This year’s Burning Man festival shows the ubiquity of experience culture in the social media age.
Burning Man, which pops up each August in the Nevada desert, celebrates art and community while proudly declaring independence from the wider world that surrounds it. Festival organizers emphasize values such as gifting, inclusion and self-expression, while rejecting commodification.
But as the event becomes more popular with Silicon Valley stalwarts and celebrities, Burning Man has begun to reflect tensions playing out elsewhere. This year, for example, festival-goers vandalized a luxury campsite, White Ocean, which is associated with one-percenters.
Meanwhile another, quieter change is also chipping away at the festival’s identity: the site now has reliable mobile phone service. “Being out of contact with the outside world has long been something people there have taken as an article of faith: The world will wait,” wrote Fast Company.
This year, in contrast, social media was a ubiquitous presence. At an event that many attendees associate with unplugging, celebrities including Katy Perry, Cara Delevingne and Diplo snapped away, posting carefully curated shots in service of their personal brands.
Already, in 2013, one longtime attendee bemoaned to the Los Angeles Times that if phone access increases, “Burning Man slowly starts looking like the world that we’re trying to get away from.” But while #Burningman2013 only registers 19,000 posts on Instagram, #Burningman2015 already counts more than 65,000.
With its mind-blowing art installations set amid an almost unearthly landscape, Burning Man is an Instagrammer’s paradise. And at a time when many people are more likely to signal their cultural cachet with vacation photos than by wearing designer brands, the festival, like Coachella and other high-profile experiences, seems destined to become a luxury brand in its own right, whether or not longtime “burners” approve.