Commodification, Gifting, Decommodification, and Participation

These topics have emerged from an ongoing cultural conversation initiated through Burning Man’s Cultural Direction Setting project. They are likely to evolve and iterate over time, but reflect our current thinking on these important issues.

Commodification at Burning Man is the reduction of gifting — including acts of self-expression, art, interactivity, ideas, and people — to a form of commercial transaction. It reduces the deeply personal act of individually contributing to the community to an act of consumption. Some experiences, particularly those we hold in highest esteem, cannot be bought and sold. Commodification also includes any exploitation of our culture for the purposes of commercial enterprise, profit, advertising, branding, or sponsorship.

Participation is essential to the Black Rock City experience, where everyone brings a piece of themselves to create the very fabric of our community and culture. Simply offering payment as the only form of one’s contribution to the community erodes this core principle. Just as commissioning art does not make someone an artist, the mere funding of participation does not make one an active participant.

Gifting vs Transactions. Gifts are not transactional. As stated in our 10 Principles, “The value of a gift is unconditional.” Therefore, providing financial backing to an art project or to a camp is not considered a gift if there is an expected return. While financial support is clearly necessary to bring art and camps to Black Rock City, it does not substitute for active participation, nor reach the level of interactivity expected for camp placement.

Gifts are not truly gifts if they come with an expected return. Gifting a person a ticket or waiving camp dues is not transactional as long as the receiver is held on an equal footing with everyone else. An example of how dues within camps are seen as transactions rather than as gifts is if a camp accepts a higher amount of camp dues from one person than from others, and the camp does not require that person to participate as much as the others in the camp. 

Decommodification protects Burning Man culture from being leveraged to promote, support or market a person, product, company or any kind of commercial endeavor. In essence: creating a camp with the goal of turning a profit, using a camp to financially benefit another individual or organization, or otherwise exploiting Burning Man culture, events, imagery, or intellectual property to promote a company, event, project, or product is out of alignment with the ethos of the event and culture. Moreover, it degrades the quality of our shared experience when people treat each other as economic actors rather than as authentic humans. We have written extensively about this topic in the Burning Man Journal over the years, which can be reviewed here.

This information was created via the Cultural Direction Setting for Residential Black Rock City project by Group #6 focused on Convenience Camps & the 10 Principles. See here for more information about this project and here for the Cultural Vision. We also recommend you read PAYticipation & Paying People, another key part within this broader topic of the “Culture and Values” section of the Camp Placement Criteria.