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 future.
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 dilemma, 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 $1500.
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.
Image by millicent_bystander, courtesy of Creative Commons license.