The Grateful Dead, Burning Man and the ‘Culture of Generosity’

Lurking somewhere in this post are some more coherent and maybe even profound thoughts than I’m capable of putting together at the moment. Nonetheless I’ve been wanting to get this cluster of thoughts out of my head so I’ll dispense with trying to formulate them more elegantly.

I was struck at Yahoo! Analyst Day several months ago by Jeff Weiner’s remark (attributed to Flickr co-founder Katarina Fake) about the Web, social media and the “culture of generosity.” I don’t know and can’t find the origin of the phrase, but I could attribute it to Burning Man (just concluded). For those unfamiliar with it, Burning Man is the largest gathering on public land in the US (labeled a “counter-culture” event).

With two isolated exceptions (coffee drinks and ice), no money changes hands during the week. People “gift” things to one another. Some people dismiss the festival as a gathering of freaks and geeks. But it’s much more complex, serious and interesting as a social phenomenon. Some of the people and the values on display at Burning Man are driving the current generation of web applications and startups.

But now turn the clock back to the Grateful Dead era (1965-1995). The Grateful Deal predated the advent of Burning Man by 30 years, but there was a brief overlap. The year Grateful Dead lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia died was the year Burning Man began on the beach in San Francisco.

The Grateful Dead did something very interesting and contrary to conventional wisdom: they allowed people at their concerts to freely tape the performance and trade those tapes without seeking to regulate that marketplace. This is something that most musicians and record companies then and now would shun because they would anticipate that it would “cannibalize” revenues. But exactly the opposite happened.

Among other practices, this free recording opportunity helped build loyalty and made “The Dead” one of the most successful concert acts of its generation.

So how does this relate to anything?

My late-night thinking in trying to awkwardly tie all this together, without getting Utopian, is that people will ultimately pay for or otherwise reward value and making that value apparent and accessible to them will, in the long term, create revenue opportunities. The circuitous pathway to success that Craigslist has traveled is a distant cousin of all this.

Right now fear and a corresponding conservatism pervades much of the traditional media world. But new thinking – and unconventional thinking – is required to make the leap from where we are to where the market is going.

Traditional media, especially newspapers, must take risks and think in very different ways than they’re used to if they’re to really be competitive online. But the same is true of yellow pages publishers. For example, I mentioned Viacom’s ParentsConnect in my earlier post. Is this a yellow pages site? No. Is it a competitor to yellow pages? Quite possibly.

Publishers must rise to the challenge of new consumer behaviors and attitudes, new competitors and new thinking. And community, a very traditional value that permeated the “culture” of The Grateful Dead and is central to Burning Man, is manifesting in many fascinating ways online. Community is also something that most traditional media companies and publishers have been very slow to cultivate.

For now, I’ll leave these thoughts here . . . and incomplete. But that’s the beauty of blogging.

3 Responses to “The Grateful Dead, Burning Man and the ‘Culture of Generosity’”

  1. ‘Visual’ UIs, Maps and Next-Gen Search « Screenwerk Says:

    […] Unfortunately . . . this is in the realm of incomplete thoughts also (as was my Grateful Dead post). This collection of thoughts was originally inspired by Flickr’s introduction of geotagging and the companion notion of more and more visual information making its way into search. […]

  2. YouTube to Announce Deal with Warner Music « Screenwerk Says:

    […] What’s interesting here is the recognition and acceptance of something that’s already going on rarther than trying to shut it down through litigation. Warner may reap both short term and longer-term benefits by being open with its catalog. (See my “Grateful Dead” post.) […]

  3. Next Up for Online Video: User-Edited Content « Screenwerk Says:

    […] Warner Music has impliedly embraced this next trend, while Universal is angrily resisting. Although the DRM (digital rights management) issues are thorny it makes no sense to resist. For an explanation as to why, I point back to my Grateful Dead post and the YouTube/Lazy Sunday experience. […]

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