burners is putting together an event so ambitious that I am thrilled to be part of it.

I can’t tell you anything about it. Not what it is, or where, or who else is involved. I can tell you when, but that’s only mostly true. We’re revealing so little, in fact, that we actually sent out a press release announcing that we’ve created the least informative Kickstarter in history.

But what I can tell you … and what makes this an interesting experiment with Burning Man principles … is that there’s only one way to get a ticket. And that’s to be given one by somebody else.

You can’t buy a ticket for yourself.

It might be possible to engage in round-robins where a group of people buy tickets for each other, but we’ll be watching out for that. (I can’t tell you how.) Because the hope, the ideal, is that it will make the experience of going to an arts event more like getting a surprise gift: you have no idea it’s coming, it’s a gesture of thoughtfulness and goodwill because somebody cared enough to think of you, and you honestly don’t know what’s going to be there when you open it up.

Will it have that affect? Will it be possible to actually fund a high-infrastructure event this way?

We’ll find out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was against the whole idea.

“Why make everything so much more difficult?” I argued at meetings. “We’ve already got incredible idea, why not just DO THAT?”

I’m proud to say that my voice of reason was resoundingly outvoted. Which puts me in the best position possible: if things don’t work, I get to say “I told you so” for years. While if they do, I still get to be part of this daring attempt. I couldn’t be happier.

In the meantime, everything really is more complicated by several levels of magnitude.

First, of course, is that we have so much less control over ticket sales. We know how to sell a big event out – we’ve done it before – but we have no idea how to convince people to buy tickets for other people .. especially if we’re actively discouraging them from gaming the system. We have no experience in how to talk about this, how to sell an event as a gift. There are no best practices in place, we’re having to discover them as we go.

But more than that, it gives us much less of a sense of who’s coming. Under the usual circumstances, we know that the usual suspects would show up. But if we can convince the usual suspects to buy tickets for other people? Who would it be? The potential for us to be preparing an event for people we’ve never heard of, who don’t belong to our community, is significantly increased.

Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s a serious complication.

What this says to me is that effective gifting (if that’s what actually happens) involves a loss of control. You can’t really give a gift on your terms – it has to be on the terms of the person who’s accepting it. The more strings you attach, the less of a gift it really is.

This cuts against the grain in our wealth-conscious society, where we’re used to the idea that the person who possesses more gets to set the terms for it. Yes, we give gift cards on the assumption that they’ll be used for whatever the person receiving it wants – but many of us would be offended if they used it as a lock-pick or to make the perfect paper-airplane. Indignation born of the idea we spent more than the use they’re actually putting our gift to is worth reveals our assumption that the gift giver has legitimate expectations to control how the gift is used. The more valuable a gift is, the stronger these expectations: the Gates Foundation may say that it’s “giving” money to one organization or another, but it never does that for “whatever.” Government grants likewise come with many strings, both formal and informal, attached.

Fairly often, then, what we mean by a “gift” is actually an acknowledgement of social custom – which we expect to be reciprocated – or a form of strategic alliance, which we expect to be honored.

Which is fine as far as it goes … but it’s not really a “gift” in the true sense of the word.

A true gift comes with no expectation of control, and therefore leaves the giver and the receiver on a level playing field: one where anything could happen next. A gift in the sense we mean it opens possibilities, rather than building expectations.

As we consider how we can bring Burning Man values to the world we live in the rest of the year, I think the subtle expectations built up around gifts and giving may become a crucial issue. This will come both at the macro level … Burning Man is a non-profit now, and what is a non-profit for but to accept “gifts” from the Gates Foundation … and at the micro-level, as communities of Burners try to connect with their neighbors. Will we able to use our gifting culture to lower barriers and increase possibilities? Or will we find well-meaning generosity to be a straitjacket?

I have no idea. Right now I’m trying to figure out how many hundreds of people we can get to buy and give away tickets to a show they themselves may not get to go to.

I warned them it was a terrible idea, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Caveat is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

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

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