The Burning Man Web Team once again relied on the valuable contributions of a solid group of dedicated volunteers and our small core staff to keep our web site functional, fresh and informative. The team meets every other week and works on projects behind the scenes throughout the year. With such a constant workload and meeting schedule, it’s important to keep things fun. After years of eating, drinking and geeking together, we renamed our meetings to be Web Team Dinner Parties, complete with potluck theme nights.

Near the end of 2007, we implemented a script that randomly displays a set of images on the homepage of the website. In addition to featured images from the past several years, new sets are added periodically. Now visitors get a fresh visual treat each time they visit.

One of the major efforts in 2008 was the building out of the Regionals section of the website. Up until 2008, the Regionals section reflected primarily the Regional Contacts spread across North America. As Burning Man has become increasingly global, our Regionals section needed to be more global as well. We added a map of the globe for navigation, allowing users to drill down into specific areas to find one’s regional contact – and we have (as of this writing) over 150 of them in 100 locations in 15 countries, spanning 5 continents.

In 2008, we focused on taking advantage of new technologies to get our messaging out in a more compelling manner – in particular, the Burning Blog. We took our small collection of blogs (Building Black Rock City, The Regionals Blog, The Enviroblog) and consolidated them into a single WordPress instance, turning the extant blogs into categories, and adding additional categories for other relevant topics. We wagered that people would be more likely to read one blog with a steady flow of information, rather than a multitude of sporadically published niche blogs, and based on our hits, it’s proven to have been a good bet.

In this process, we took the calculated risk of turning on comments, so that readers could comment on posts. We say “risk” because historically, we’ve often seen the tone of conversation turn septic on other internet bulletin boards and social networks where Burning Man is being discussed – certainly a testament to our participants’ inspired passion for the future of the event, and being safe behind the anonymity of a keyboard. In the case of the Burning Blog, we ameliorated this risk by publishing detailed and clear comment criteria, and actively moderating comments for adherence to those criteria. People who post a borderline comment are often given the chance to rewrite it so as to keep the gist of the comment while keeping it within our guidelines for protocol. The result has been a very interesting and active dialog that doesn’t devolve into name-calling and vitriol.

For more information about our technical development process using WordPress, see our engineering report.

Concurrent with these major development efforts, the web team kept the Burning Man website well maintained and up to date, and were successful in turning around change requests more quickly than ever. Improved lines of communication with our “customers”, combined with increased responsiveness to their needs has resulted in timely web site updates, happier co-workers, and a well-informed audience of participants.

Each summer as we gear up for the event, the team is inundated with listings for theme camps and updates to those listings. This had been a woefully manual process until one of our team created a “Themecampalizer” tool that significantly streamlines the task. Since there are about 600 or more listings, this small process improvement certainly warms our hearts.

Our on-playa experience in 2008 was by far the best yet, in that we had impressively consistent high speed internet access the week before the event, allowing us to more easily make last minute changes to the website (including an extension of ticket sales), publishing the 2009 art theme immediately after the Man burned, and posting updates to the Burning Blog. Notably, we had the luxury of having a very talented professional journalist volunteer to live with the DPW during setup, and blog the construction of Black Rock City on the Burning Blog.

In 2009, the web team intends to focus more on emerging technologies to create an even richer cross-pollination of information on the website and through other services. We also hope to engage the younger generation of internet users by understanding their patterns and means of consuming information, as well as leveraging their preferred technologies within the framework of our own infrastructure. Much of our website is “old school” inasmuch as it’s quite text-heavy, and not tuned to the frequency of today’s information-overloaded generation who quickly consume information in small bits and sound bites rather than dwelling on long reads.

Also in 2009, it’s looking to be time for a proactive site-wide content audit to ensure that all our pages have up to date information. As large as our site is, it’s easy for lesser-used pages to languish in the dark, quietly offering up woefully outdated content. While we don’t expect to find too many problematic pages, pulling them into modernity will surely be a satisfying exercise.

Submitted by:
Will Chase (PlayaQuest), Webteam Project Manager