Burning Man’s CEO says Instagram is destroying the anti-capitalist culture

The influencer/personal brand era has gentrified Black Rock City

Burning Man is not a festival. It’s a way of life, a feeling, a pilgrimage of sorts. It definitely does not want to be one of those hyper-capitalist cookie cutter festivals full of people who think whacky and culturally appropriative headgear is a substitute for a personality, where the aim is to make as much money as possible.

Traditionally the event is fuelled by an anti-consumerism ethos. Attendees don’t use money, instead you exchange goods and supplies. However, brands will find a way to corrupt literally everything and some now offer “prepackaged” Burning Man experiences in exchange for influencer Instagram posts, which basically amounts to spon con.

On Sunday, Marian Goodell, CEO of the Nonprofit Burning Man wrote that Instagram culture had brought about "alarming changes in the culture of Burning Man”.

She continued: “Posts of gratitude cross-referenced with hashtags started off slow and innocently enough, but are now wildly out of control...One of the most distressing trends is the increase of participants (both new and experienced) who don’t seem invested in co-creating Black Rock City and are attending as consumers...In some cases, camps or companies are offering 'all-inclusive' pre-packaged Burning Man experiences, claiming they will preemptively meet all of their client’s needs. Burning Man is anything but convenient, and therein lies its transformative potential!”

Tensions between festival-goers have been on the rise over the last couple of years. In 2016, “hooligans” destroyed one of the extremely luxurious camps called ‘White Ocean’ in a protest. The founders of the site – which includes DJ Paul Oakenfold and the son of a Russian billionaire – shared the news in a lengthy Facebook at the time. According to them, invaders raided their camp, dumped “200 gallons” of water on it, and glued the trailer doors shut. They also cut the power, leaving the site with no refrigeration or electricity. The most liked response to the post was a man saying that the vandals were “taking Burning Man back from the parasite class, back from the EDM tourists”.

The festival has previously spoken out against people using the Burning Man lifestyle and image on Instagram to sell their own lifestyle brands. One blog post spoke of the struggle to protect the event and imagery “from exploitation”. 

Is it even possible for an event to resist commodification when attendees have been taught to view themselves as personal brands rather than people? Probably not. Good luck trying to resist the corruption of late capitalism Burning Man.