I’ve been perusing the 2016 Burning Man census. The organization makes a serious effort to know who comes to Black Rock City each year and I am always curious about the results. Today I will share some of the data. It may surprise you. I will also post photos that Don Green and I took of Burners who attended the 2015 event. (I didn’t make it last year.) In addition to providing a small sample of participants, the pictures demonstrate another aspect of Burning Man’s creativity: costumes.
Before starting, however, I want to summarize a news story that NBC ran in February. It’s relevant.
In 2001 Google was searching for a new CEO. While Larry Page and Sergey Brin had taken Google to dizzying heights in five years, its board had decided that the 20-something entrepreneurs needed an older, more steady hand around to help run the ever-growing company. A massive search had been undertaken using a variety of metrics ranging from education, to experience, to the ability to crack MENSA-like brain tests— all to no avail. As Brin would tell the press, “Larry and I managed to alienate fifty of the top executives in Silicon Valley.”
There were mountains of talent available in the Valley, but Google needed a special mix that could bring an element of discipline to the company without reigning in the genius and unique approach to work that are the secrets to its success.
My son-in-law, Clay, works for Google in Charlotte, North Carolina and I’ve been to his office. The visit provided an insight into how Google works. All employees, regardless of position, share a common space where both individual contribution and group participation are encouraged and inspired. Creative ideas and problems are thrown into the hopper and anyone with suggestions from throughout the Google world is invited to participate, from the newest employee up to Larry and Sergey. There is a constant flow of action and reaction. It seems like a recipe for chaos; instead, it has proven to be a key to the company’s ongoing success.
The challenge that Larry and Sergey faced was finding someone who fit in. They decided that desperate measures were necessary to finalize their decision. When they discovered that one of their top candidates, Eric Schmidt, a Berkeley PhD computer scientist from Sun Microsystems had been to Burning Man, they modified their rankings to bring him back in for another interview. Here’s the thing: Brin and Page loved the creative, communal chaos of the event. Their office building in Silicon Valley was filled with photos of employees who had been to Black Rock City and were decked out in Burner costumes doing Burner things, like twirling fire. Each year, Google provided a free shuttle from the Bay Area to its participants who wanted to go. Google’s first Google Doodle was a stick figure of the Man, the symbol for Burning Man.
They liked what Schmidt had to say and decided to give him the acid test: they would take him to Burning Man with them and see how he reacted. How would he handle the heat, the noise, the dust, and the 24/7 activity? Would he fit in and become part of the team? Would he go with the flow and contribute? Or would he withdraw into himself? The rest, as they say, is history. Eric passed the test and became CEO of Goggle. The company at the time was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. In 2011, when Larry resumed his role as CEO, the company was worth around $40 billion. Today, Larry and Sergey are listed among the world’s richest people. And Schmidt? He, too, has become a billionaire. Not bad for a group of Burners.
So, what about the rest of us, the ones who don’t qualify as the one percent of one percenters.
The majority of folks who attend Burning Man aren’t exactly poor. In 2016, the average income for all participants was $60,000. 29.5% had an income of between $50,000 and $100,000 while 24% made between $100,000 and $300,000. 3.4% made over $300,000, up from 2.3% in 2013. The education level and age of Burners reflects the income. 74% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median age was 34. Only 1.3% of Burners were under 20 while 32% were over 39.
39% of the participants in 2016 were virgin Burners, first timers. Only 13% have been more than 8 times, which, at 10 times, happens to be the category I fit in. Not sure what that makes me. Maybe my synapses are covered in Playa dust; I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve certainly had enough up my nose and in my eyes and ears.
Men outnumber women by 56.8% to 41.4%, leaving a couple of percentage points for ‘other.’ I was amused that the census listed its gender figures under current gender— like it might change at any moment. Ethnicity-wise, close to 80% are white. 20% 0f Burners come from countries other than the US. Within the US, 48.5% of the participants came from California, which isn’t particularly surprising given its proximity and population size. It is a bit more curious that the number two state was New York with over 8%, given that New York City is some 2700 miles from Black Rock City via Interstate 80.
The most interesting figures to me are those that relate why people decide to run off to the desert and play in the dirt for a week. Participants were asked to check the reason or reasons they came to Burning Man from a prepared list. I was pleased to see that my reason— wanting to see and experience the art—was marked by 62.5% of the participants, the highest percentage received. Next up was to be with friends or to share an experience with like-minded people. 44% said they wanted to experience freedom and play. Considering you can wander wherever and do whatever— assuming you aren’t doing any harm to another person or the environment— that’s a lot of freedom! Go ahead and parade around naked if that has been your deepest desire forever. You’ll have company. 28% wanted to escape the world for a week. (That number may go up significantly this year.) Contrary to what many people think about Burning Man, only 3.7% said they came to consume intoxicants. But then, would you claim that if it were your reason? 21.6 % mentioned spirituality among their reasons for attending. I discussed the spiritual factor in my post on Burning Man’s temples. While only 6.1% of Burners marked that they belonged to a specific religion, 46.5% in 2016 claimed they were spiritual.
Enough on figures! If you’ve managed to make it this far, congratulations. On the other hand, if you want to learn more, check out the 2016 Burning Man Census data here. My thanks to the Burning Man volunteers who worked so hard to gather and analyze this data.
A few more photos of the people of Burning Man.
NEXT BLOG: Back to Pt. Lobos on the Central California Coast.