5 Ways that Burning Man Prepared Me for Life in Web3
By: Laika O’ Brien, Director of Experience Design
I’m standing on a shipping container with dust whipping around me, surveying the rapidly-assembling city, which was a mere scattering of RVs just a few days ago. I’m here with a group of friends—chosen family really—to build our contribution for this year’s Burning Man festival, a theme camp called the No Sleep Hotel, a hotel come from the dream world into the waking world. It’s a lushly decorated wooden structure with lounge space, a bar, an apothecary, hidden dioramas, two “dream rooms” that you can check into featuring dream-themed experiences, and a number of other things that I can only tell you about by showing you personally. Maybe you’ll find us out there some day.
This is the 9th year that I have returned to this patch of desert with more or less the same group of people to participate in a radical experiment in world building and community-centered creation. I typically think of coming to Burning Man as a way to fully unplug from my day-to-day life or “the default world” as they call it, but this year, I can’t stop thinking about my team back home and drawing comparisons between my life with them and my life in Black Rock City. You see, earlier this year I was pulled down the web3 rabbit hole by the team at Story DAO and my world was completely changed in unexpected ways—similar to some of the ways that Burning Man has changed me. After coming back home and mostly getting the dust off of all my worldly possessions, I wanted to take some time to highlight those changes and celebrate the new kinds of culture that have been and are being built in these spaces. Let’s go.
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When I first started attending Burning Man in 2013, I was completely unprepared for the multitude of ways in which it would transform my life. I was a recent college graduate, paying my rent writing poems for tips on a typewriter and I had little to no idea what the next chapter of life would hold. That first year out there with a group of school friends who ran a camp serving miso soup and sake, I hated almost everything about it. I was uncomfortable the entire time—covered in dust, barraged by shitty techno, drastically sleep-deprived—but there was also this moment where I was biking alone at sunset, way out in deep playa and I found a giant wooden whale skeleton suspended from an armature. Ropes were attached at several points along the body of the whale and as I rode up to it, I realized that the whale was a giant marionette that could be animated by pulling the ropes with a group of other people. That level of surprise, joy, and shared wonder was unlike anything I had ever seen. I was hooked.
For the past almost-decade I have come back to that same flat expanse of desert with more or less the same groups of friends year after year. We have learned so much in that time: how to build structures that can withstand hurricane force winds, how to organize communities of diverse individuals with vastly different preferences, needs, and ways of contributing, how to build a meaningful relationships in the midst of a world that continues to feel like it’s pulling itself apart. You know, that sort of stuff. There are many things that have led me to come back to Black Rock City year after year, but perhaps the single most significant things are these: community and permission to experiment. I have never been part of such a real, authentic, bonded community or any form of civic experience where I felt more permission to participate, express myself, engage with the world around me, and experiment with ways of being that felt unavailable to me in the highly-structured default world.
And, as surprised as I was to discover this after jumping down the rabbit hole into web3, the same has been true for me here as well. I have never felt so accepted for who I am and free to express myself so openly. After my recent experience in the Black Rock Desert, I wanted to share 5 lessons from Burning Man that helped prepare me for life in web3.
It’s all about participation & communal effort
The concept of “no spectators”—meaning simply that everyone is called to participate, no one can sit on the sidelines—is one that I first learned through Burning Man. Especially if you go with a theme camp, you will likely need to lend a hand building shade and kitchen infrastructure for fifty or so of your soon-to-be-closet friends and with so much to do and not much time to do it, there is a large emphasis on participation and collective effort. One of the most remarkable gifts of that is that being part of collective effort can feel absolutely amazing. The sense of purpose that I’ve shared with this community over the years is truly remarkable and has increased my quality of life without question.
Similarly, one of the most remarkable things that I’ve observed in the web3 space is watching the shift of power from a centralized corporation/consumer model towards the new experiments that are taking place in the community/participant realm of building value. We still have a long way to go in co-creating this ecosystem, but the proliferation of DAOs and other purpose-oriented social groups seems to be driven by that same sense of connection, belonging, and meaning-making that I’ve found in Black Rock City. And that my friends, gives me hope for our collective future.
Permissive environments catalyze creativity & growth
Just like many backpackers and river rafting enthusiasts have “trail” or “river” names, Burning Man is a culture where you are invited to choose or receive a new “playa” name and the opportunity to wear many new identities if you feel called to do so. In a sea of 80,000 people couched within a culture that names Radical Self Expression as one of its ten core principles, the sense of permission is palpable. When I first started going to Burning Man, I was a wildly shy person, but after attending the festival repeatedly and having other life experiences confirm that I was not only safe to experiment with my identity and self-expression, but would be supported by my community if I did so, my mental health shifted in some really beautiful ways.
Similarly in web3, I have found many opportunities to do things like choose a new name and avatar, role play as a character, enter into imaginative worlds with others, and so on. Each time I join a new community, I enter as myself, but I also have the opportunity to more fully express different facets of my identity depending on the space that I’m in and there’s something liberating about that.
Radical self reliance can be wildly empowering
The concept of Radical Self Reliance at Burning Man is one of the things that has had the most positive impact on me over the years. It takes a certain kind of person to withstand the mental, physical, and emotional toll that going out to that desert takes on you and over the years you realize that the people who have their s*** together (i.e. know how to stay hydrated, have educated themselves on basic bike repairs skills before coming to playa, etc) are the most fun to camp and explore with. While there will always be someone willing to lend a hand if you need it, there is an emphasis on personal accountability at the event that holds people to a higher standard than in the default world and I’ve seen that act as a catalyst for personal growth in myself and others many, many times.
Because I knew that Radical Self Reliance was expected of me when I joined this community, I was more proactive about educating myself early on about things like using power tools, operating a generator, and disposing of gray water off-grid. Of course, my friends have been amazing resources in learning the ropes as well and I’ve found the same to be true in web3. Because there can be a higher barrier to getting into the space (new language, new tools, new ways of thinking, etc) many amazing community members have created guidelines and informational tools to get you started, but it’s ultimately up to you how you navigate this relatively-uncharted territory. And there’s something about that that I’ve found creates a greater sense of community and belonging than most other groups I’ve been part of.
They’re both a little dangerous
Burning Man and web3 also share a certain element of chaos and risk that make them fascinating places to engage with. “Safety 3rd” is a catchphrase within the Burner community and is often used immediately before or after someone does something that could get them injured like climbing a giant wooden structure with no railings, deep frying chicken while naked, or challenging your friend to a battle in the Thunder Dome.
While watching the Man burn this year, I found myself sitting next to a woman in her 60s who was wearing a pin on her hat that said “Keep Burning Man potentially fatal.” Of course, nobody goes out there looking to be hurt, but the level of potential danger is directly linked to the freedom that you can experience at the event. In web3 as well, life doesn’t come with bumpers. With market volatility, scammers, and more, you need to stay on your toes and move carefully to stay afloat in this environment. But for those brave souls who are willing to face the dust and/or the crashes, you can find yourself in a place where fewer rules and regulations might enable you to experiment and take risks in ways you might not be able to in the default world.
Purpose-centered community is at the heart of everything
I have always thought of Burning Man as the glitter-encrusted carrot on a stick that lured me into learning about practical and immensely important things like community organizing and living off-grid. Because I was in love with the uniqueness of the event and the people putting it on, I spent countless hours happily working on projects I never would have undertaken otherwise. And because my camp was coming together to work on these things over and over again, and experiencing hardship and inconvenience together repeatedly, we formed some incredible bonds that are stronger than many of the other relationships in my life.
It was a member of the Story DAO community who first told me that web3 and specifically DAOs had started as a response to the deep loneliness so many felt during the height of the pandemic. With very few, if any, options for in-person connection, many people turned to organizing online and it’s incredible to see how many service-oriented DAOs are out there, with more popping up all the time. I can certainly say that purpose-driven community organizing is what brought me to Story DAO and is what makes me so excited about our future. The experiences that I’ve already had building alongside our community have given me a beautiful sense of purpose and belonging unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a digital realm.
While on the surface, Burning Man and web3 may seem vastly different from one another, there are still important lessons that both spaces share. Perhaps most importantly, these are two areas in my life where I have felt truly invited to participate, build, and express myself in ways that were radical and healing. While our platform team is heads down building an innovative story consumption and collaboration platform, our community team and members are hosting weekly meetups, skillshares, inspiration-building workshops, and more. (Join our discord here to get involved!) We are creating an environment of openness, expressiveness, and togetherness and I haven’t felt so lucky to be part of something like this since my first visit to Black Rock City in 2013.
So here’s to the builders and doers, the believers in wild things, the people who work to create spaces and culture where we can come together to grow. These spaces have radically changed my life for the best and I’m so looking forward to seeing the journey ahead. Thanks for being part of it.
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