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.
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.