As someone with a long interest in the question of “Who’s ruining Burning Man now?”, I’d like to take a moment to respond to the Fast Company article suggesting that “Instagram Culture” may finally ruin Burning Man the way tech billionaires, DJs, frat bros, and literally everyone else has not.
It’s a good article, talking about a problem that many of us have expressed concern about. But its discussion rests — as so many of these conversations do — on the premise that something unusual or unexpected is happening. That there was ever a chance something like this wouldn’t have happened if Burning Man got big enough. Recognized enough. But of course there wasn’t. This is what capitalism does, for good and for ill: it appropriates anything successful enough to get its attention.
The specific discussion of how to handle influencers in the attention economy is a good one, and worth having, but I think it’s also better contextualized as part of an entirely predictable series of events. What Burning Man is facing is not an unexpected crisis like an earthquake or a meteor strike — it is a problem of success.
We Didn’t Start This Fire
Look at the history of how “mainstream” culture has tried to address Burning Man. First they tried to shut us down, then they condemned us, then they ignored us, then they laughed at us and tried to make us a joke, then they tried to buy us — and because none of that worked, now they are trying to appropriate us.
As long as we were successful, each next step in this conflict was inevitable. So long as we kept growing, we were going to hit each new phase. That’s what happens. This new issue isn’t coming up because we weren’t prepared or did something wrong: it’s coming up because we keep doing something right. Success creates new kinds of problems.
This Isn’t so Hard
Frankly, though, for all the gnashing of teeth and the wails of despair — how, oh how, shall Burning Man ever survive people coming and taking SELFIES?!? How shall we ever resist the takeover by pretty people scrounging for likes on INSTAGRAM? Who could withstand that kind of power? — I’m not actually all that worried about us finding a way to deal with this.
Part of that is because we have more legal protections than most cultures facing appropriation. We have active trademarks, IP teams, and a relatively limited history of symbols to protect. Plus, we are every bit as iconoclastic as we are iconic — our willingness to trash our own symbols in defense of the spirit of our endeavor gives us an edge.
But more importantly: I believe in the resiliency of our culture. Figuring out how to decommodify the attention economy is a serious (and very needed) task, and it will take imaginative solutions and a willingness to make sacrifices and take risks. But I think it’s something we’re up to — that we’ve faced tougher challenges before.
It’s also very much of a piece with the kinds of challenges we face in other contexts: how do we create a culture in which artists and creators are supported for their work, without them having to commodify themselves and everything they do?
Even if Instagram weren’t a thing, this would be a problem we’d need to address. Not because we’ve done something wrong, but because we’re now successful enough that we can.
What Comes Next
Don’t get me wrong. “Influencers” flooding Black Rock City are obnoxious, and people using images of our art for commercial purposes without consulting (let alone supporting) the artists is a struggle we must fight. But this isn’t a single struggle, this is part of a long road Burning Man has been on towards the creation of a High Culture. We can’t expect to influence the world without it reacting — and this is how it reacts. It’s a well-known process. We’re in the “appropriation” phase.
Once we’ve gotten past this — or okay, if we do — we’ll have to cope with the fact that a phenomenon that grows and can’t be appropriated tends to become a genuinely mainstream cultural movement. That’s just over the horizon. And that is worth having some articles about in the mainstream press.
Top photo by David Nelson-Gal