The Amazing Bureaucracy of Burning Man

Any and all pop-up community efforts interest me and the Burning Man phenomenon is certainly an excellent example. As a long-time “Deadhead”, I learned to embrace outsider culture, bartering, the gift economy, open-source technology, and more in that community. All market leaders would do well to examine these pop-up efforts too.
What was amazing about the DH culture (especially before MTV began) was the level of self-organization and civic energy contained and managed at these massive events. This was possible because of simple and clear rules that somehow everyone knew about. That is how it ties into markets then and now; to learn how we can maintain some informality and innovation while still offering a standardized approach to make it easier for vendors and for shoppers to know what is what.

One example of their system approach was the Grateful Dead’s ticketing system, long done by mailing a request to the band’s office through the little San Rafael CA post office. The system was called Grateful Dead Ticketing Service (GDTS) and was begun in order to diversify their audience to those who could not camp out overnight for tickets or were not near to a ticket office. Mailers often decorated their envelopes in the hopes that their artwork would make their request more appealing; the band maintains a fabulous archive of many of the best of those envelopes that they received. The mail-in process was still agonizing as most of the tour dates had more requests than tickets and so a random selection was used to select who received tickets. And in order to be eligible, the details for mailing in your request had to be followed EXACTLY.  Remember this was long before the days of internet and its easily found instructions. my memory was that other Deadheads sat down and taught me how to mail in for tickets.

The second area where the Dead innovated was a system for allowing concert-goers to tape their shows. From a Rolling Stone story about the band and its embrace of technology:

Since the band started officially sanctioning the practice in 1984, the tapers built a worldwide music distribution system that sustained the Dead and helped launch bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, and dozens more. This network (and modern service-oriented variations like NYC Taper) presaged Napster by a generation, survived the radical remaking of the recording industry and laid the foundation for open online file trading.

That is exactly the kind of crowdsourced approach to rules that many markets maintain with humor and tact which keep them out of tense situations and keep them as lively as these communities are decades after their origin.

Maybe we can also learn from these communities by figuring out how we can maintain an online archive of market stories, recipes and unique cultural moments somewhere too.

BM is another example of organization, this time by a later generation with a different aim that should also be studied. This article is a great example of their planning for the site, even if the author took a slightly cynical view of it, even calling the give and take he and his friends have to answer  “bureaucracy”. I’d argue that word is not accurate as the planning and management is led by the community,  is quite flexible in the design stages and anyone with a clipboard can explain why the rules exist: The Amazing Bureaucracy of Burning Man – CityLab

By the way, inclusive planning, flexibility, and transparency are also rules that well-run many markets abide by and yet some are still accused of bureaucracy by those who do not want to engage during planning or understand how the community safety can sometimes need to limit personal expression.

Here is an example of how members of these pop-up feel-good events can step up to reduce the waste of these massive events and make an impact elsewhere.







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