Burning Man in Cyberspace…. No, Really!

Bethany at Burning Man 2020 in AltspaceVR

What you do get when a global community of artists finds out that their most beloved annual gathering has been canceled only four months before the event date because of COVID19? Well you don’t get a series of Zoom sessions, that’s for sure!  

Radical Decentralized Collaboration in Action

The first thing the Burning Man organization did was assure us the event would somehow go on, followed by a survey asking us what virtual environments we would recommend and why. They got the word out immediately that everyone should start preparing for a decentralized virtual playa, even though the organization had no idea what that would look like when it was accomplished.

Talking about stepping out in faith!

I knew the moment it was announced, that Burning Man 2020 would not disappoint. I know this community well, and I knew that as an organization it would leverage the same radical decentralized collaborative effort that has characterized the success of the community that emerges in the harsh physical world of the Black Rock desert year after year. I knew it would be brought to life in multiple places, in multiple ways, by multiple people who would join forces to do something that many of them had never done before. And I was not disappointed. 

For the week of Burning Man, people from all over the globe gathered, talked, explored, attended in-world live streams of bands and speakers, engaged with art and artists, and of course attended dance parties by dancing in their own room or even their own chair while sitting at a computer, perhaps with a headset on. People were able to be with old friends and new. 

Experiential in Nature

I was part of theme camp at Burning Man from 2002 to 2007, I’ve been involved in virtual worlds on a desktop since 2014, and I’ve been actively exploring many different environments with my colleagues using an Oculus Rift for the last year. So I’m not some newbie. And I’m NOT that easily impressed. (Especially by AltspaceVR, I hate the desktop version… oh, don’t get me started.)

But I have to be honest with you,  what this community pulled off in a single weeklong event, on multiple platforms, involving so many people,  on this scale, with only four months notice? Are you kidding me?! It was nothing less than astonishing. The Samskara exhibit alone (see my video below) hosted by PlayAlchemist, actually made me cry. It’s beyond breathtaking. I made a little video trying to capture the magic, but honestly images and video just can’t do this justice.

Burning Man and the virtual world are both essentially experiential in nature. Neither of them can be conveyed in any medium, they must be experienced in order to be understood. 

Important Lessons For All of Us

I’ve written (and presented) about the culture of virtual worlds and communities of practice for several years now. From the very beginning I’ve been describing what the educators I know have been doing  with desktop VR for the last decade or so as Burning Man in Cyberspace. The reason I’ve described it like this is because the nature and cultural overlap of both is immediately obvious to anyone who has actually been a part of the Burning Man community. 

Without ever intending to, Burning Man has been paving the way for this kind of virtual event for decades already.  I think burners are characterized by multiple traits that are now more important than ever;  being comfortable with embracing ambiguity, of acceptance of change, of fearlessness in the face of challenges, (born of what seems a near universal acceptance of the spiritual concept of surrendering ego and seeing failure as a part of learning), of being radically self-sufficient in an extreme environment, and finally, of placing high value on the openness and trust required to embrace others as needed partners to create and sustain an immediate, strong, and resilient community. 

Another Emerging Metaverse

It’s truly phenomenal to witness what happens when a community that promotes Radical Inclusion, Self-reliance, Self-Expression, Communal Effort, and Civic Responsibility (which are five of the Ten Principles of Burning Man), produce in just a couple months while completely decentralized across the world and in different virtual environments. 

You might wonder how they onboarded people to this whole new reality. Well I found just one example,  a two page Google doc from Black Rock City VR org, which was just one of the organizations that helped people get into just one of the VR platforms that was used. BRCvr organizers were VR enthusiasts who had been to Burning Man starting in 2014, so they already had a presence in Altspace VR. What I didn’t know, was that “In 2017, after AltspaceVR shuttered, Microsoft acquired it—in no small part because Microsoft engineer Alex Kipman had met AltspaceVR cofounder Gavan Wilhite at (you guessed it) Burning Man.

Stories like that are just one of many that continually reconfirm my admiration for this community, and more importantly, for a system of organization (disorganization?!) that is very different from much of our larger culture. 

Burning Man Just Raised the Bar

BRCvr is now one of the eight recognized Universes of the Burning Man Metaverse, a metaverse that didn’t exist four months ago. That’s kind of mind-blowing isn’t it? Describing each of these as its own universe isn’t just hyperbole either. The image at the top of this post is from just one environment in AltspaceVR.  All those blue cylinders are teleports to other locations created by different people. That’s 90 teleports to 90 different locations, and that just one place in one of the eight official Burning Man universes. 

You need to let that sink in for a moment.

Someday we won’t have COVID19 preventing us from actually gathering in the desert again, but that doesn’t mean burners will abandon VR. I think all of us know that genie is out of the bottle. The virtual world makes the playa even more accessible to more people. It’s the ultimate Burning Man ideal in many ways. But Burning Man also just raised the bar for anyone interested in fostering authentic connection, building community, and creating incredibly engaging opportunities for us to actually be together while still being globally dispersed. It is doable, but it take a shift in mindset. And it takes a village.

Ready to Get In-World? Save the Date!

On that note, I  continue to work with Pat Franks and Marie Vans from SJSU’s School of Information, and the Virtual Center for Archives and Records Administration (VCARA). I’m excited to be a part of the XR Research Center Symposium scheduled for October 24th 9am -12. We’ll have some birds of a feather breakout discussions, a research poster area, and a keynote with Dr. Fengfeng Ke, from Florida State University, who will present  on her work on learning affordances and constraints of VR-based learning environments.   

Mozilla Hubs – A Super Easy Virtual World!

If you’re as sick of Zoom sessions as I am, and you’re still intimidated by learning how to use Second Life, why not try something that’s super easy? Among other locations, I’ve started developing in Mozilla Hubs. You can access one of my persistent environments from the link below on almost any device, even a phone. Anyone can go in there, just send them the link. Don’t miss the teleports to other rooms I’ve create, inside the building!


As always, message me with any questions. I hope to see you soon in the metaverse!

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