Burning Man memes: Is is ok to laugh at the chaos-stricken festival?

Burning Man memes: Is is ok to laugh at the chaos-stricken festival?
Burning Man exodus begins following torrential rain in Nevada
CBC English / VideoElephant

Burning Man festival is the talk of the internet, with horrendous weather making the Nevada desert festival one of the biggest stories in the news agenda and one of the best meme trend of 2023 – but should it be?

Festivals are washed out all the time, after all. Everyone has seen pictures of mud-diving crowds at UK festivals on rainy Glastonbury weekends. Bad weather at festivals is just another part of the experience most of the time. But this is different.

It’s one of the biggest festivals in the US, and more than 70,000 people were trapped on site after an unexpected storm hit. The event quickly slipped into chaos over the weekend, as flooding caused the entrances to be shut, with nearby roads to be closed and chaotic scenes at Black Rock. People in attendance have been urged to save water and food over concerns over shortages of equipment, with people trapped on site.

People did make the decision to walk away from the festival against guidance from organisers due to damage to the surface of the playa caused by vehicles, and the experience sounds traumatic to say the least.

“It was an incredibly harrowing 6 mile hike at midnight through heavy and slippery mud, but I got safely out of Burning Man,” Former US Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal tweeted on Sunday about the experience.

People are now beginning to leave the site after things opened up on Monday.

Getty Images

“We will be opening for Exodus on Monday morning 9/4. We will inform the community as soon as we make the decision by 9am,” a statement from the festival read.

An unnamed man has also died at the event, although its thought to be unrelated to the extreme weather. It’s also not surprising that a number of conspiracy theories have emerged. And all of them rebuffed pretty quickly, including inaccurate claims that the event has been the subject of an Ebola outbreak.

In a statement to indy100, the Bureau of Land Management's (which oversees the Black Rock Desert site) public information officer for Burning Man said: "I can confirm the event entrance was closed for the year because unusual rainfall caused muddy conditions where there was a full stop on vehicles, and not for an Ebola outbreak.

"We have heard no information of any participants with Ebola."

In a press release sent on Sunday, Burning Man organisers added: "The online rumors of transmissible illnesses in Black Rock City are unfounded and untrue."

"People are sharing resources and looking after one another ... There is music playing, camp meals being shared, socializing, and walking around the playa to look at art and interact as a community," they wrote.

There are still genuine health concerns, though. An anonymous Los Angeles physician told Insider that an Ebola outbreak is unlikely, and that the bad weather means attendees are more likely to be at risk of hypothermia.

All of the disinformation and speculation calls into question the nature of the discourse surrounding the disastrous event, and whether or not it’s acceptable to be making a joke of it all.

This year, more than ever it seems, the way social media users react to major events has betrayed a cruel streak in internet discourse. News stories that have provoked international reaction have been trivialised many times already in 2023 – most notably the incredibly mean-spirited takes racking up millions of reactions on the Titan Submersible disaster.

It leads us to ask, should we be making fun of the people trapped on site at Burning Man, who have gone through something pretty traumatic? Perhaps we’ll only know for sure once people are safely evacuated from the site, with the benefit of hindsight.

In the case of Burning Man, though, it’s reputation might be clouding people’s judgement – and make them ready to criticise and joke, when really they should be sharing the concerns of the people on the ground in Nevada. Many people feel the event has become something of a status symbol for tech entrepreneurs in recent years, but should a disenfranchisement with the clientele mean we should be revelling in their suffering?

Either way, the nature of the reaction to Burning Man’s disastrous 2023 event has split opinion online. Some clearly believe the event is fair game, and didn’t hold back in lampooning the event.

Others, however, clearly believed that relishing in joking about the event while people were still stuck on site was crossing a line – especially as some people had friends and relatives there.

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