NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Situation Normal, All Fucked Up: A Freakonomic Analysis of the Burning Man 2012 Ticket Fiasco

In one small
corner of the World Wide Web, a host of kindreds assembled for January 31 and
February 1 to pant upon their computer screens like blockbuster fanboys
awaiting news of a some superhero sequel, scouring message boards for the
latest intel and awaiting email confirmations that they, yes special they, had
been selected by synchronicity to camp in the desert seven months hence for a
fabulous, if desiccant, week of bacchanalia, abandon, and service.  Now that Burning Man's ill-conceived ticket
lottery has ended and the dust storms of indignation have settled, I would like
to offer my own armchair observations on how this ticketing system was doomed
from its very inception, and offer a forum for how it might be improved in the

As Burning
Man's Will Chase states,
"people… found creative ways to increase their odds of getting tickets in the
Main Sale.  As a result, there are
a lot more tickets being requested than there are tickets available – an
inordinately large number, in fact, and far more than we projected even after
last year's sold-out event.  It
seems that people a) likely got their friends, family and campmates to order
tickets as well, and/or b) requested more tickets than they actually need."

I think this
analysis is both true and understated. 
But what's most striking are the pollyanna presumptions about human
nature, as if Burning Man attendees-creative and anarchic by their very
nature-would not find ways to subvert the system.  This game was not designed in recognition that its players
were economic actors socialized under a capitalist superstructure that enforces
uncompromising self-interest.  In
other words, people are selfish, and are going to act to protect their own
self-interest, even at the apparent tragedy of the commons.  It should have been a foregone
conclusion that a large percentage of participants would seek to assure their
own tickets by registering multiple times across various family members or
friends not at all interested in attending.  This was a fairly obvious hack to the ticketing system, and
this is after all a community of artists, fringe lunatics, and engineers that
are well-accustomed to finding weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and loopholes in
various systems.

And actually, a
person need not even possess a scamming, cunning, clever, or even creative inclination.  A couple, for example, that heretofore
would have simply purchased two tickets would now each individually register
for two tickets in order to maximize their chances.  Similarly, a tight crew of eight friends would each register
for two tickets, again, in order to maximize their own and their supporting
crew's tickets.  Moreover, much
like the classic prisoner's
, as soon as it occurred to someone that someone else might game the system in their own
favor, they would have felt compelled to do the same, if only to prevent their
own single registration from being buried under the deluge of everyone else's
presumed multiple registrations. 
In this way, it is easy to imagine how 40,000 ticket registrations
ballooned into 400,000 – although the "inordinately large number" is not
exactly known.

To their credit, and
to address their own lack of foresight, the Burning Man organization
established a secondary ticket redistribution system by which those holding
extra tickets could sell them at face-value to those less fortunate.  This will work, somewhat, but it does
nothing to address the problem that the impulse toward self-interest has
already been established, and tickets under scarcity now exist as a form of
social currency, a currency that people can use to trade favors, bestow
blessings, or who knows what else. 
Point being, there will be some, perhaps many, that will hold fast to
their extra tickets until such time as they feel selling them serves them best.

Allegedly, this
system was established to discourage the scalping of tickets after last year's
sold-out event, although it is not at all clear to this writer how this was
accomplished.  Indeed, there is a
less obvious hack to the ticketing system that will not be here revealed by
which an unscrupulous scalper could have directed any number of tickets to
himself.  Whether this happened or
not is not known, although it's notable that as of February 1, StubHub
already had 88 Burning Man tickets for sale ranging in price from $630 to

Aside from these
unintended loopholes in the ticketing system, there was another intended
loophole in the system that the Burning Man organization actually encouraged.  The system of pricing tiers was structured in such a way
that the registrant would state the highest price they were willing or able to
pay for a ticket, $240, $320, or $390. 
The advantage to registering for a higher pricing tier is that your
registration will also participate in the lotteries for the lower pricing
tiers.  Essentially, then,
registering at the highest pricing tier purchases you 3 chances at having your
registration selected (starting at the lowest tier, and with each progressive tier
drawing from a smaller pool of registrants) whereas the lowest pricing tier
purchases you only 1 chance from the widest pool.  This is why the notion that Burning Man attendees created
this snafu by acting in their own self-interest is fundamentally flawed.  The Burning Man organization itself
crafted the rules in such a way as to offer a way to stack one's odds of
getting a ticket, and in so doing, established an economic template that others
would naturally follow.

In other words,
the implicit message of the rules of this ticketing system is that money
talks.  After all, if you were
willing or able to pay $420 for a ticket, you could have skipped the whole
ticket lottery and purchased something resembling a first-class ticket in the
Pre-Sale back in December.  This, unfortunately, bears a microcosmic similarity to the
system of stratification that has metastasized throughout our civilization
during this period of late capitalism. 
Those with more money have an unfair advantage, those with less money
suffer more stress, uncertainty, and aggravation, and perhaps most disturbing
of all, those who are the most sociopathic and unscrupulous among us are given
an opportunity to both cause and profit off of others' unhappiness.

Welcome home.


Image by millicent_bystander, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 


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