burning man

Burning Man Is Just Like Every Other Social-Media Event Now

General view of Black Rock City's Burning Man festival in Nevada 05 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of artists, film makers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. Some twenty thousand people participate in this seven-days event.
Photo: Scott Nelson/Getty images

Burning Man, the weeklong hallucifest held annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, used to be a digital-free zone. After spending weeks building bicycle floats and sewing sequin vests, Burners would disappear from the grid, spend the entire festival bonding with their fellow man without the distractions of modern life, and return a week later with stories and photos to share with the rest of us.

Now that the festival has become a glorified corporate retreat, though — with tech CEOs pulling up in luxury RVs and float-building outsourced to TaskRabbits — it’s entered the social-media age. Now, with hundreds of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram updates being posted every day from the playa, you can watch people brag about their Burning Man sojourns in real time.

It used to be that you had to wait until after Burning Man was over to see its digital evidence trail.

But this year, the photos started appearing on day one.

Whether via portable Wi-Fi hotspot or satellite phone, Burners found ways to tell the rest of the world exactly how much fun they were having.

Burning Man 2013

And the curious could get FOMO via a video live stream.

Live streaming video by Ustream

There is even a semiofficial Burning Man blogger, John Curley, sending updates from Black Rock City. In his most recent post, “The Burn So Far,” Curley says:

The cone of electronic silence has descended on most quarters, as wifi clouds and cell services have become overwhelmed; PortaPotties, many, many PortaPotties; swag and badges and buttons and stickers; laughing and crying, not much dust, moderately warm days and beautifully still nights.

Cone of electric silence,” indeed.

There are nearly 70,000 people at this year’s Burning Man, many of them tech workers. So it’s not surprising that the event has gotten plugged in. But given the central tenets of Burning Man (two of which are “participation” and “immediacy”) and the event’s belief in decommodification, it’s got to disappoint some veteran Burners that the event has attracted a new breed of attendees who can’t be detached from their devices, even in the middle of the desert.

Burning Man: Just a Social-Media Event Now