What the Social Web Can Learn from Burning Man

Burning Man is, in some ways, a virtual world. It's not unlike Second Life: a flat, empty plane onto which creator/participants build a temporary society however they can, making every decision into a work of art. Indeed, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale is a longtime Burner himself, and the Burning Man organization now holds an official event there. But there are also stark differences. Burning Man's principles emphasize participation, immediacy and face-to-face encounters. Plus, it's an awfully dusty place to bring your iPad.

Burning Man participants refer to the sphere of work, chores, shopping and Web surfing - the things that occupy the other 358 days of the year - as the "default world." This is my first day back in it, having just returned from my annual rite of passage at the desert festival. As always, the planned disconnection from the Web was an immense relief. When surrounded by such works of human days and hands that deserve complete attention, framed by a vast and serene natural environment, the last thing I want is for a white number in a red box to pop into my field of vision and distract me.

Playa Technology

But the influences of high technology at Burning Man are impossible to ignore. Fast computers, original software, and touchscreen interfaces enable more interactive and engrossing works of art. They also power, in a manner of speaking, Burners' thoughts about the default world. My friends at Camp Above The Limit hosted the Saraswati Speaker Series this year, which featured founders and principals of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and science-fiction author Cory Doctorow. Their views on the future of data-driven society made for invigorating topics of conversation. Moreover, the camp's technical wizards provided Internet access on the playa, which enabled these dedicated info warriors to join us out there without having to retreat from the fight.

EFF Founder John Perry Barlow Speaking at Above The Limit

Other uses of Web technology enhance the Burning Man experience for all participants. A new Facebook app called Burner Map allowed Burners to input their camping locations and print out a city map prior to leaving, enabling us to find each other's camps when we arrived. I taped mine into the front cover of my notebook. Many of the Web's most popular services brought Burners together before the event, too. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram connected many of us with new friends, and the massive art projects that made the whole event possible, like the Temple of Transition and the 1MileClock, were able to use Kickstarter and other viral methods to raise the funds they needed.

Online and Over the Line

However, somewhere out in that sandy place, there's a line to be drawn, and it is occasionally crossed. Whereas Burner Map is printed before the event, an iOS app called iBurn has provided a digital playa map for two years running, creating the expectation that devices are part of the social milieu out there. Though that app is designed to work offline, there was also occasional cellphone service on the playa this year, which I only know because I saw people taking advantage of it in the most absurd settings. And at the burning of the Trojan Horse on Friday night, someone right in front of my group was holding up an iPad to take video, obstructing the view of everyone behind him with a 10-inch screen showing a washed-out perversion of what was actually happening. My friend Mischa had to step in front of him to take a picture, after which he put down his camera and continued watching with his naked eyes.

Social Expectations

The problem with the Web at Burning Man is that the social expectations are flipped. On the last morning, just after sunrise, my friend Rain Doll and I experienced a few moments of wonder as we considered what chat or IM services could do for Burning Man participants, but that wonder quickly rotted into nauseous aversion. We shivered with visions of people making that long, bottom-lit stare down their arms toward a small black device instead of staring wide-eyed all around them.

"In the default world," Rain Doll says, "the assumption is that groups of people hanging around in the park don't want to interact with you. They're already with their friends... Where are yours? At Burning Man, the assumption is that everyone around you does want to interact and is just a friend you don't yet know."

Immediate Experience

The social Web empowers us in the default world by giving us an excuse to start a conversation. It gives us hints into each other's interests and friends, and it creates the expectation that it's all right to approach strangers. Maybe we need that here amidst all our distractions. But Burning Man is enough of a common context, and it's built around the principle that it's okay to approach one another unconditionally. Could we use that principle in the default world as well? Good social Web technologies break down barriers to interactions, as well as enhance their speed, range and bandwidth, but is there a point where technological solutions can no longer solve social problems?

What are some good principles for the social Web? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Jon also writes for the official Burning Man blog. You can read his entries here.

Photos by Mischa Steiner
Lead photo by dmitrysumin