Dealing with heightened expectations

Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized Burning Man’s policy on rights to images taken at the Burning Man event. This criticism led to a heated discussion on boingboing. Burning Man representative Andie Grace, aka Actiongrl, has responded on the Burning Man blog here, which has been linked to a follow-up post on boingboing here.

While I can’t comment on the legal aspects of this matter since I’m not a legal expert, I can point out what I find fascinating about such controversies. People have opinions about what they think an organization should or shouldn’t do, including what legal form and practices an organization should adopt. And, people state their opinions, irrespective of whether or not they have any experiences with a particular organization, as demonstrated by comments on the boingboing discussion threads.

Expectations for “appropriate” activities are heightened for organizations like Burning Man, which depend on volunteer labor, pursue distinctive missions such as social change, and have high visibility because of media coverage. When confronting such expectations, organizations have to make a decision – do they address, much less acknowledge, such expectations? If they don’t respond to criticisms, they may lose their legitimacy from their constituents or the general public.

In responding to criticisms, the Burning Man organization has made a number of changes, including publishing their finances and making activities more transparent. On the other hand, they have also defended policies that they believe are needed to protect the Burning Man event from co-optation by other interests.

What would life be like if people demanded similar accountability of all organizations, and organizations responded? Northwestern B-school Prof. Brayden King discusses how this process works (and doesn’t work) here.

What to do about dying or failing organizations?

The past year has been a particularly eventful, if not unnerving, year for understanding the “life cycle” of organizations. Researchers argue that new organizations suffer from the “liability of newness” problem.* They lack sufficient infrastructure, legitimacy, and resources, and they are thus vulnerable to threats from regulators, competitors, and suppliers that can lead to organizational closure. The Burning Man organization has, at various points, faced such threats. With a combination of luck and support, it has survived its early years.

However, even well-established organizations may be unable to surmount problems. Some organizations die “quickly.” The collapse of a key banking and investment organization Bear Stearns over one weekend, and the subsequent frenzy of survival-oriented activity in other similar firms in the ensuing weeks as confidence weakened, took most people by surprise. Other organizations fail “slowly.” State intervention (i.e., the on-going General Motors bail-out) may prolong these organizations’ survival. Without such state activity, various large airline firms, railroad companies, and car manufacturers would have died years ago.

Competition from other organizations may accelerate decline. Such a selection process is evident in the disappearance of local independent bookstores.** In my old neighborhood, several independent bookstores folded over the course of a decade, leaving only one, my favorite (the Harvard Bookstore) standing. In my current neighborhood, with the recent closure of an independent bookstore, only two independents, Book Culture and Bank Street Books, remain. Large online firms don’t bear the high cost of storefront rent, and they have more muscle to negotiate with publishers. With these advantages, online firms have usurped independents. Independents that have managed to hang on (so far, at least) often rely upon a unique identity and appeal to attract supporters. Given Burning Man’s “unique” output of a week-long arts community, it’s difficult to imagine how competitors can edge Burning Man out.

More commonly, organizations that do survive their early and mid years face a succession and growth challenge. As original founders retire or are forced out, remaining members and new members may falter. As the organization grows in size, remaining members may miss the intimacy of the original organization, and newcomers may wonder what is so attractive or distinctive about their organization. One of the ways in which Burning Man organizers has addressed these challenges of succession and growth is to encourage members to set up their own local organizations and events. Through regionals and local events, supporters can find a more intimate, year-round community, rather than waiting for Labor Day weekend. Although the Burning Man event and organization may someday end, it’s likely that other events and communities will continue to embody the Burning Man ethos.

* Arthur L. Stinchcombe. 1965. “Social Structure and Organizations.” Pp. 142-193 in Handbook of Organizations, editted by James g. March. Chicago: Rand McNally.

** For more on independent bookstores, see Laura J. Miller’s (2006) Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Who is the “average” Burning Man attendee?

Thanks to Prof. Caroline Lee, a sociologist whose expertise includes the professionalization of participatory practices, I recently gave an invited lecture at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. Among other questions, students asked what kinds of people attend the Burning Man event. In particular, they were curious about participants’ finances.

Answering these kinds of questions is only possible because of survey research.* One of the first surveys administered at Burning Man was run by a theme camp called the Ministry of Statistics. Passers-by to the theme camp, which was located in the Central Camp area, were invited to complete the survey, and the Ministry of Statistics posted statistics on the collected data  during the event. The media reproduced several of these statistics, including one about drug consumption, in print, much to the dismay of Burning Man organizers who were concerned about the event’s legitimacy.

Since then, the Burning Man organization has gathered demographic information via a convenience survey administered during the event.  The collected information is available in the AfterBurn report on the Burning Man website.  For example, information on salary, home ownership, etc. of surveyed 2007 Burning Man respondents is available here.

Here’s of a photo of 2008 participants diligently completing the survey in the Center Camp Cafe:

2008 Burning Man participants complete survey at the Center Camp Cafe

In other years, the Burning Man organization has also gathered self-reported data on how much participants spent on local businesses; such information was intended to show that the event benefited local Nevada communities.

*Also, the idea that one can quantify the “average” person is a relatively recent phenomena.  See historian Sarah E. Igo’s The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public.


One challenge of discussing the development of an organization with an “unusual” output (i.e., a week-long arts community devoted to countercultural principles) is having to explain what the organization produces. In conference presentations, publications, and even casual conversation, I always have to explain what Burning Man is about since my audience usually doesn’t know much, if anything, about the event.  Even then audience members are mystified, “Burning what?  They burn a person?!?”

The media has had similar difficulties. In earlier years, past media accounts tended to describe Burning Man with terms that public relations volunteers found undesirable or problematic – Woodstock, paganism, rave, etc.

In contrast, in recent years, Burning Man has assumed a level of taken-for-grantedness such that it no longer requires explanation or description. Imagine my surprise when reading a recent New Yorker article (“Lost” by Ian Parker) about the economic meltdown in Iceland.  The article combined three words that I had never dreamed that I would see together in the same sentence: Burning Man and Tiananmen.

Congress, the Media, and Legitimacy

The recent brouhaha over AIG’s bonus compensation illustrates two issues pertinent to all organizations:

(1) If you accept (or are forced to accept) funds from the government, be prepared to kowtow to conflicting demands and face intensive grillings by ill-prepared politicians.

(2) If you want to maintain your legitimacy as an organization, be prepared to deal with the media. The media plays a crucial role in framing issues and making issues more or less salient. For instance, why has recent media coverage focused on the $165 million in bonuses that AIG paid out, as opposed to other alternative stories about how our taxes are allocated, such as the $515 BILLION used for military spending?  Or how an estimated $1  BILLION  in governmental subsidies help ensure that Wal-Mart earns $12.8 BILLION in profit while its workers do not have a living wage or health care?