Just stumbled upon this story from 2003. It’s the perfect example of how social engineering of Burners can start with a prank, and be passed off as ironic, and then quickly become the new normal. Timeshare slots in the Oasis, anyone?
At the time, the publication of this site and the supporting email promoting it, caused quite a stir. Big enough to become a story in WIRED magazine, just like Popsicle Camp is now in Bloomberg.
Burning Man participants are often borderline fundamentalist about the mores of their desert bacchanalia. Over the years, they have steadfastly insisted that organizers never consider opening the doors to anything corporate.
So last week, when a message advertising an all-inclusive package tour of Burning Man spread like some out-of-control virus among the desert fest’s regulars and their e-mail lists, a lot of people went ballistic.
Supposedly sponsored by Travelocity and an unknown outfit called Burning Tours, the package promised prepared meals, an air-conditioned tent, free “Travelocity/Burning Man ‘trading trinkets'” and front-row seating for the annual alternative art festival’s signature spectacle, the torching of the 50-foot wooden Man.
But for anyone calm enough to look at the promotion’s Web page for a moment, there was a clue that something was not quite right. Instead of a Travelocity.com address, it was Travelocity.burningtours.com. It was not an attack on Burning Man’s principles at all. It was a hoax.
Precisely because vast numbers of “Burners” are tightly connected through e-mail lists, bulletin boards, websites and real-world gatherings, the Burning Man community is a juicy target for hoaxes. For example, a fake CNN.com story raised serious hackles on April Fools’ Day 2002. That one announced that the event’s organizers had sold its marketing and promoting rights to MTV.
Who were the instigators of the pranks? Burners themselves. Who else could better exploit the wired nature of their community, preying on its passionate adherence to anti-commercialism and radical self-reliance?
Specifically, the guilty party in the Travelocity gag was Dale Ghent, a 26-year-old Internet engineer from suburban Washington, D.C., who had seen the MTV ruse. He downloaded a Travelocity package tour page, did a quick mock-up of the Burning Tours package and, posing as a first-time Burner named Alan Douglas, posted a message to the New York Burners regional e-mail list asking if he should buy the tour.
“You sit there and you watch the e-mail, and the time elapsing and the people starting to read it and replying, ‘No, no, you can’t do this. It’s not the Burning Man spirit,'” Ghent laughs. “The general level of outrage was pretty satisfying, I have to say.”
Indeed, even veteran Burners were taken by the realistic representation of the Web page. A Seattle Burner known as Abdullah posted a message to one list with a link to the Burning Tours page, asking, “What the everlasting almighty FUCK?”
“My initial reaction was asinine knee-jerk reflex. I know how to read a URL and should have realized that this wasn’t in the Travelocity domain,” said Abdullah. “But I didn’t pay attention, and had one of those berserker moments. It was pure rage.”
At Burning Man headquarters, however, even as e-mails and instant messages started flowing in, the mood was relaxed. They’d been through this before and they love good art.
“The first thing to do when one of these hoaxes come around is usually to smile because they’re funny,” says Burning Man senior staffer Andie Grace. “The whole purpose of it is to prank people. So I don’t want to run around being the one who killed the joke.”
But Grace says she was fascinated watching the viral spread of the hoax across the countless Burning Man regional and department e-mail lists, many of which share members.
“There is overlap,” she explains. “A friend sends it to a friend in Seattle, who puts it on their regional list, and then someone e-mails it to their friend in St. Louis.”
As one e-mail list discovered it was a hoax, other lists were just beginning to see the original message. The word that everything was okay, that Burning Man’s purity was safe, was always one step behind. In fact, even though most Burners now know the Burning Tours offer was a gag, some are still hearing about it for the first time, Grace said.
Meanwhile, Ghent started hearing from people about his work. “I think overall, people had good humor about it,” he said. “I got private e-mails saying, great hoax, good job,” he says. “I think once people realized it was a hoax, they got a grin on their face.“
And as for Abdullah?
“It obviously took a lot of time and skill to do this,” he says. “It reminded me that I’m not quite as clever as I think I am sometimes…. To the author of the Travelocity spoof: Nice one, mate.”
We’ve moved along the spectrum of turnkey camping from irony to stark reality. Today, $1400 looks cheap for a Commodification Camp. And “look at how much fun the tech billionaires are having out West!” is the new marketing slogan for Wall Street and the City of London.
It’s amazing to look back and see how things have changed. Progress? Evolution? Or devolution?
Now, not only do BMP’s Directors run multi-million dollar camps like this, massive ones with more than 50 sherpas; but they actually go to burningman.org to blame their staff for wrongdoing while they lecture us about how their VIP wristband camps are shining examples of the Ten Principles in action.
A big farce. It provides laughs for more than a decade, while they slowly introduce it into our society and sell $17,000 hotel rooms to the A-List – then laugh at us when we protest. “Oh, those Burners! They’re always the same. Blah blah blah, people have been saying that for 20 years and we keep raising prices and they keep buying tickets. Go make an amusing street theater protest to entertain us with, rubes!”