Burning Man - Governance

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A summary of the governancy model of the Burning Man festival or 'Black Rock City' in Nevada.

By Jill Coffin, at http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_6/coffin/

Governance of Black Rock City

"For one week a year, Black Rock City exists in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, a flat, dry, alkali lakebed which does not otherwise support life. During this week, Black Rock City is one of the largest cities in Nevada, with a population of over 35,000 in 2005. Black Rock City is home to Burning Man, a participatory social experiment in community and self-reliance off the grid.

Foundational cultural principles of Burning Man include valuing participation above spectatorship, self–reliance and the ecological principle of “leave no trace." Participants are self–managed and their participation is self–determined. Common contributions to the city include helping build and maintain city infrastructure, making art, providing a service or operating an establishment. Hurdles to participation parallel those of free and open source software projects. For those projects, a member must be able to code competently enough to participate. Black Rock citizens must be competent and responsible enough to survive in an exceptionally harsh desert environment. Black Rock City hosts occasional deaths. The entrance ticket reads, “You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending."

The streets of Black Rock City are laid every year in polar coordinates. The city has a Department of Public Works, a Department of Mutant Vehicles, public utilities such as road and sewage services, ice and coffee services, a fire department, a field hospital, a public art program, over twenty radio stations and an airport. A community group, the Black Rock Rangers, patrols the city to mediate disputes. Black Rock City has an official newspaper, The Black Rock Gazette, and an alternative newspaper, Piss Clear. In 2004, Black Rock City saw its first street protest over environmental resource usage.

No cash transactions are allowed in Black Rock City, with the exception of a café which serves coffee. Citizens engage in a gift economy. “Pay it forward" is a local ethos, although an underground barter economy is apparent as well.

The creation of and participation with art of all types is a central value of Black Rock City society. Louis Brill, in a Leonardo article entitled The Art of Burning Man, pointed out that Burning Man is “the largest outdoor art performance festival in North America….it has become an art incubator encouraging an exploration of creative expression against unique physical constraints and challenges of using a 20,000-year–old prehistoric lakebed as a blank canvas of artistic expression" (Brill, 2003).

At the helm of Black Rock City and Burning Man is founder Larry Harvey, the city and event’s benevolent dictator. Harvey has described Burning Man as “a project dedicated to discovering those optimal forms of community which will produce human culture in the conditions of our post–modern mass society" (Harvey).

Why analyze Black Rock City and Burning Man through the framework of the free and open source software movements? Black Rock City is a society hack. In the spirit of the hacker ethic entry in the Jargon File, a glossary of hacker lingo dating back to 1975, Burning Man is exploratory “system-hacking" (Jargon File). As such, it exemplifies some traits of successful free software and open source movements, but fails to exemplify others. As mentioned above, using this framework to analyze Black Rock City and Burning Man may not tell the whole story of this community; regardless, lessons for collaborative community-building may emerge.

Black Rock City and Burning Man have the foundational fundamentals of a successful open source community:

  • open and widespread membership based upon participation
  • a compelling foundational artifact to organize participation and build upon
  • a benevolent dictator
  • foundational developers and early adopters who, along with the benevolent dictator, set project ethos.

While most cities evolve through a sedimentary process, Black Rock City is iterative. It exists temporally, after which the city dissolves back into a geographically distributed populace communicating through cybernetworks such as tribe.net, e–mail mailing lists and Web sites. Considered through the wiki model, Black Rock City is the platform and Burning Man is the participatory layer. Coherent discussion and history layers have not been organized.

When analyzing Black Rock City and Burning Man through the framework of open source communities, we find some characteristics that do not correspond. Black Rock City and Burning Man are governed year–round by Black Rock City, LLC, a co–located staff operating as a traditional, top–down, opaque, hierarchical bureaucracy. Their operational model does not conform to the open source notions of transparency, open dialog, and peer review.

The traits of free software/open source communities considered here are often interrelated. Online open source communities must develop platforms to support project transparency, open dialog and peer–review in order to successfully communicate and collaborate. Asynchronous communication encourages collaborative, perpetually–clarified living documents, artifacts and project histories.

Distance is not necessarily a disadvantage for collaboration. Geographically distributed, networked collaboration can thwart the tendency for power centers to form around co–located members who then control the decision–making process, access to information and institutional history. Without structures developed through necessity by distributed open source communities, there are no mechanisms for collective institutional history, peer–review, debugging or project rollback to a stable state. A community–wide sense of project ownership becomes difficult to maintain as the project matures and the ranks of participants grow.

As mentioned above, successful free software and open source communities develop hybrid political structures to support participation and project development without the use of capital. Self–managing participants anarchically contribute according to their desires. One truism Eric Raymond developed in The Cathedral and the Bazaar is that “every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch."

He explains:

too often software developers spend their days grinding away for pay at programs they neither need nor love. But not in the Linux world – which may explain why the average quality of software originated in the Linux community is so high….the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches…out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge….(Raymond, 2000)

For a bazaar to function, however, an organizational and political structure must support it. Hybrid, flexible political systems based upon meritocracy motivate participants, provide rewards in the absence of capital, and encourage a community–wide sense of project ownership. In addition to the bottom–up, peer–administered hierarchy described in the analysis of Wikipedia, the benevolent dictator and consistently active personnel keep the project alive and dialog open from above, so to speak. Linus Torvalds was in a constant feedback loop with other Linux hackers. As Raymond points out, Torvalds kept hackers stimulated by the prospect of taking part in the project, and rewarded by the project’s constant and relatively rapid evolution. The bazaar of open source communities gets most of the work done, but an open cathedral supports the community–wide social fabric by providing feedback for involvement, reasserting foundational mores, and keeping dialog active and open. A transparent meritocratic structure also allows for smooth succession in administrative and leadership positions.

In 2004, Burning Man experienced a crisis. The scale of the event increased enormously. Floods of new citizens, armed with superficial knowledge of the project and its foundational ideals, unskilled in the community’s norms, stressed the project. Additional stresses included an increased presence of federal law enforcement, a feeling of under–appreciation among long–term volunteers, and a lack of enthusiasm for that year’s public art projects. During such a crisis, the benevolent dictator can re–establish foundational principles and reweave the social fabric. The Black Rock City leadership, operating on a closed, top–down hierarchical model, focused on civic protocol.

The artists of Black Rock City, feeling the increase in authoritative control, the power of the established hierarchy, and a lack of involvement in the public art program, incited a revolution. They chose to fork. Their call to revolution occurred in the fall after Burning Man 2004, when Black Rock City had dissolved into the networks for another year. Two long–term, charismatic citizens, Jim Mason and Chicken John, founded the movement, circulating their manifestos and bluster through an e–mail list and an online petition addressed to Larry Harvey. A distributed community was networked through cyberspace.

Harvey upheld the right to fork. He granted the fork, named BORG2, the right to exist within Black Rock City. BORG2 configures their mission “to reaffirm the core truth of the larger Burning Man experiment: Collaborative creative work, broadly defined, is our main vehicle towards community." BORG2 consciously states that they intend to “work in the open source model". (BORG2).

Within the rubric of our analysis, the Burning Man community was unstable to the extent that it did not embrace the open source traits of project transparency and a supportive, meritocratic, hybrid political system. When the project was stressed, community–wide sense of project ownership eroded and was not resurrected by project founders. Foundational mores were not reasserted. Project ethos faded." (http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_6/coffin/)

More Information

1. Chen, Katherine . 2005. "Incendiary Incentives: How the Burning Man Organization Motivates and Manages Volunteers"

< http://www.wpunj.edu/cohss/sociology/faculty/Chen/KChenIncendiaryIncentives2005.pdf>."

Pp. 109-128 in *AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man*. Eds. Mark Van Proyen and Lee Gilmore. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

2. Chen, Katherine . 2003. "Coordinating members and their efforts: how the Burning Man organization forms an 'alternative' artistic community in the Nevada Black Rock Desert"

< http://www.wpunj.edu/cohss/sociology/faculty/Chen/Coordinating.pdf>."

Pp. 56-61 in *People Shaping Places Shaping People* Environmental Design Research Association (edra) proceedings 34, a peer-reviewed publication. Eds. Julia W. Robinson, Kathleen A. Harder, Herbert L. Pick, and Virajita Singh.

3. Chen, Katherine . 2003. "Burning Man lights a fire. The Nevada desert event doesn't just produce art, it produces citizens."


4. Chen, Katherine . 2003. "Growth at Burning Man: An Anthropological View."


From: Blacktop Gazette. Decompression Edition* 2(3): 2.

5. Chen, Katherine . 2002. "The Alternative in the Desert: On the Burning Man Organization"