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How controlling Burning Man ticket sales is like stopping spam

2012 February 10
by stefann

— on how game theory radically beat the Burning Man Board who apparently hasn’t read Freakonomics and what’s a better solution —

If you’re even remotely connected to Burning Man or remotely interested in finally going, you probably know about the “tragedy” the ensued recently with regards to ticket distribution and sales. For the rest of you, the succinct story is that in 2011, for the first time in the event’s 25+ year history, ticket sales hit the 55,000 max capacity in month 6 of the 7 month period prior to the event, when the box office is open.

Because it was clear that from 2012 onwards demand will exceed supply, the organizers thought it was a good idea to somehow level the playing field by holding a lottery for the bulk of the tickets in month 1 of the 7 month sales period for 2012. Baaad idea! The growing global popularity plus the growing interest for scalping from speculators over-subscribed the available ticket pool by 3:1.

The result is that over half of the people who attend the event regularly and contribute to building the large scale art installations and famous art cars that make up the core attraction of the event (aka theme camps), of which I am one, have not secured tickets. This threatens the feasibility of many large projects without which Burning Man has no service to provide so-to-speak.

For the gory details you can read the communique from the BM Community Manager, but I want to focus on why the Board should have known better and what is a better alternative.

Wrong assumption #1:

A first-come first-served system would not meet the demand either. We’d have to use the same type of “queuing system” that meant hours waiting in line at your computer screen – a luxury perhaps not available to many perfectly deserving Burners. — [emphasis mine]

For context, one should know that in past years tickets were sold through a website that put buyers in a queue as it processed transactions, which would take on the order of a few seconds/buyer. If you have 10,000 buyers in one day however, there will be a average wait of several hours till the transaction would get processed during which an active browser session had to be kept. Certainly an inconvenience compared to not having to wait at all, but not at all an inconvenience compared to not being able to buy a ticket at all!

I appreciate the well-intended thought of caring about people’s time. But this is a matter of not knowing your audience. “Deserving” Burners (i.e. those to put in the time and effort to contribute art) become “deserving” by putting up with all the difficulties of getting to BM. These are folks who dedicate months of each year and years of each life, spending hard earned paychecks, to endure harsh weather to build something most people find insane (like Tour de France insane).

If 8 hours in front of a computer is what it takes to get a ticket then it shall be so. In fact, the effort required to participate is what makes Burning Man, Burning Man. The logistics, preparation, and Leave No Trace requirement filter out many participants who are just looking to crash a good party.

Wrong assumption #2:

thinking we wanted to ensure a fair shake at the new system for Burners, we decided to leave registration open for two full weeks, just to be sure that any who were out on vacation or away from your computers for the announcement had plenty of time to get a fair shot.

Ahem! So let me see… These folks who plan their whole life around going to Burning Man, many of which don’t even take any other vacation, you thought they might have just hopped on a flight to the Bahamas to relax after closing an intense M&A deal and maybe, just maybe, they might have missed your email telling them when the box office would open ?!? Anybody who’s part of a core theme camp is very much watching all announcements and making sure to be on top of the ticket procurement process, camp registration submissions, etc.

The more you leave the window open the more you equalize the chances between regular and casual attendees. Yes, of course, some people would miss the announcement or first day of sales, but you have to compare that inconvenience not with the perfect world but with the reality of decreasing the chances across all regular Burners not just those very few who don’t read email on “vacations”. Seriously, even my friends who live in a hippie commune “off-the-grid” have 3G Internet access at the edge of their property for once-in-a-while email checking.

Wrong assumption #3:

We can now see that some of that happened simply because the perception of scarcity drove fear and action for all of us. We were quite naïve to think we had much control over a basic emotional response to scarcity. Game theory won out over good wishes.

This is a simple matter of ignoring science which we’re taught because it works (at least until proven otherwise). To think that you could be written up in Huff Post, have viral videos on You Tube with >1 mil views, and a pre-sale survey that shows 40% of potential attendees self-report as not having participated before, and still think you’re not susceptible to crowd dynamics that govern the “real world” is well, you said it… naive…

What’s a better solution?

The Burning Man Board should have kept the queue system rather that switch to lottery and should have increased the effort and wait time to procure a ticket. Yes, you read correctly, increase not decrease the effort and the wait time.

As both organizers and regular participants were aware, the event already reached a tipping point beyond which demand will outpace supply for the foreseeable future. So being “fair” and accommodating everyone who would ever want to go to Burning Man already became impossible. The goal should be to make sure you have continuous participation from core folks who volunteer to build art and who carry on the values and to make it harder for scalpers to get their hands on a ticket.

Discouraging scalpers (or people who abuse resources) is something the tech industry had to deal with as it moved to online services which are very easily accessible. How do you stop someone from spamming with email esp. if you can’t tell how a spam email is different from a regular email? Introduce effort! If you make sending an email take 5 seconds instead of 0.1 seconds the average user isn’t inconvenienced much, but you ruin the business plan of a spammer who must send out millions of messages in a day to get to the 0.1% who actually purchase from spam email.

When the BM Board switched from a queue system to a lottery system that was open for two weeks it made it extremely easy for scalpers and non-regulars to try their chances. They reduced the effort from 6 hours to 30 seconds! Yes, it introduced an element of chance, but by the very nature of probabilities more scalpers will get tickets this way. They also allowed the “friends and family” phenomena to spawn (where one asks friends and family to enter the lottery). Which friend would stand in line for 8 hours to get you a ticket?

So what better method of self-selection between those truly dedicated to the event, to the values, and to the community than to throw some Self Reliance into the ticket purchase process? Think scalpers would rebuild and clean their tent multiple times after going through a sand-storm? Make the experience of buying a ticket more like the experience of attending Burning Man itself ! Make it harder not easier biatches and maybe we’ll get it right for 2013 ! :)

(and I mean that with good-hearted humor in a respectful way: I truly do appreciate all the hard work every volunteer is putting in to make BM happen!).

The point about reading Freakonomics is that it explains in very plain language phenomena that is at play here: incentives, crowd behavior, anonymous participation.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Mark Novak permalink
    February 10, 2012

    This problem is with us is because the organizers ignored the rules of economics. These rules are in full force now precisely because the event has sold out – the supply trails demand so now tickets are a scarce commodity.

    We know how to deal with such problems.

    1. A tiered price structure cannot be fair on its own. Someone who wants a cheaper ticket must not win a lottery, or be early in line, but actually do some work – contribute to the event, be part of the staff, volunteer in their community, etc.
    2. For non-tiered tickets, there is a system that researchers have proven multiple times is fair and efficient – it is called a “Dutch Auction”. It would make tickets more expensive (hey, supply trails demand!) but it would ensure a non-lottery, market determined price. Burning Man would end up collecting more money, which it could refund back to the community by way of helping out with the cost of theme camps, art installations, or flat out donations to charity.
    3. Scalpers must be dealt with, and the only way to do this is through elimination of secondary market. Name on ticket is an easy way of achieving this.

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