What Burning Man Can Learn from the Fyre Festival

Two documentaries about the made-for-internet disaster of the “Fyre Festival” have caused psychological tremors along Burning Man’s emotional fault lines.

When the documentaries dropped, you could feel the vibrations caused by 100,000 camp organizers watching the films — their horror at Fyre’s vision creating friction with their sympathy for people trying to build something impossible in a remote location.

I cannot in good conscience tell anyone not to point and laugh at “influencers.”  I mean, I honestly believed “thought leaders” was going to be as low as our standards could go, until 1000 Instragram models said “hold my green juice, #greenjuice” and pioneered a version of leadership deliberately divorced from all thought.

And here was a catastrophe that primarily befell the very people who come to Burning Man for all the wrong reasons, often behave atrociously, and leave not thinking about the experiences they’ve had but asking “was my ass on brand in that blinky kimono?”

I can’t pretend not to hate that shit.

Team Schadenfreude Sucks

But pointing and laughing too long gets ugly. There were moments — this is awful, but I’m going to admit this — when I joked that the only thing that really went wrong with the Fyre festival was that all of these people made it out alive.  And then I had to stop myself and ask, “Okay, what?”

Because that’s obnoxious, and terrible, and the kind of joke that people have often made about Burning Man — last year’s Kickstarter to build a wall around San Francisco to keep returning Burners out was only the latest high-profile example.  The Kickstarter, however, was hilarious while “joking” about bodily harm coming to people is increasingly less funny the longer you laugh.

So I’m very grateful to these documentaries for humanizing so many of the people — and extremely talented people — who were swept up in the madness of trying to build that thing. I needed that, and it made me feel a sense of solidarity with the many organizers who were too caught up in the prospect of doing an amazing-but-impossible-thing to realize that it was a scam.

Why solidarity? Well, in part because we’ve all been there. We’re all swept up, to some degree, in the prospect of doing an amazing-but-impossible-thing. But also because there are so, so many people out there who are just waiting on the edge of their seats for us to fail.  Who will take any excuse to point at Burning Man and say, “SEE!  SEE!  YOU’RE AWFUL TOO!”, no matter what we do. They take the fact that we are enjoying ourselves, and trying to do good with it, so personally.

I should never have been on that team.

It’s worth asking why so many people are rooting so hard for us to fail — especially the people who know the least about us — but that’s a separate question. Right now I’d like to tease out why I was rooting for Fyre to fail. Even if it hadn’t been a scam that left a trail of ruin and suffering in its wake, even if it had been absolutely on the up-and-up, I still would have found it objectionable. And I’d like to ask … without schadenfreude, without rooting for bad things to happen to people … whether or not there’s something legitimate to complain about in the prospect of Fyre’s success.

I think there’s something important here that Burning Man is trying to grapple with.

Branding as Greek Tragedy

I mean, so some people go to a small island in the Bahamas and spend a shit-ton of money glamping and seeing concerts. So what? Where’s the problem?

In many ways this does fall under “you do you.” And yet, I found myself asking, during the documentary: “What if this thing had succeeded? What kind of documentary would have been made then?” And the answer was: it wouldn’t have been a documentary at all. It would have been another marketing video.

As one of Fyre’s high-powered consultants said: “They were uncompromising when it came to marketing.” Indeed, it’s the only thing they didn’t compromise. Every other aspect of their vision — from which island to how it would be set up to who was performing to what was supposed to happen — was discarded the moment it became inconvenient. Only their marketing efforts were sacred and untouchable. They defended their image, their brand, until the quite literally bitter end. If the organization had been capable of an honest motto, it would have been “image uber alles.”

So what would success have looked like? It would have looked like more marketing. Even at their best, that’s what they stood for: image. Uncompromised by any truth.

“Fyre shows what happens when you take (marketing your life on social media) to the extreme,” one employee said, in perhaps the most insightful line in the Netflix documentary.

A Fyre DJ made a similar point: “Fyre was basically Instagram coming to life.” That can be meant as a visual image, but in fact it’s most true as a prophetic warning.

Because “image uber alles” is also the motto of the social media influencer. Their mission, the intersection of their life and their business, is to promote their brand, and they are their brand.

I mean, you can’t actually blame the models and the party-chasers who promoted Fyre to get access and tickets for not knowing it was a scam … they’re not journalists, their job isn’t to uncover any truths. Yet that also tells us exactly what kind of “influence” they have. The kind unmoored from any truth, at all: the kind that goes where the money is, sits in its lap, and purrs.

The mission statement for “Instagram come to life” is: “You are your brand.” And everything you do is to preserve that image, which means that scruples are the first things to go.

Yet the harder you clutch at your brand, the more you end up shoving both your humanity and the truth of the world out of the picture. Which, if pursued far enough, makes a debacle inevitable.

An Object Lesson You Can Dance To

Fyre Festival may be a parable for our age. It is the new Tower of Babel, cursed because everyone who worked on it was building their own brand …

… which brings us to Burning Man, and one of the vexing questions facing it in the social media age:  how should a decommodified culture, in which branding and marketing are kept outside the gates, deal with people who are their own brand?

If you are, in fact, your own brand, and you won’t (or can’t) put it down while you’re within Burning Man culture … can you be here?

I mean that both literally — should you get to stay inside Burning Man events if you can’t stop/won’t stop marketing yourself? — and figuratively: can someone actually be present with us, a part of our community, if their first and last priority is to be on brand?

I think the Parable of the Fyre Festival answers both these questions with a “no.” People whose only devotion is to their brand cannot be part of authentic communities, even if they’re given every opportunity.

Compassionate Unbranding

I will tentatively endorse (and to be clear, this is a personal opinion, not in any way representative of the Burning Man Project) two ways of addressing this. The first is treating would-be “social media influencers” the way we do theme camps.

The first step, when a theme camp is being a bad actor, is always a conversation, always discussion, always a question about how we can work together to support both our principles and the kind of experience we want to have.  And most theme camps respond well to this and get better every year. But theme camps that don’t, who are only here to actively work to market a product or a brand, do not get placed in future years.  Just so, I suspect that people who aggressively use their time at Burning Man for brand building self-promotion should be gently kept out of ticket lines. It’s not like we can’t know who they are: they are committed to telling everyone. There are, to be sure, ways they could sneak around that — but the very act of making it more difficult will help send a message that might get through to people who are ultimately well meaning but oblivious.

But a second approach is better.  Playfully make our spaces off-brand.

I heard a story, a couple of months ago, about a group of men in Black Rock City who would periodically all wear adult diapers, and nothing else, and go from art piece to art piece looking for people who were obviously doing fashion shoots with Burning Man as a backdrop … and get in their pictures. Make sure that every shot they took had a bunch of guys wearing adult diapers in it. And when the angry fashion photographers and models said “get the hell out of our shots!” politely saying “no.”  No, you don’t get to chase citizens of Black Rock City away from the art so that you can model in front of it.  A bunch of guys in adult diapers not only get to be here too, they are in fact living up to our aspirations.

That seems just right.

If we make these interventions funny enough, and inviting enough, we might even reach the people behind the brands. Which is the very best outcome. We don’t want to chase anyone away — we want them to be here with us, as authentic human beings. Let’s find hilarious ways to disrupt people-as-brands while encouraging authentic people-as-people.

Keeping people out is an admission of failure. And, hey, sometimes we fail. We can admit that, because we are more interested in our truth than our image. But getting people to be authentic with us is proof of success. It’s what we should always aim for. But I ultimately don’t think that we can compromise with people who are truly uncompromising about marketing. The Parable of the Fyre Festival shows us why.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man, and the novel The Deeds of Pounce, which is about goblins. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

30 Comments on “What Burning Man Can Learn from the Fyre Festival

  • The Hustler says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the philosophy and culture of Burning Man recently, which includes the idea of “influencers,” and other forms of commercial sponsorship and disposable marketing.

    My unsolicited opinion is that the concept of influencers and marketing people (or agents acting on their behalf) using Black Rock City as a backdrop for branding wears the offensive stench of commodification.

    Like many things, however, it is or can be more complicated than how Becky and Chad the Influencers (like, hashtag!) are promoting whatever the nonsense bullshit of the season is. If the potential Burners in question only know of Burning Man as just some music festival, or as an event where pretty and famous people go to be among the dusty interlocutors of a pay-to-be-seen branding orgy, then the burden lies on us to educate them through interaction and communication, adult diapers, flaming penises and all.

    It’s all too easy and woefully ineffective to shut them out and, with a degree of dusty snark, direct the offenders to Coachella or Disneyland, where they can influence their days away.

    That only goes so far, though, and assumes the offenders are ignorant and need guidance (using something of a deficit model). I think if it’s the same people doing the same stupid shit again and again, who are hostile to the community after honest efforts to counsel them, then exclusion is the best way.

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  • DANIEL BOOTH says:

    Thank you for bringing this horrific event to my attention, to other Burners, and your introspective thoughts.

    I was not aware it even took place…. go figure. I headed to my TV immediately, as I did not understand what the hell you were talking about at first….and with the help of Netflix (and tonight’s Nightline) …. I now know the unpleasant story….at least from the Documentarians view.

    I have to say, I laughed at the stupidity through much of it, but short as the reference was, I felt most uncomfortable when Burning Man was used as a part of their ticketing / pass scheme to defraud people. An unnecessary and unsolicited black eye on Burning Man through their calculated use of the demand for Burning Man tickets.

    I do my best to educate everyone I can about the principles of Burning Man and the positive influences on my life…. but situations like this make it more difficult to overcome some of the naysayers.

    This Frye Festival fiasco only makes me appreciate more and more the hard work of all those involved in making Burning Man truly a successful event year after year, and more importantly… forming and maintaining a true community we can be proud of past, present and future.

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  • Dr. Yes says:

    Heya Caveat – we’re the group of burners in diapers that were interfering with the Instamodel types. Wasn’t just dudes though. Had plenty of women too! The point wasn’t just to mess with people though – it was also to be as weird and “uncool” as we can be. Too many people go to Burning Man today to be part of a scene – to be “cool”. Fuck that.

    Can read about it here: https://www.burn.life/blog/weirdout-wednesday-keeping-burning-man-weird

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Dammit, I totally missed this comment when you left it, and only just noticed it now.

      Thank you so much for what you’ve done – and for putting up with the details left out by my “A person I trust told me about this amazing thing that happened” version of the story. I hadn’t realized there was a written account of it. This makes me very happy.

      Fuck cool!

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  • Helen says:

    Amazing article, so much will be learnt from this documentary (netflix in the UK).
    It makes me appreciate all my friends and the bigger communities in event production offices all over the world.
    Promoting any event I’ve always thought as a gamble of sorts, but with a lot of hard work the odds are are on you and that becomes pioneering.
    May all new projects be authentic and have a good accountant!

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  • Wristy Burner says:

    I must say that the documentary was eye-opening. I was not surprised that the organizer was scum; we kinda knew that going in. The whole phenomena of “influencers” was mind-boggling to me. I guess this JOB (Jaded Old Burner) had no idea; I don’t even know how to spell InstaGram. However, the biggest shock / disappointment / commentary on douche-ness was the guy that proudly announced on camera that he and his friends “ransacked” several of the tents because they didn’t want people around them. He gleefully confessed that some of his friends pissed on the tents – and some of the Mattresses, to keep away neighbors. They were fully aware that there were not enough tents for everyone, but the little entitled pricks sabotaged surrounding structures for their own “gain”. That was the most disgusting part to me. If that kind of mentality ever makes a significant toe-hold at BRC then count me out.

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    • As a Jaded Old Burner or what I call myself a “Romantic Old Burner” I agree with what you are saying, I also couldn’t wrap my hear around why anyone would believe anything McFarland or the Rapper had to say, they seemed like real jerks from the beginning…this whole Herd Mentality is so foreign and frighting to me.

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      • FWR says:

        As someone on the newer end of burning that was marketed to.. repeatedly.. for this festival, I can tell you that if you had ever been to a festival before you could tell it was a scam just from visiting their website.

        I assume the kind of people in my demographic that respond to instagram influencers are the only people that bought tickets to this thing. The idea of being stuck on an island with the Kardashians sounds like the 7th circle of hell to me.

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  • Jamen Percy says:

    Great article and thanks for articulating beautifully Caveat. This was definitely on my mind while watching the doco! Photobomb fashion shoots at all costs: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamenpercy/42855104600/in/album-72157671215489297/

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  • Kevin says:

    I might also gently suggest that we all take a very hard look at the outside services that are provided to directly to the playa as some of them are potentially an enabler to the degradation of the culture.

    In particular, the drop off/delivery of RV/trailers and rental of bikes directly on the playa.

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  • J D Burner says:

    I think its interesting to apply the model of decommodification to Influencers.

    They are their own brand and they are earning a living from promoting and selling that brand. So I don’t think that every InstaPic they take in BRC and then post is something they do for love. I think it it is a conscious effort to further their personal and financial gain.

    How is them posing in front of art any different to holding a bottle of booze and saying “See, I make this thing better, or it makes me be better”.

    We should always be looking out for these moments and taking the time to talk to them about what they intend to gain from their actions and what they understand about Decommodification.

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  • Slapshot says:

    It’d be a sorry comment on the state of things if the Fyre docs are what ends up waking up the org. Obviously the org has gotten good at putting the event on, and the documentaries did a decent job explaining just how hard that is, so I’m not too concerned with that part of things.

    I am concerned with the target audience: yeah, burning man was mentioned in the doc, because that’s where the event is now: just another place for “influencers” to go and strut their stuff. Is that really what the event is about, or is that where all of the changes over the last ten or so years have pushed it? I’m going to say the latter, and while we may never have to worry about catering disasters (because we bring our own, duh) we do have to be concerned with the event being used up by people who really do not give a shit.

    Final thought: for all the work the org has put towards being perceived as a legitimate entity–hosting VIPs, celebrities, even Grover Nordquist–it hasn’t happened. The Burn still going to show up in documentaries about shitshow festivals because none of that effort has actually improved Burning Man’s image on a national/international scale. Re-evaluate, lest we all be lumped in with these insta-lameasses and 0.01%ers.

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  • Great piece Caveat! We wrestled with this question when Richard Branson wanted to potentially to give to Fly Ranch, with the conditions that he could sky-dive into the burn with branded parachutes and planes! oh lordy… obviously, we said no…

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  • Buck Down says:

    I’m going to add a more thought out response here later, but caveat, can we all just take a minute to recognize and celebrate that your whole life as a writer and nearly 3 decades of burning man culture built up to a crescendo where you got type out the line “A bunch of guys in adult diapers not only get to be here too, they are in fact living up to our aspirations.”

    That’s a full meal in 23 words and i’m here for it buddy.

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  • Joshua Carroll says:

    Great read, thanks Caveat :)

    Here’s the writeup on “Weirdout Wednesday”, the aforementioned adult diapers squad, also a great read and wonderful idea: https://www.burn.life/blog/weirdout-wednesday-keeping-burning-man-weird

    Maybe something lost in the grapevine on how this story was relayed but just want to point out that based on the photos and pronouns used in the writeup it appears the group was not comprised entirely or even mostly of men, they do all appear to be burners though :)

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Thank you! Credit should go where it’s due!

      And yes, the version I heard was very much a “sitting around the table with wine” moment where somebody said “I heard about this amazing thing – this ACTUALLY HAPPENED!” So it’s entirely possible relevant details were overlooked. I’m glad the record can be made clear.

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  • Heather M says:

    Beautiful! I love this piece so much. Watching the Fyre Festival documentaries, I grumbled every time I heard the words “Burning Man” knowing ignorant outsiders might think we’re the same but also because I see the ‘famous for nothing’ influencers in nonstop branding mode on the playa and fear our principles will eventually erode with their very presence. That may sound a bit fatalistic and implies we, who strive for authenticity, are powerless, which we are not. This is why I love the diaper story so much. It’s inspiring, funny, empowering and positive. Defined exclusion is just the opposite. That said, as you and others have stated, if there are blatant, repeat offenders, by all means, EXCLUDE them. Thank you Caveat for sharing and underscoring one of the many reasons I love Burning Man.

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  • Carol Carlsen says:

    Well written, Caveat! You pretty much articulated my thoughts after seeing one of the Netflix documentaries. I was shocked that someone like Kendall Jenner receives $250,000 for one promotional hashtag. I don’t think there’s any danger of people confusing Burning Man with the funeral pyre that was Fyre.

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  • Mcfarland says:

    This Article was a pile of shit. There are a lot of burning man theme camps and art projects and mutant vehicles that are just like fyre fest. They overpromise, overcharge and underdeliver. There’s just as much scam and fraud at burning man. Pay on a credit card and dispute the charges.

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  • NicNat says:

    As a prospective burner that currently lives the burn in NYC. I must say that in my experience; yes hypocrisy and commodification plague the BM community. To think this would not happen is being naively optimistic. BUT that does not negate the overall message of horizontalism, acceptance, love, openness, consciousness and peace.

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  • Cam Macphail says:

    I think the world is suffering a collective sense-of-humor failure. The more social media proliferates and people lose the human touch the more depressing everything seems. These events ought to be an excuse to escape normal life and commune with each other. Who cares about the people who aren’t there?

    Thank god for men in diapers. More taking the piss please. Much more sexy than a steampunk model covered in sand.

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  • Black Rock and Fyre may, we hope, host opposite if not opposing cultures – Fyre is at the spectacular epicenter of a market as commodity culture where promotion is obviously the end goal whereas Burning Man is the place to attempt to get to in order to immerse in immediate and unexpected creative thoughts and acts without any motivation for or benefit from marketing.

    Its self-defeating to BRC culture that BMORG continues to celebrate the hyper-festivalized and interaction-free Saturday Night burn with an insistence and vengeance that matches the entitledness and greed of observers riding sky-punching art cars designed for burn-watching. And ironic that these enormous art cars jockey aggressively for the best positions to view a meticulously pre-planned pyrotechnic scene that is (isn’t?) designed to offer ideal visuals for someone’s marketing purposes. The one marketing purpose I am sure of is to attract burners to be as high and as close to the center of that circle facing the sculpture on Saturday night and no where else.

    Proof comes from the original Green Man burn on Monday 2007 during the eclipse when immediacy reigned around the Man for a few hours as it burned in a notable non-pyro-enhanced orange. That was until the ORG got to work prosecuting the artist and rebuilding the man for the above-mentioned spectacle right on time and place.

    Why not announce a no man-burn at all year or announce there will probably be an early man burn on an unannounced day. I have already suggested this within the many comments to Marian’s wonderful Course Correction blog but I realize it deserves to be in the context of the above excellent and thought provoking Caveat piece. Therefore I repost here:

    Maid Marian and community. Black Rock City deserves some occasional radical change in addition to the incremental and almost hesitant change as described. Here are some radical ideas:

    1) For at a least one year, build BRC without the man and man burn, or at a minimum announce a plan to burn the man early and at an unannounced time. The man burn is the least interactive, most couch-potato audience creating event at BRC. It is a festival within a non-festival that overshadows one entire day. It also I think draws the least healthy element to BRC and discourages or degrades many of the 10 principles. It seems that greed and entitlement almost reign at the man burn. This change alone might resolve the ticket shortage and culture degradation.

    2) Provide vouchers for many of the DGS tickets for the next year at BRC at one or more most inconvenient places and times that are shared only by chance and by word of mouth. During a dust storm deep playa. One voucher per person. Of course those vouchers could be transferred by a process like STEP made for theme and MV camps.

    3) End the profit-making in ticket sales. That’s not just the scalping but the ridiculously high fees taken by Ticketfly et. al. BMORG sets a very poor anti-principled example with outrageous ticket charges that don’t benefit the principles and as a natural result a tax has been piled on. Every year this reminds me of a failure to adhere to principles. It feels like airports that add $20 extra for the rental car bus or future train.

    4) Make it harder or at least more unpleasant to arrive by aircraft. I’ve arrived this way only once in 1994 and it was a mistake. The difficult journey to BRC is one of the best foundations of the BRC culture as you mentioned. Air travelers seem to feel entitled to a quick and relatively painless journey. That just encourages instant and temporary gratification and dependence upon others for ground support.

    5) Think further along these lines. We burners can figure ways to retain and improve our culture, and we need very little central infrastructure or governance to do it. But as long as fences and tickets and LEOs are present, we depend on masters of those less than ideal mechanisms to make the most beneficial decisions.

    Ma’aM the Mammoth
    (click the red “Harvie Branscomb says:” text to see Ma’aM’s website)

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