First things first:
For all the frustration, anxiety, stress, and heartache this year’s ticket lottery has caused, please accept another humble apology.
This is no time for issuing statements or putting a spin on anything. The system may have worked, but the cultural outcome sure didn’t, and even though some of you saw that coming and said so, we didn’t, and for that we are sorry.
The current trajectory is not acceptable. Even people who did get tickets aren’t cheering right now, since so many of their camps and friends are standing out in the cold. Entire groups are worried they’ll have to scrap all their plans. Burning Man is a participatory and collaborative event, and many collaborations are perilously close to falling apart.
Clearly we must reevaluate, but first we want to say more about what we’ve heard, how we got here, and what our next steps will be.
What we’re hearing:
Our office in San Francisco is awash in feedback. We have been meeting every day about tickets, and have burned the midnight oil poring over every available list and forum, logging and absorbing every email, complaint, and plea for information. We’re absolutely listening very carefully, and we are 100% clear that there’s a very big problem playing out.
What’s happening isn’t fun for anyone, and there’s no sugar coating to be put on it. Clearly, despite projections, the majority of the people who have previously built, created, contributed and participated – not just those who’ve been before, but who have created the foundations of Burning Man — don’t have a ticket to the event this year. And whether it was our naiveté or just underestimation, we didn’t see that coming at this scale, and we know it’s hurting us all now.
We understand and recognize the impact this is having – on individuals, on projects and collaborations, on your ability to plan vacation time, book plane tickets, submit applications for your camps, your art projects—everything about participating in Burning Man. We see the emotional response it’s causing – only too well, as we’re Burners at HQ too, and so are our friends, our campmates, our teammates, and our families. Watching this unfold has been painful. Each of us is responding differently – worrying, losing sleep, meeting through the evenings and weekends, throwing things, searching for answers…this is one of the most painful moments in our history.
What happens next will be pivotal – whatever is to blame, now that we’ve reached this point, we absolutely know we have to get this next moment right. We are all about to write the future of Burning Man.
Through our process of discovery and data analysis, we’ve heard from our whole community — including some experts we’ve never talked to before. In a lot of cases, we have asked for their consult; some of those helpful blogs and comments you’ve been forwarding to us have turned into meetings and phone calls, and we’re figuring out how else we can engage with a wider range of Burner minds to help guide our community through this.
How Did This Happen?
The moment in 2011 that we saw tickets were going to sell out, we knew it would have a major impact on 2012 ticket sales, and we started planning. As we analyzed how to build this year’s process, we projected possible scenarios. Some of us thought we would see a sell out on the very first day of ticket sales. Most thought it would take longer (after all, last year’s tickets sold out in July). Few could predict exactly how many new prospective attendees would register, though we had plenty of indication that public interest was greater than ever – especially since we sold out last year, but also in the rise of social media and visibility for Burning Man. In any case we knew we were in for a different kind of ride in 2012.
A first-come first-served system would not meet the demand either. Every ticket vendor informed us we’d have to use the same type of “queuing system” that meant hours waiting in line at your computer screen – a luxury perhaps not available to many perfectly deserving Burners. And since we did estimate that demand would exceed supply somewhat, we knew that when people rushed in to grab the tickets available, there would be someone left out in the cold – not everyone was going to get tickets who wanted them.
By spreading the registration process over a period of time, and making random selection a stated goal of the design, we aimed for a more sane way to access what would be basically the same “odds” at tickets. We’d diffuse a few hours of frustration (middle of the night for some Burners, middle of the workday for plenty of others) into a more moderate, less angst-ridden experience, but get the same kind of results.
We felt it was culturally important to retain the different price points in that scenario, to make a wider range of ticket prices available for people of different means. Our desire was to distribute that access in a manner that gave people some control over how much they were willing to spend.
While the system was not primarily designed to prevent scalping, there were certain deterrents to it in place. No event organizer or ticket seller has solved scalping completely. Some of the measures they’ve implemented to ameliorate it, unfortunately also prohibit certain things we still value about our culture, especially the practice of gifting tickets. Many a great Burner had their first experience after getting talked into it at the last minute by a friend, and plenty of us have given, swapped, or received a ticket late in the season when plans began to change. A two-week registration window to request tickets would still let us do more crosschecks to weed out the speculators and scalpers.
And in those regards, the ticket selection system worked as planned — but it created other unforeseen problems, and most of them boil down to an unpredicted, overwhelming level of demand. The impact of that demand is beyond what we projected when designing the system; even if we knew there were destined to be some people missing out, we didn’t expect nearly so many.
Let’s break it down and just talk numbers: we had nearly three times the number of tickets requested than we had available tickets. We did conduct a survey before purchase, and while surveys are not perfect, they do give some interesting data. In that survey, about 40% of ticket buyers said they had never been to the event before, which is a higher number than we’ve seen in previous years. It does appear — and I’d caution we don’t know everything yet — that there was a fair amount of over-registration – those who said “I need one but I’ll order two…” or “I’m not sure I’m going but I’ll get one just in case.”
We can now see that some of that happened simply because the perception of scarcity drove fear and action for all of us. It could be said we were quite naïve to think we had much control over a basic emotional response to scarcity. Game theory won out over good wishes.
But that’s not all that happened. In fact, there were plenty of ‘perfect storm’ influences afoot: 2011 had perfect weather, awesome art, and record attendance and visibility in the press. The ticket sell-out made headlines around the world. Social media use is higher than ever, so participants who had such a great time were more active than ever telling everyone all about it. One such participant shared a magical YouTube video he created in 2011 (“Oh The Places You’ll Go!”) – the link hit the Huffington Post in January and went viral, eventually hitting 1.3 million views from all around the world; its visibility peaked right around the day that ticket registration opened. And, thinking we wanted to ensure a fair shake at the new system for Burners, we decided to leave registration open for two full weeks, just to be sure that any of you who were out on vacation or away from your computers for the announcement had plenty of time to get a fair shot.
A perfect storm.
The Big Picture:
The overarching fact we must face now: awareness of Burning Man has reached the world at large. It has tipped into the mass consciousness and drawn exponential levels of new interest. Thanks in part to thousands of enthusiastic storytellers from throughout Burning Man’s history, the number of people who want to burn now exceeds the current capacity of the city in the desert.
This was a possibility at every point in our history, of course, but the speed and scale were surprising. We were not blind to this possible outcome, but we did not anticipate an increase in demand that would so dramatically exceed all precedent.
Our friends in the days when Burning Man was much smaller worried what it would be like when ten thousand people showed up on the playa. In 2012, we’re faced with figuring out how we can address the Principle of Radical Inclusion now that the unthinkable has come true: millions of people have heard of Burning Man, and a whole bunch of them want to come. Although Radical Inclusion states “We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community,” that doesn’t mean that every one of us fits in the same place at once.
While we’d all like to blame some mysterious “Other” at this point – while we’re all offended by the concept of scalpers profiting off tickets our friends should have gotten – there is no clear evidence that scalpers are holding all of these tickets. Sure, they’re out there. And there are returning Burners who are right now sitting on an extra ticket, afraid to speak up and start a stampede among campmates, or quietly redistributing those tickets among friends or other strong ties.
But what’s appearing more and more likely is this: we’re about to meet a lot of newly-minted, first-time Burners. (And hi, new friends. Kindly step up to the mic and say hello in the comments below – we’re thrilled to welcome you, really, and would love to hear from you. You’ve arrived at a very interesting time, can you tell?)
And that’s fantastic. New energy and enthusiasm is the lifeblood of Burning Man, and we were all new here once (well, except for Larry Harvey). We love newcomers.
However, if new Burners are the lifeblood, the existing community of collaborators, projects, and creativity is the corpus of Burning Man. And now we’ve learned after a few days of polling and information gathering that many of the largest groups and projects (mutant vehicles, theme camps, volunteer groups, and other collaborations) planning to attend this year have secured only 25%-30%, on average, of the tickets they needed to commit to their projects. Even calculating that many tickets would eventually become available via the secondary market, the timing of that possible influx comes too late. These groups are telling us “This might be the year we skip Burning Man.” Plenty of significant groups have already moved forward with making alternate plans.
At an individual, person-by-person scale, such a turnover might be acceptable — if this was a concert or a sports event. But you’re not just fans in a seat, all more or less the same. In a collaborative culture, in a community based on a web of social relationships, these numbers are perilous. And while it remains true that no prerequisites exist to be a part of our community, we cannot and will not let overwhelming interest tear apart the social fabric that is critical to our culture.
What We Can’t Change:
Two things are immutable:
1. It is not possible to simply grow the event to welcome more people in 2012. Between traffic concerns and the limitations placed on attendance by the Bureau of Land Management, that’s off the table.
2. Without our core collaborative community, the fabric of Burning Man could fray and tear apart. Regardless of all good original intentions, that ripping sound has to stop.
We very, very much want and need to welcome new people to Burning Man. New creative energy and enthusiasm also help make it what it is, and newcomer experiences can be some of the most transformative. We continue to welcome the stranger. But we can’t work so hard to welcome new Burners to BRC that it comes at the expense of those who have and will make the event what it has been. Radical Inclusion is the first principle, but faced with a Burning Man event that is limited in population, Civic Responsibility and Communal Effort dictate that we endeavor to radically include those who create Burning Man in the first place. There are, after all, Ten Principles, not just the one.
What We Can Do:
So, what now? Let’s start with what we know for sure:
* We can’t and won’t reverse the Main Sale drawing results. That part is done, and there is nothing fair about taking awarded tickets away from anyone…it solves nothing at this point, and changes the terms after the sale has already happened, and probably isn’t even legal. Besides, that only makes a bad situation worse.
* We must now attend to preserving the fabric of our culture.
* There are listings on ticket scalping sites, but right now, they don’t all equal tickets that will be sold above face value. None of those sellers are actually holding tickets yet, and won’t be for several months, and we will collaborate to do what we can to starve them out. There are right now only about a hundred such tickets on those sites, although that doesn’t mean there are not more tickets that were awarded to people who plan to scalp them eventually.
* The STEP program will launch this month and we believe it will help. Those who were not selected to purchase tickets in the Main Sale round will be notified privately of how to register, and given the first option to sign up for the “Want Tickets” waiting list in advance of any other users.
* Right now we are contacting representation from all the types of affected groups analyze the overall shortfall and figure out the scope of the problem and what options exist for us. We’re also consulting with Burners of every possible stripe and trying to increase our brain trust to help make sure we don’t miss any signs as we find our way out of this storm.
* Our Regional Network and other teams including many community advisers are engaging around what to do about the issue of acculturating new visitors to Black Rock City this year.
* We’re clear that next year, big changes are necessary to address scarcity, capacity and community.
* We have agreed to be as transparent and honest as we can, describing next steps and decisions as quickly as we are able to make them. We are really considering a vast array of options as we continue to absorb information and analyze data.
We’re working non-stop to understand what happened. We’re checking in with theme camps and art groups. We’re talking to volunteer teams and regional coordinators, performers, mutant vehicle crews…all the smaller sub-communities that make up Burning Man. We’re gathering information on who placed orders for tickets, who received them, and, if they have a surplus, how they intend to resell them.
We are meeting constantly with Burners right now. We’re reading what people are writing and inviting many of those voices to come meet us, call us, and help us sort this out. You are going to be a big part of that solution. Please continue to email, write, call, tweet, and post your ideas and suggestions. Please check in with your own community to see what tickets might be available.
Meanwhile, please know that everything we’re working on here in San Francisco is guided by the desire to find the best possible way for our community to come together again on the playa. We’ll continue to communicate as we have information available. We expect to present a detailed plan on February 15th.