The Law of “Conservation of Effort” and Creating Online Burning Man Events

Another week spent exploring the ways in which we reach out from our own isolated corners of the multiverse to connect with one another has yet to reveal anything that I think represents a good model for a “virtual Burning Man” … and, frankly, I’m quite sure that Burning Man doesn’t have that model yet either.

What’s happening here isn’t “Burning Man going back to its roots,” it’s Burning Man going to a whole new environment.  Much as the Black Rock Desert came after Baker Beach, the virtual world is now — for the moment — what comes after the Black Rock Desert. And we don’t know what works there yet.

So every experiment in connecting at a distance gives us a clearer picture of what works and what doesn’t. Anything people do right now to reach out to one another counts as a win. But we also need to learn from it.

Prompt Us

My own effort last week to create an at-a-distance experience was somewhat derivative, but it went pretty well.  I got an excellent bartender friend and opened a virtual bar for her. When people came up to it, they were asked to provide a prompt for a drink: a word, a phrase, a concept, a memory, a hope, a wish … anything, the more from the heart it was, the better.

They then showed her (and everyone else at the bar) their kitchen and liquor shelf, and she instructed them on how to make a drink that answered the prompt they’d given. Meanwhile, I used that time (often relatively short) to write a story or a poem based on that prompt. When the drink was ready, the story or poem was read to everyone, the drink was tried, and sometimes magic happened.

It went a couple of hours, and we’re going to try it again soon. It was a success, but I ask myself a lot of questions about how it should be modified. As a man who has dedicated much of his life to writing, I’m much more capable than most people are at creating compelling work in a stressfully short (and variable) timeframe. But would it be better if everyone took a turn at writing? Or if the person who provided the prompt chose the person to do the writing?

I don’t know yet. I am convinced that only one person should be writing at a time, rather than having everyone write something and then share it, because the writing completely distracts from the act of sharing the kitchen and liquor cabinet, and engaging with the making of the drink, which can be surprisingly intimate acts and need witnesses to fully flower.

But there’s still so much to learn.

I’ll probably work up a post summarizing everything I think I’m learning, but meanwhile, here’s what I’ve learned most recently after another week spent attending every virtual party I can buy a ticket or wrangle an invite to.

Absurdism Still Works

Something so crazy, so stupid that people gape and say, “I can’t believe this is happening …” works just as well in virtual space as it does Black Rock City.

That does not mean “wild and crazy.” Wild and crazy is what you get when college sophomores shout “Wooo!” on the beach at spring break because there are girls in bikinis nearby. Wild and crazy does not make you laugh so much as it makes you sigh with the realization that, okay, we’re going through these particular motions again. Aren’t we having a good time? AREN’T WE? DANCE AND WOO, DAMMIT, OR ELSE WE MIGHT NOT BE HAVING SO MUCH FUN!

Contrast this with the most celebrated piece of absurdism to come out of a virtual event since the plague hit. It was a zoom room that simply contained images of potatoes, and a voice screaming over and over again: “POTATO!  POTATO! POTATO! POTATO!”

What the hell was it?  What was going on?

And what were the people in the room supposed to do? Some tried arguing. Some tried negotiating. Some proselytized on behalf of our new potato overlords. Weeks later, people are still laughing about it.

That stuff, so common in Black Rock City, still works.

Stick Around A While

Outside of a few examples of pure, uncut, absurdism, all of the really great distance experiences I’ve encountered have had something in common: they’ve involved people sticking around and going the duration.

For whatever reason, it seems to take a while for deeper, fuller connections to happen in distance experiences. Perhaps because we’re starting so much farther apart, it takes more time for us to reach one another. But whatever the reason, whenever I’ve been dropping into one “room,” and then checking another out, and then another, I’ve never had any really satisfying connections. And when I’ve been running events, the people who have been present for the truly exceptional moments, and contributed the most, are the ones who went the distance. Two hours, four hours, five hours … the magic seems much more likely to slowly accelerate over time, then go into overdrive, rather than all happening at once early on.

For these experiences to really work, my observation is that you need a cadre of people who are really in it, rather than bar-hopping conference calls.

This, of course, seems completely contrary to the spirit of Black Rock City, where we’re constantly wandering around, seeing what interests us, and engaging until the spirit moves us to wander again. Hell, one of my very favorite things to do in BRC is to wander the streets aimlessly, bumping into the weird and wonderful things people do, and then moving on. Why would this be so effective there, but not in a “virtual experience” made up of 100 “rooms” to look through and sample?

The thing is, all these experiences that we dip and sample and choose from are happening in Black Rock City, one of the most remote areas most of us will ever see, that we have all put down our lives to live in for a full week. We have already made a commitment to be together, in shared struggle, long before we ever got to the decision to make a left turn towards the blinky lights or a right turn towards the dinosaurs playing croquet. That level of commitment and presence was our passport to entry.

That isn’t replicated when you’re switching from conference call to conference call. Entering a virtual environment from your living room isn’t the same as entering BRC, because you’re in your living room.

As a result — it seems to me, and this is still preliminary, I have no more experience or expertise in this than anybody else — those intense experiences of connection require a different kind of commitment in virtual environments. A commitment that I’m going to be present, with you people, doing this, for the duration. Because that’s what it means to be in this together.  In virtual environments, to drop in and drop out is to be a spectator.

Ask Something of Each Other

Similarly, in Black Rock City, we have all made significant sacrifices — at least of time and effort, often of money and sanity — to be there. And even then, when we engage with people we are often being asked to take risks, both physical, emotional, and “what the fuck is happening?” We receive a lot too — we are constantly receiving gifts from one another. Not only does the act of receiving something carry its own emotional weight, but the very act of gifting — when it’s done well — shows that someone has gone into their depths and sacrificed and worked to offer you something.

Virtual experiences can have this too, but they usually don’t because, well, honestly, we haven’t figured out how to really do that at a distance yet — let alone come up with a process that makes it as easy and common as it is at Black Rock City.

But this is a crucial element of “Burning Man” kinds of experiences. So without exception, the most powerful, wonderful, joyful, art experiences I’ve had at a distance during the plague have all been experiences that asked something of the participants.  That asked them to take a risk, or to show parts of themselves, or try something they hadn’t before … to get creative in a way that meaningfully affected one another, to be responsible for something or someone. It often wasn’t heavy handed, in fact, I don’t think it ever was, but it was so much more than just hanging around for a while, maybe dancing, and then moving on. It was answering a call to create something together.

When creating experiences, I think these questions can be incredibly fruitful: “What can I ask of the participants?  What barrier do they have to clear or sacrifice do they have to make to participate?”

Conservation of Effort

It is, I firmly believe it is, possible to create Burning Man experiences over video conferences and digital media at a meaningful level. But we have to try harder in some areas that we often take for granted. Burning Man, as I’ve written elsewhere, is often best thought of not as liberated hedonism, but as the iron shackles of art and culture that we willingly place on ourselves.

Perhaps there’s a kind of “conservation of effort” with Burning Man-esque experiences. When we go out to remote, beautiful, locations where we struggle to survive, it’s easy to create amazing experiences of art and connection. We’re there, together, in these magical environments, in shared struggle. But when we’re sitting separately in our living rooms, surrounded by all our comforts, able to tune out at the least distraction, we have to work much, much, harder. There’s a certain threshold of energy and difficulty that has to be crossed, one way or another.


Either way it seems to me that in addition to the questions we have habitually come to ask in offering Burning Man experiences — What can I offer?  What can I give? — we need to add other elements. What can I ask of them? What productive difficulty can I provide? What vulnerability can we ask and offer?

Top photo: “Head Maze” at Sunrise by Matthew Schultz & the Pier Group (Photo by Dan Adams)

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

11 Comments on “The Law of “Conservation of Effort” and Creating Online Burning Man Events

  • G-Bear says:

    So what if anyone who can decend on the playa at the moment the 2020 Burning Man was to burn, raise up our arms and scream in wonderment of how amazing our lives are and how grateful we are for our lives and the time we have had with those who have passed on? Of course all appropriately socially distanced!!!

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    • Tito says:

      There’s nothing stopping people from going to the site Labor Day week. Of course, people will say BLM is already planning a D Day style defense with airplanes and helicopters to keep people off the playa. But without funding, probably not.

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  • Kitty says:

    I think one of the most interesting things to come out of this pandemic is diving into what it means to be a burner without a burn. Is this lifestyle dependent on attending an event or is it bigger than that? If we are a global community of artists united by 10 principles then does the burn ever really end? Can we still connect, play, explore, express, give, and learn from each other? Can we reflect on ways to improve ourselves, our community, and our world? Asking for friends and for myself <3

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  • Mark johnson says:

    I believe this year BM did what had to be done.protect the burners.we’ll all be back in 2021,building,dancing and letting our freak flag fly.
    As a 69yrold it’s a challenge to go virtual,but I will wait patiently for next year,and celebrate everything BM has given me.

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  • Tomas says:

    I have the makings to construct a small temple here at my place in NM, on the property medicine wheel where on the north node, this little wooden temple will be placed and burned on Sunday August 30 and perhaps live streamed?. Part of the “Home Temple Burn” is encouraging many many others to construct their own miniature temple at their home and we all can join in and burn together that evening. My circle is perfect in creating a small BRC with little art pieces and everything. It will be fun. My temple, called Voyager 20, consists of a cedar canoe I carved recently and is about 2 cubic feet square once the canoe house is built. It fits on the north stone, aligned perfectly to the stars . I’ll be posting on my youtube channel every now and again. Your Crazy Uncle. Peace.

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  • Lauren says:

    I love this post. When I filled out the survey I didn’t have a solid answer as to what I wanted to see in virtual BM; something hit me today. I found myself wishing there was a crowdsourced video I could play on my big TV at all times and pretend I’m not stuck in Texas where it’s 98 degrees with no misting tents.
    For 2020, I want to join many calls at once so there’s the overstimulation of music and art and people. Dance parties will be the easy part. I hope people still build art and circle drones around it so we can see via video. YES to your point of sticking around for a while- instead of the aforementioned recorded video to play at all times- I want streams to just sit in. Multiple streams will keep me from bouncing in and out because I don’t have to choose. Have a directory of rooms people can join, those will be the camps.
    I want to know what burners are in my city (Texas has a Burning Flipside so that’s great). Man I’d even pass out grilled cheese and clean underwear from my house while Burners rode by on their bikes. My house is my theme camp.

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  • Nico Pierre says:

    Dear Caveat,

    Lovely thread of posts I have been folowwing for a few weeks. Ever since BM was cancelled, I have been wondering what would a memorable BM digital camp, or ‘Digital moments’ like I like to call them, would look like. With My Coexist tribe we came up with 5 Design principles which somehow meet the BM ones but also contradict them which makes it interesting too.

    1/ Only connect a small amount of people at a time around a shared purpose.

    Very different from our traditional Radical inclusion principle on the playa… I believe it all start by bringing online only a few people at a time ( 8-15 people) and the right people together. Make people truly connect online can only be done with fewer than 15 people in my experience over the last 3 months. It is not like the playa where everybody is welcome to enter any camp at any time. Online we need to reinforce the 4 remaining principles I will present below and it needs to be somehow less spontaneous, more organised, and limited to an amount of people that can actually truly connect online. And because of that, inviting the wrong people to a ‘Digital moment’ is a form of impoliteness to the right committed tribe.

    2/ Designing active participation of the entire committed tribe in the digital moment.

    Digital BM moments cannot be a show for an audience. All participants are the show and we need to build non spontaneous interactivity to ensure we reach ‘digital togetherness’. Live polling, pre-moment preparation for each participant & submission to a master of ceremony to enrich the event, pre agreed theme, . Cohesive aestetics are a major part of this prep before the BM digital moment because to be unified around the same virtual camp, all must feel it in their own living room and see it in other people living room. for example sending virtual background to each participants that will, once recomposed on a Zoom gallery, bring one big background that will unify the moment for everybody.

    3/ Pushing the boundaries of traditional digital events

    this is pretty much in line with radical self expression. the digital moment concept needs to be unique, and quite possible abnormal to defy mainstream digital events. Participants cant be expecting a logical approach to the moment. for example it should probably not be a traditional digital murder mystery, but it should have potential alternate endings and avenues that will maintain a sense of spontaneity despite the structured required as per principle one. A lot of thinking has to be put into a BM moment to ensure it brings the level of energy to keep people interested and into the moment for the duration of the full Digital moment. because for the success of a digital BM moment, nobody should pop out of the event and move to another one. it is key to keep all your guest. A bit like a dinner party at home. nobody comes for the appetizer and leaves before the main dish …

    4/ Make BM digital moments 2 hours max

    maybe 2 hours is a bit arbitory but what I mean is it cant be open ended ( because the whole tribe needs to remain fully committed till some sort of end) . I noticed that after 2 hours online ( probably why movies rarely last more than 2 hours ever since Cinema exist ) we all get tired of the digital aspect. its not like chiling on the topc of an art piece on the playa at sunset and where the time stops…. I think a BM Digital moment needs to be contained and have an end but we also need to create ways to remain connected post event but unilaterally which brings me to my last principle

    5/ Create an authentic and genuine experience .
    A BM digital moment should create meachanisms to open up to one another and be vulnerable to create and develop true lasting relationships out of the moment spent together. in a world of digital facade create by mainstream digital media, a BM digital moment need to promote being your true self and show as much authenticity as possible to enable genuine interactions . And this means that we also need to create one-on-one intimacy during the event. We need to faciliate real engagement of one another during the event by triggering and engineering one-on-one connections during the event ( “getting personal”). can be a side chat room, or a completely side zoom room for a few minutes but it is critical to have one-on-one interactions as we all know from our BM experience: they are the most enriching ones. this also means we need to create post-event enagement… reasons to connect post the 2h digital moment…maybe to prepare the next one? maybe to create something else? maybe to start a digital romance? whatever that can be the most important outcome will be the lasting true connections we will have created through these moments. so lets engineer them before they become natural!

    I will be creating many Digital moments for BM 2020 with many different digital tribes of 10-15 people ! And will work through the summer to hone a few concepts. reading and experimenting remain the best ways

    All the best to all and cant wait to see what will come up with as a digital multi-million people community !



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  • HYFY TV APK says:

    I really embrace art and culture of our country because it has ancient history behind every inch of monuments, HYFYTV

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