At the exact same time Facebook filed for its IPO last week, Burning Man, the iconic counter-culture art festival held annually in the Nevada desert, began announcing the results of its first-ever, ill-fated ticket lottery system.
Designed to overcome the computer glitches and server crashes that beleaguered the 2011 ticket sale, the 2012 random lottery system succeeded mainly in infuriating long-time Burning Man participants, about 70 per cent of whom did not get tickets.
“So turned off by this process that after 5 years of joyously attending Burning Man, I don’t even want to bother trying to get a ticket,” one person wrote on the event blog. “Burning Man’s innocence is lost.”
Burning Man’s main explanation for the ticket debacle: it’s Facebook’s fault.
Many Burning Man participants had criticised the idea of a lottery system, saying it would encourage scalpers and cause participants to hoard tickets for their friends.
Attempting to explain what happened, the San Francisco-based Burning Man organization sent an email to participants late Thursday night that said no, it’s not the scalpers, and they don’t think it’s the hoarders either.
It’s all the testimonials and photos and videos about the event going viral on social networks that are to blame.
“Thanks in part to thousands of enthusiastic storytellers from throughout Burning Man’s history, the number of people who want to burn now exceeds the current capacity of the city in the desert,” wrote Andie Grace, Burning Man’s communications manager. “This was a possibility at every point in our history, of course, but the speed and scale were surprising.”
She offered the example of a video some participants made at Burning Man in 2011, where burners wearing fur bikinis and dust masks take turns reciting lines from the Dr Seuss book, Oh, the places you’ll go!, while walking by fire-breathing art cars or climbing 20-foot-high geodesic domes.
“The link hit the Huffington Post in January and went viral, eventually hitting 1.3 million views from all around the world,” Ms Grace said. “Its visibility peaked right around the day that ticket registration opened.”
As a result of viral threads like these, three times as many people requested tickets this year as Burning Man had available to sell, she said. They believe, based on earlier polls, that 40 per cent of people who said they would buy tickets this year had never before been to the event.
Social media has rocketed several cultural phenomena into the mainstream, from Justin Bieber to the Double Rainbow guy. But getting people to offer up their credit cards and buy something based on a video they saw on Facebook is a much larger hurdle that marketers – and Facebook alike – are desperately trying to clear.
If social media is truly behind the oversubscription of Burning Man tickets, it will become a legendary case study in digital marketing.
In the meantime, Burning Man said it has some serious Silicon Valley-style data analysis to do to figure out exactly who requested tickets and who received them, and find a way to get tickets to the veteran burners who build and organise the theme camps and art cars that make the event what it is.