Shaping Culture

3 min read

This past weekend, Burning Man closed the books on its 33rd event. This celebration of community, art, and self-expression is driven by a very unusual culture. We at Vista love to study culture and communities, and Burning Man has their own brand, astonishingly so, of a community centered around a manifesto of ten principles. Before we share the ten principles, we’d like to provide the basics of Burning Man.  

 Elaborate, one-of-a-kind temporary structures define the Burning Man landscape.

Elaborate, one-of-a-kind temporary structures define the Burning Man landscape.

 For nine days, spectacles abound in the Nevada desert.

For nine days, spectacles abound in the Nevada desert.

What is Burning Man? 

More than a festival, Burning Man is a community. Each year since 1986 a temporary metropolis is erected in the Nevada desert, complete with spectacular, creative, and intricate art installations. The main event traditionally happens on Saturday evening of Labor Day weekend, when they set a massive effigy on fire. The structure—known as "the Man"—is a monstrosity and can be up to 100 feet tall. 

 The "Man".

The "Man".

Where does Burning Man take place?

The Black Rock Desert or, “the playa”, serves at the playground for Burning Man participants. Fittingly, the temporary city that rises from the middle of the Nevada desert is called Black Rock City. The closest large city is Reno, Nevada, about 2.5 hours away by car. Talk about remote.

 70,000 "burners" congregate each year in the desert.

70,000 "burners" congregate each year in the desert.

What happens at Burning Man?

The event is basically a 9-day party in the desert. Attendees wander around the playa in wild and expressive costumes to mingle, make art, cook together, watch performances, and imbibe. No money changes hands during the event, so upon arrival all activities, food, and drink are free.

 Looking like a scene out of Mad Max, Burning Man attracts a diversity of people including tech billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

Looking like a scene out of Mad Max, Burning Man attracts a diversity of people including tech billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

Who goes to Burning Man? 

Last year, almost 70,000 people attended Burning Man. Some past and present “Burners” (the name community members call themselves) include wealthy tech CEOs such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg.

How much does it cost to go to Burning Man?

Burners dole out a good chunk of change to score a ticket to Burning Man—tickets are around $425. An estimate by CNBC states that total cost of attending ranges from $1,300-$20,000. Seriously? Seriously.

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Now that you have an idea of the community that Burning Man has established, take a look at the ten principles that served as the foundation for their culture. Drafted early in its evolution, this manifesto helped define and shape this community. Even the most eccentric outliers, like "burners", draft a "code" of behaviors and values. 

Radical Inclusion 

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community. 

Gifting 

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value. 

Decommodification 

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience. 

Radical Self-Reliance 

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on his or her inner resources. 

Radical Self-Expression 

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient. 

Communal Effort 

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction. 

Civic Responsibility 

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state, and federal laws. 

Leaving No Trace 

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them. 

Participation 

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart. 

Immediacy 

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience. 

Principles can define the culture of an organization. They send a message to leaders and members about desired and shared values and behaviors. A belief system. It sets the tone for the community’s actions going forward.

As way-out and freewheeling as Burning Man is, it's a provocative example of how culture centers around a code of conduct and shared beliefs. What are some other cultures that provide unique learnings? 

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