Is Burning Man working against the growing social media culture?

As Burning Man approaches, once again, this blogger’s not going. But it’s not that I don’t want to, nor am I compelled to write this because of some dislike for the event. What spurred this blog post, were two other blog posts: one called burning hypocrisy, and the other called Burning Man Responds to EFF over fair use and photo rights attack.

Reading them back to back led me to the conclusion that, for all of the Burning Man Corporation’s claims of “freedom of expression,” the hallmark of new media, or “social media,” the reality seems to be that the Burning Man event is controlled by nothing more than a centralized government, bent on taking away any digital expression of the same freedom it claims to champion.

Have doubts? Read this, from the Burning Man website:

Burning Man is a private event, and professional photographers and ALL moving film and video camera users are required to sign use agreements that will be emailed upon approval of a project. Our review and written permission is required to use any image from the event commercially or publicly; no public use of images is allowed without this written consent.

If you are shooting film or video only to show your friends and family (my emphasis), you do not need to register as press. Information about personal use video cameras can be found here. Personal use still cameras are permitted and do not require a written agreement, but any image use beyond personal use must be approved in writing post-event.

And the “here” reads, in part:

So, you want to bring your video camera and capture all those brilliant playa moments to show your family and your friends. Great! But alas, you can’t just show up at Burning Man and start shooting. In the interest of protecting our community, all cameras which are capable of capturing motion imagery are required to receive written permission in order to film at the event. This includes all digital still cameras that are capable of capturing a few seconds of video.

Here’s the catch – the above rules don’t include any smartphone app that takes video, like, where this blogger is a featured user, but it would seem you can use Instagram, the wildly popular photo-sharing app. That should mean you can, indeed, “go to Burning Man and start shooting,” contrary to what the media folks in charge say.

But the only reason the proper wording isn’t in place, as of this writing, is not because Burning Man Corporation’s suddenly embracing social media, but because the technology is far ahead of what they’re aware of. Otherwise the words would not be left open to interpretation.

Now, I’m not blogging about me, if I went, I’d just register as media, and make a kick ass set of vlogs. What I’m blogging about is beyond me, and concerns how Burning Man’s attempts to control media seem to be running up against its core values.

So what if a person makes a 15 second video at Burning Man? Big deal. Why not fire off a rapid set of Instagrams so close together they capture a time series moment, almost like a video?

But hold on, Instagrams aren’t safe either. And that’s because Burning Man’s Terms and Conditions, aren’t properly repeated in its press page on its website.

The Burning Man Terms and Conditions are terribly anti-social media, and entirely against the digital media culture that’s grown around it. If you “buy into” Burning Man (and for something like $300 a ticket), you immediately give up any rights you have to place your photo on Twitpic, where the World can see it, especially if you have something like 40,000 Twitter followers.

This part of the Burning Man Terms and Conditions Reads:

UNDERSTAND AND ACCEPT THAT NO USE OF IMAGES, FILM, OR VIDEO OBTAINED AT THE EVENT MAY BE MADE WITHOUT PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM BURNING MAN, OTHER THAN PERSONAL USE. I understand that I have no rights to make any non-personal use of any image, film, or video footage obtained at the event, and that I cannot sell, transfer, or give the footage or completed film or video to any other party, except for personal use, and I agree to inform anyone to whom I give any footage, film, or video that it can only be used for personal use.

In 2009 Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation observed that, taken as a whole, the Burning Man Terms and Conditions trample free speech.

In fairness to Burning Man, and reflective of Andy Grace’s response to the EFF blog post, Burning Man Corporation says it’s struggling with the need to protect the images created by artists on the Playa. But the point of my blog is exactly the reverse: just because there are artists who may – may – state their opposition to photos or images of their art displayed via social media, doesn’t mean that point of view is true for all other artists.

In fact, in a terrible, slow-growth economy (we’re not in a recession now, folks), the fact is there are artists, even at Burning Man, I suspect, who want the public to see their creations and know that they made them. And give out their contact info, at that.

Burning Man appears to do nothing to mate the artist’s desire to have his or her work be seen, with the power of social media to see it.

The response to my blog post will certainly be, “Well, he’s never been there so ignore him.” Whatever. Going to Burning Man’s not going to cause me to change my view here. I still issue the friendly observation that Burning Man Corporation needs to alter how it thinks about social media, because as of this writing, it doesn’t think about social media as deeply as it should.

The wording in the Burning Man “Terms” is from another time – 2009 – when Twitter was just heating up, and the use of apps like was done by a scant micro-population of people. (Remember 12

Look, what Burning Man Corporation fears is correct: a large number of photos of naked people who don’t want their bodies exhibited over the Internet. I get that, and personally would avoid making such images – that’s me.

But doesn’t that rob the smartphone user of freely sharing – expressing – what he or she has seen? It would seem that it does.

I don’t know what the answer is, but developing one should be high on Burning Man Corporations’s agenda after this year’s event. It’s more than just terms and conditions, but a comprehensive, separate website on what to do and not to do, that’s more than one or two blog postings, is a great start.

Stay tuned.

By Zennie Abraham

Zennie Abraham | Zennie Abraham or "Zennie62" is the founder of Zennie62Media which consists of and a multimedia blog news aggregator and video network, and 78-blog network, with social media and content development services and consulting. Zennie is a pioneer video blogger, YouTube Partner, social media practitioner, game developer, and pundit. Note: news aggregator content does not reflect the personal views of Mr. Abraham.