Tech carries a torch for Burning Man

Desert counterculture festival has long been a soulmate to the Web, from Netscape's debut to the start-ups of Web 2.0. Tale of Burning Man keepsake Photos: The early years

Silicon Valley's technologists may have taken on the trappings of corporate America over the years, but their counterculture streak will be alive and well in the Nevada desert this week.

Among the tens of thousands of attendees at the Burning Man art festival in Nevada's Black Rock desert will be programmers, Web designers and perhaps more than a few millionaire executives. In past years, Burning Man attendees have included Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Even Google CEO Eric Schmidt, more a Baby Boomer than a member of Burning Man's Generation X crowd, has attended the event.

Decade of Burning Man

Plenty of other big tech names, from Brian Behlendorf, the primary developer of the Apache Web server, to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, have also gone to Burning Man over the years. And they say they've been there for one simple reason: The same sort of creativity and collaborative thinking they've applied to software and the Internet is on display in spades at the desert art festival.

In fact, some would argue, Web 2.0-style content sharing on the Internet today looks an awful lot like Burning Man community-building, circa 1997.

"I'd say the same types of people who want to share things openly gravitated to the Internet and the openness of Burning Man," said Kahle. "There's a great deal of overlap in the (shared) philosophy of 'let's make things and share them.'"

Of course, tech creativity and counterculture experimentation have gone hand-in-hand for decades. Last year, The New York Times' John Markoff wrote "What the Dormouse Said," a best-selling book about the influence of '60s culture and drugs on the emerging tech industry in Silicon Valley.

While those rule-breakers have (hopefully) long since grown up, a second generation of boundary-pushing technologists annually make their way to the desert to participate in the spectacle of an Oz-like city built from scratch on scorched playa.

In fact, the growth of jibes neatly with the growth of the World Wide Web, from the 1994 release of the first Netscape browser to today's Web 2.0 start-ups. As Burning Man turns 20, it's noteworthy to look at just how closely intertwined the art-focused festival and the tech industry have become.

Burning Man began in 1986 on San Francisco's Baker Beach. In 1990, it moved to the remote Nevada desert, and by 1993, a year before Netscape's browser was released, Burning Man attracted about 1,000 people. By 1994, as the Burning Man organization put up its first Web site, the population swelled to 2,000.

In 1995, it doubled again, to 4,000, and the next year it was up to 8,000. To some, there's no doubt that this would not have been possible without the Web, which itself was exploding in popularity.

"The Internet and the Web are what caused (Burning Man) to be such an international event," said Scott Beale, a longtime Web master of the Burning Man Web site who runs the Web hosting company Laughing Squid. "There weren't even any documentaries (yet). So how would these guys have got information on it? It's because of the Web site and the photos online. The photos had to sell it."

"Evil Pippi," as one longtime member of Burning Man's media team calls herself (many participants adopt pseudonyms and like to stay in character), agreed. "Global information meant global participation," she said. "I think the vivid imagery that could be shared over the Web really attracted folks in droves."

On April 1, 1997, Burning Man launched burningman.com after two years of having its site on other people's domains, said Marian Goodell, who runs communications for Burning Man and was influential in convincing the event's organizers to build and own its own domain. Ironically, the site launched that day because organizers knew an online media organization was about to publish a story about the event.

"We loved that it was launched on (April Fool's Day)," Goodell said. "We had to launch it that day because (the news organization) was doing a story on us and we knew we didn't want them pointing to the old URL. We were driven to finish the first draft of burningman.com for a media story."

"There's a great deal of overlap; the open aspects of the Internet and Burning Man come from the same place."
--Brewster Kahle, founder, Internet Archive

Goodell's understanding of the Internet and its widespread influence also led to Burning Man launching "Jack Rabbit Speaks," a regular e-mail newsletter that participants could subscribe to and that exists to this day. In fact, she said, the number of people who subscribe to it tends to be about the same as the number of people who come to the event itself each year.

p> Perhaps even more important than the Jack Rabbit Speaks was the emergence of a free e-mail discussion list to which anyone could subscribe and that became the center of many so-called Burners' connection to their growing community. Even as the Internet was affecting Burning Man, Burning Man in turn was affecting the Internet--and technology. Some of the earliest wireless Internet experiments were conducted during the event by people like Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore, and some of the earliest Web communities were created by so-called Burners.
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One example is Bianca, a Web community built around sharing many areas of interest. Perhaps it's best known, however, for its commitment to the open discussion of smut, and for many years "Bianca's Smut Shack" was one of the best-known Burning Man theme camps.

"I don't know of (many) other communities that were online at that time (1994)," said Evil Pippi. "Techies knew how to search the Web to find (Burning Man) by only knowing its name."

Kahle agreed that the early Web and Burning Man communities went hand-in-hand.

"The communities are very interchangeable," he said. "There's a great deal of overlap; the open aspects of the Internet and Burning Man come from the same place."

Kahle also said that while people think of the Web as being dominated by commercial sites, the vast majority are non-commercial, nurtured by many of the San Francisco early adopters who also happened to be Burners.

"Burning Man and the Internet...disproved the 1980s myth that people will only do something if they're paid for it," he said. "With Burning Man, people would work for weeks and months and years to build things to just have done them and have them recognized by others."

Over the years, of course, countless other online communities sprouted that have little or nothing to do with Burning Man. And as many more people attended Burning Man, the proportion of hard-core Internet and technology early adopters from the San Francisco Bay Area diminished.

But that's not to say Burners don't still have a deep influence on new technologies and new forms of online community. In fact, some would argue that the very notion of online social networks--which with the immense success of MySpace.com has become mainstream--is something that originated with the Burning Man community.

Burners "were the earliest users of social networking in general," said Mark Pincus, founder of Tribe.net. "They were already into social networking more than anyone else. In a way, Burning Man is a gigantic social network."

But in the end, said Goodell, the Burning Man community has managed to find a way to embrace technology, without becoming consumed by it.

"We're into human interaction over online," she said. But "online just primes us for face-to-face."

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