Creating Burning Man Experiences Online — a Grand Unified Theory

Some of the best experiences I’ve had in quarantine have been art experiences, held over conference call software, which felt very much like Burning Man.

They didn’t rely on technical expertise or specialized software. They were just ways that small groups of people — some of whom were old friends, some of whom were complete strangers to one another — could engage with each other in new ways. It was an experience of humanity, not of technology.

Based on all the events I’ve seen and all the events I’ve produced so far, I’m going to attempt to give a Grand Unified Theory on how to create virtual “Burning Man” experiences that are authentic “Burning Man experiences,” rather than going through the motions of something amazing we used to do.

Three points of caution before we go any further with this:

  1. My theory is not actually going to be all that grand, or unified. I shouldn’t have oversold this.
  2. This is not an official pronouncement of any kind. I’m not a spokesman for Burning Man. I don’t discuss what I’m going to write with them, and they don’t invite me to meetings. So to the extent that this is helpful or exciting for you, great! And to the extent it’s not, and you are more passionate about doing something else, great! Do what you’re passionate about!  When it comes to your art and your theme camps, your passion is much more important than my theory.
  3. I could be wrong.

Actually, it’s worth asking: even if I’m right, why would something like this be helpful? I mean, we didn’t have a Grand Unified Theory of anything when Burning Man started — we had squat for a theory — and that turned out pretty well. So why is this even a useful endeavor now?

There are a couple of reasons, and I think the most important is that we’ve been proceeding from a false metaphor: that online is the new blank canvas where Burning Man can happen, a new Black Rock Desert. It’s not, and that metaphor can lead us dangerously astray.

The Difference is Different, Not More of the Same

The problem with thinking about the internet as the “new Black Rock Desert” (and I’ve been guilty of it too) is that for virtually everyone who first goes to Black Rock City, the open playa is a completely alien environment. We see it, we feel it burning our skin, and we are in a new and unfamiliar world. We don’t know shit about how to exist here, and we are crushingly aware of our ignorance. That ignorance also happens to be opportunity: we know so little that we get to invent everything, including ourselves. We are all, suddenly, amateurs.

The internet, on the other hand, is an environment that we already know intimately. We have developed a lifetime of habits around it, many of them terrible (if we’re being honest about it). Most of our internet habits involve not connecting with and humanizing one another, but keeping other people at a distance — both presenting and seeing only our facile representations of who we want to be — and dehumanizing one another.

One of the most recent challenges that Burning Man faced (oh, those were simpler days) was the imposition of the “Instagram influencer” culture on its events — an influence that doesn’t follow the logic of a decommodified “gifting economy,” but that of an attention economy, where clicks rule all and it’s a zero sum game.

Now, rather than defending our borders against the attention economy, we are planning to have our event in the very vortex of it. We already have so many ingrained habits of “how to use” the internet, and they’re all very wrong for what Burning Man culture tries to achieve. Will we be able to “Burn” when our axis mundi is in the internet, or will the internet do to us what it’s done to journalism, independent bookstores, and knowing your neighbors?

Where the Black Rock Desert helped us look at the world with new eyes and made it easy to put down old habits that weren’t serving us, the internet is an environment where we are already habituated to commodifying both ourselves and others. And so it’s going to take an extra effort, a deliberate one, to break out of those patterns and create experiences of “Burning Man.”  We need to do consciously and deliberately what the Black Rock Desert helped us do automatically and easily.

So how do we do that? If you want to see specific examples of the events that have led me to my (allegedly) Grand Unified Theory, you can read those posts here. Meanwhile, this is a summary of what I think I’ve discovered.

Go Beyond Entertainment

There are a few exceptions, but, as a rule, the thing that just doesn’t work is creating experiences with the intention of entertaining one another.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, or being entertaining. Indeed, one of the things that has most propelled Burning Man into a worldwide culture is the fact we have so much damn fun. Fun is a cause and an effect of success. But … if you’re only aiming to be entertaining, if that’s the entirety of the experience you’re designing, then it’s probably not going to be all that worth doing, because entertainment is not hard to come by. The one thing we’re not hurting for in this time of global pandemic is on-demand entertainment options. I mean, have you seen Netflix?

For all that fun is often Burning Man’s secret sauce, it’s never been what we got there that we couldn’t get anywhere else. What we got was authenticity and connection. And in a time when we’re all swimming in on-demand entertainment, experiences of authenticity and connection are in even more desperately short supply.

If we throw a virtual Black Rock City and entertain one another for a few days? We’ll be one of many things people will have watched on their screens and mostly forgotten about by the next really good meme.

If we throw a virtual Black Rock City and people leave feeling like they’ve had experiences of authentic connection? It’ll change lives.

By all means, be fun. Be funny. Be weird and wild. But aim through that, and past it. The goal isn’t to entertain, it’s to connect and develop authentic encounters.

Start With Immediacy

Every truly amazing thing I’ve seen produced in this pandemic digital environment has been non-fiction, rather than fiction.  People haven’t pretended to be crazy characters — space aliens or federal judges or magical elves. They’ve been themselves. And they haven’t pretended their living room was an exotic place you were entering or receiving a transmission from. Maybe they decorated their living room, maybe they made it weird and interesting to look at, but they never pretended it was anything other than their living room.

Successful experiences in this context are honest. They’re non-fiction. They start with Immediacy: where are you, what are you doing, and what are you really experiencing?

Cultivate Radical Self-expression

The successful events I’ve seen so far have begun with Immediacy, and then used that to ask the participants to be Radically Self-expressive. The idea isn’t to be self-expressive at them, but to create opportunities and invitations for them to be self-expressive at you. Or better yet, with you. Success looks like someone expressing themselves in a way, or to a degree, that they wouldn’t in their normal life. How can you cultivate that?

Co-Create the Experience

Black Rock City is in many ways the ultimate collaborative art project: we build a city together. It’s a very different experience from coming to a pre-made environment, where the designers have prepared a number of entertaining experiences for you. Even if those experiences are “interactive,” they’re not nearly as collaborative as building the experience together, from the ground up.

The most “Burning Man” digital experiences I’ve been part of or seen have been truly collaborative: participants have been asked to do creative work that develops or shapes the experience everyone has in meaningful ways. Often this means the organizers have no real idea what’s going to happen next or how this is going to go. That’s okay. That’s great, in fact. That’s how truly collaborative experiences work.

Find opportunities to co-create experiences with whoever shows up, rather than handing them something already formed. How much control can you give up? If the answer is “none,” then what you’re doing probably isn’t really Communal Effort, and there’s no room for meaningful Participation.

Make it Hard and Inconvenient, Instead of Easy and Frictionless

This isn’t new advice. People have been arguing that we should make Burning Man harder and more inconvenient for years. But even though we didn’t, it was still plenty hard, and still plenty inconvenient. And that difficulty level actually worked to make a lot of the things easy once we were there and committed. Because whatever you did in Black Rock City, you had already thrown yourself into Black Rock City. You had taken the time off, gone the likely considerable distance, went inside hauling your own gear, and set up to stay in a place where there isn’t really any functional internet. You had to endure the elements and the unpredictability. Then you had to leave again …

Everything we did in Black Rock City happened as a result of massive effort that everyone had already put into it. That made even ordinary experiences there extraordinary.

Take that uncommon effort that we all had in common away, make it easy and convenient instead, and what you are left with will be memes and videoconferences.

Unless we step up.

Once again, all the successful examples of digital “Burning Man” activities so far have gone out of their way to make things more difficult and inconvenient. They have done at least some of the following:

  • created barriers to entry, not to keep people out but to make them work to get in
  • asked them to take risks (real ones, not imaginary ones), and to do it with one another, rather than have the organizers take risks while everybody watched
  • asked something of the participants — to sacrifice, work, share, do something uncomfortable, and step up in some way
  • asked them to stick around and make a real time commitment, rather than to hop in and out when their attention wanders or they think they might have a better offer (remember, even if you’re camp hopping in Black Rock City, you’ve made a commitment to be in Black Rock City for a week).

There Are Many Ways to Engage — and to Risk

There are some amazing experiences that are just one kind of thing that people step up and do. But some of the best experience designs I’ve seen have understood that there are a lot of different ways that someone can engage and take risks, and have found ways to encourage all of them.

  • The Physical: Do something difficult, spontaneous, or intimate with your body in your own surroundings.
  • The Emotional: Take an emotional risk in this moment.
  • The Social: Do something that helps you learn about and connect with the other participants.
  • The Absurdist: Do something utterly bizarre so that no one can predict what’s going to happen next.

The more of them you manage to tie into an experience, especially one that does last for a prolonged period, the greater an experience of authentic engagement, connection, and even magic can emerge.

There are surely more ways to engage and risk, too. This is just what I’ve seen work so far.

Don’t Become What We Hate

None of this is intended to be prescriptive. Burning Man works because people do what they’re inspired to do a lot more than what they’re told to do. But (hopefully) they also read the survival guide. They learn about the environment they’re entering, and think about best practices about what works and what doesn’t.

Experiences based on these approaches have demonstrated, at least to my satisfaction, that it is possible to have experiences that are truly like “Burning Man” on digital platforms. But they don’t happen easily or automatically. You have to work for them and design for them in ways that are related to what we do in the desert, but also distinct.

If we don’t adapt, if we don’t think this through, we are likely to have a giant “Burning Man” event that actually has very little “Burning Man” in it. At which point we will be appropriating Burning Man’s name and symbolism in exactly the way we have prevented others from doing all these years.

But we can do better. It is possible. We’ll definitely need more experiments, though. And I hope that as you do yours, you will share how they work and what makes them tick.


Top photo: “Solipmission” by Dadara, 2017 (photo by Charles Mosneron Dupin)

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 The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities. 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

12 Comments on “Creating Burning Man Experiences Online — a Grand Unified Theory

  • ChainMan says:

    Will we be able to have live performances of sexual acts? I don’t know if nudity and bondage and infliction of extreme pain would be allowed considering the children. I also recommend one-handed navigation. Are weapons allowed?

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  • Paul Vivien says:

    Great article, as a digital artist I’m currently working on a video game where people could assist to shows and parties, instead of the real world ones which are all cancelled. I try to imagine a world where everything is possible because of virtual, like being an alien cat, walk on the ceiling, fly, etc… And Burn events are the closest experiences of this feelings in the real world. Another planet which is surrealist and I think my game with a similar landscape full of crazy players, quests and installations without any physical budget limits. An unbridled canvas for people and artists. I would be happy to discuss about it

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  • My heartfelt greetings to all those people and you who are always writing good posts, seeing and reading your posts inspired me so much that I can try to make my upcoming posts more beautiful.

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  • Pixel says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. Just wanted to say I enjoyed your perspective and appreciate the vulnerability and authenticity you brought in sharing your perspective. I hope we will co-create a rich and inspiring experience.

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  • Dusty says:

    I agree with your assessment of entertainment. It’s boring to most burners. However I don’t really agree about the “make it had” part. My experience tells me that the door needs to be easy to open, but that once inside the room, there can be multiple levels of difficulty for all types of people. I have a ton of experience working in virtual worlds and producing events in them… in fact I spent the better part of a decade trying to coax Real Life burners into virtual burns, complete with art, art cars, theme camps and a virtual burning man. 99.9% of them reacted with horror at the very idea, and at least 10% became very ANGRY at the idea. Like, hostile. After much reflection, I believe this was due to fear… of technology, not just loathing of tech as a platform for authenticity. So, the fear of figuring out how the headphones work… the fear of learning a new interface, kept anyone from discovering the richness that can be inside the rooms. The door must be easy for everyone to open, and it must work on the lowliest device, so that the newly homeless person that… runs the trencher for DPW (for example) can be with us on their phone.

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    • Ziggi says:

      I agree! It may be difficult to overcome the fear and hostility barrier. Nor is everyone as Internet and tech-savvy as Caveat presumes. Making entrance difficult will challenge a few, but frustrate many more. Unlike previous years, 2020 virtual Burning Man may have to sell itself to potential attendees rather than the other way around.

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  • Sara says:

    I don’t agree it needs to be made harder always. Some camps are about ease and comfort and we need that too. I know I have found some digital burn expierences frustrating and lonely – ease can be welcomed too, particularly in this time when things feel hard enough already.

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    • Pooh says:

      But for those camps that prize comfort, they worked really hard to get that comfort. Unless we are talking pay and play camps and those folks are just tourists.

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  • Buf 'M Up says:

    Hey Caveat, I would like to drop a phrase on you that I think could further the discussion.
    “The courage to be specific.”
    I tend to agree with the principles you are espousing, but I need to encounter some real world examples to really know how to think about it.
    Or perhaps I’m asking for the impossible, like explaining Burning Man to a never attender.

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  • GHD SPORTS says:

    I love reading through and I believe this website got some genuinely utilitarian stuff on it!

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