Six Degrees of Separation at Burning Man

Today the alkaline desert is quiet. The roar of techno music and flamethrowers has been replaced with the soft clink of rakes and trash cans. Thousands of people put aside their hangovers to methodically clean the desert. After a dedicated communal cleaning, Burning Man, one of the largest arts events in the world, spanning seven days and involving over 70,000 participants, leaves not a single wrapper on the desert. Among the swarm of salt-crusted denizens of this ephemeral city (known as Burners) is us: a scientist who studies cooperation, an industrial designer, and a Silicon Valley security CEO. Among the dismantled rigs, lifeless pyrotechnics, and bowed heads of Burners absorbed in cleaning, we are here trying to answer a simple question: How, after so many years, could Burning Man throw an event of such chaos, and yet leave the desert without a trace? What leads thousands of people in such an extreme environment to consistently engage in cooperative behavior at a scale seldom seen in society?

To answer that question, we must start our journey at the MIT Media Lab, in an aptly named research group: Scalable Cooperation. This group studies how technologies—social media, the Internet, artificial intelligence—can empower cooperative human networks. The group’s heritage includes the scientists who solved DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge in 2008, in which the United States government scattered 10 red weather balloons across the continental U.S., and instructed teams of researchers to locate them as fast as possible. The winning MIT team found all 10 balloons in just under nine hours using the virality of social media and an incentive structure that motivated people to recruit their friends. This result was a resounding success for crowdsourcing and the Internet at large, demonstrating that a collective of individuals, connected through technology, could together solve large-scale problems that no individual could solve alone.

Our experiment was a play on the famous Small World Experiment, which led to the phrase, “six degrees of separation.”

This same team, however, struggled with other Internet-based forms for mass cooperation. During the 2011 DARPA Shredder Challenge, which involved recruiting and coordinating individuals on the Internet to collectively recombine shredded documents, people took advantage of rendering cooperation impossible. Fast-forward five years, to the 2016 presidential election, and we see how this antagonism can be a serious problem for genuine collective action. Bad actors proliferated misinformation at such a rate that declared, “The Internet trolls have won. Sorry, there’s not much you can do.”

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