Gifting is one of Burning Man’s ten principles. Decommodification is another. They go hand-in-hand. Decommodification is all about “creating social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.” That means no buying or selling on the playa, and no bartering or trading either. Instead, we come prepared to gift. We come with a giving attitude and an attitude of abundance so that when the opportunity to gift presents itself, we will be feeling generous and not stingy. We also come with an abundance of STUFF so that we actually have enough to give away without leaving ourselves in a bad situation.
If this is your first time at Burning Man, some habits will be hard to break. Not buying or selling things will probably be easy, as all you have to do is leave your cash and credit cards in the car and forget about them. But bartering is a lot harder to get rid of. After all, if you want something from somebody, or if you want someone to help you do something, it’s only natural to want to compensate them for it. The key difference between bartering and gifting is this: when you gift, you give freely without any direct expectation of compensation.
If you want help setting up your tent (*wink* you know who I’m referring to), and you walk up to somebody at Burning Man and say, “What can I give you to help me set up my tent,” in my opinion what you have actually said is, “This is my first time at Burning Man and I haven’t figured out yet how things work here.” I don’t mean that in a mean or insulting way, and I hope that nobody takes it that way. Burning Man is a community with very different social expectations than the default world. If you had just been set down in the middle of Beijing, I expect that you would commit a few social faux pas too, and I wouldn’t hold that against you at all. It would be expected! Well, Black Rock City is, culturally speaking, no less a foreign country than China, except it happens to exist in the Black Rock Desert instead of another continent.
The magic phrases for getting what you want at Burning Man are variations of: “Can anybody help me <task>?” or “I sure would love some <food> right now. Anybody want to give me some?” You can literally walk down the street shouting these phrases at the top of your lungs, and you will be amazed at how you will be bombarded with offers. Actually, a fun game to play is to think of the most unusual thing you can and then see how long it takes to find somebody who will gift it to you. Anyway, there are certainly more subtle versions of these phrases, and I don’t suggest that everybody should walk around shouting about what they want all the time, because it would get in the way of all the other fun stuff that people are doing… although “Shout Your Needs” might be an awesome art project / theme camp, now that I think of it … but when you want something on the playa, try using some version of just plain asking. Without offering anything in return. Because that would be bartering, and that would be commerce, and we don’t do that in Black Rock City.
One of the effects of gifting is that, when people start gifting to you, you start wanting to gift back. It’s just how human social animals are wired. A human who is gifted to and who does not feel a reciprocal urge… well, to be honest, I think that person has been mistreated somehow, or is a little bit sick. Let’s just say that person has not been treated the way a human social animal expects to be treated. But most of us, when somebody just GIVES us a beer or some chocolate or a back rub… we want to give back. And that’s awesome. There is nothing in the ten principles that prohibits reciprocal gifting. You give me a back rub? Oh look, I have some cold beers in my cooler—want one? You help me put up my tent? Oh look, it’s tear-down day and I’m all done. Can I help you? (And, before you know it, you have an actual community instead of a bunch of people whose social interactions are entirely mediated by money.) Reciprocal gifting doesn’t even have to be between the same two people. If you gift to me, it’s going to put me in a more giving mood, and even if I don’t end up gifting back to you, I’m going to end up gifting to somebody. In fact, I like that even better than, “You gift to me then I gift to you,” which can feel awful close to bartering even if it isn’t technically so. I enjoy much more an environment where random strangers are constantly gifting you things, just because having a random stranger be giving to you is such an unusual thing in the default world that it makes it that much more wonderful and amazing when they do it at Burning Man. I’m going to be that random stranger to a bunch of people this year.
Finally, actually accepting others’ gifts can be one of the hardest things to do in Black Rock City. When people give stuff to you, just take it (assuming that you want it; if not, say no). Say thank you and, if appropriate, enjoy it thoroughly where they can appreciate your enjoyment. In exchange, give them only the sincere experience of having gifted something to another person. Don’t get all stressed out and start trying to offer things back to them because it messes up the whole thing. It messes up their experience of gifting, which is what they are really trying to get out of the exchange.
See you on the playa!