Every year, tens-of-thousands of people gather in Black Rock City — a temporary city erected in northwest Nevada in the Black Rock Desert — for the epic party-spiritual-art-community-building experience of Burning Man. Burning Man prides itself on being a space that is as inclusive as it is self-reliant, emphasizing self-expression and community through immediacy, participation, and decommodification. Also, people dress sexy and use drugs (let’s not be too pretentious about it).
But recently, long-time attendees have noticed a change bolstered by the influence of social media, and it isn’t a positive one. Marian Goodell, the CEO of the non-profit Burning Man Project was shocked to find that the culture of Burning Man was straying from its roots after she attended an academic symposium in Switzerland about the vibe and atmosphere that Burning Man has created. After a presenter from Finland shared dozens of quotes and observations from interviewees, Goodell was taken aback by a comment made by a retired elderly artist:
“I am disappointed with the attitudes of the mutant vehicle and art car folks. Their gatekeepers are very discriminatory on who they let ride. I was actually told, “No, it’s too late for old people to be out, anyway,’ ‘you’re not pretty enough,’ and ‘we’re only picking up hot girls right now.’ I asked other camp members and hear similar stories. One gay couple said they had tried for 3 years to get on a vehicle and they were denied every time.”
You don’t have to know anything about Burning Man culture to know that this behavior sounds incredibly un-chill. It was enough to inspire a lengthy blog post by Marian published on the Burning Man journal highlighting some of the ways in which Burning Man would attempt to course correct.
After last year’s Burning Man, Goodell’s communication team started to compile data examining instances of commodification and exploitation of Black Rock City and the Burning Man Culture. The report ended up being a staggering 55 pages long. The biggest culprit of commodifying and exploiting the Burning Man culture was none other than social media influencers who are wearing and tagging brands in their Burning Man pictures. Goodell points out that “They are using Black Rock City to increase their popularity; to appeal to customers and sell more stuff.” A move that kind of flies in the face of the whole decommodification aspect.
“Isn’t this commodification? Even if the intention is to express gratitude, isn’t this an exploitation of the Black Rock City community?… Posts of gratitude cross-referenced with hashtags started off slow and innocently enough, but are now wildly out of control. Failing to make clear what behavior is unacceptable has compounded the problem.” Writes Goodell.