Each One Teach One: Lessons from AfrikaBurn and Usenet

Last year, I had the privilege of driving halfway across the longest dirt road in South Africa to volunteer at AfrikaBurn. At almost 10,000 participants, AfrikaBurn is the largest regional Burning Man event in the world – in fact, many there see it as a sister event rather than a regional.

While the differences between Burning Man and AfrikaBurn were apparent from the start, one thing stuck out immediately: they had an Eleventh Principle. Added to the list of ten that we all know and love (and yet can never seem to fully remember) was the phrase “Each One Teach One”, followed by a brief description of the importance of acculturating new members of the community.

The Eleventh Principle

Now, most Burners reading this will shrug and point out that we do the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. While most certainly take responsibility for first-timers that they bring out to the playa, it isn’t a clear community practice that we teach alongside radical self-reliance. It needs to be.

In 1980, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis created Usenet, a collection of online newsgroups for people to share links and chat. As the community developed, as all communities do, it formed a unique culture. Every September, however, college freshman who had access to the World Wide Web for the first time would flood the discussions. Not understanding the culture of Usenet or how they were expected to behave, they often made fools of themselves. With community feedback, though, these new members learned, grew, and eventually helped acculturate the next wave of eager college freshman.

Then, America Online appeared in 1993, bringing the World Wide Web into the family living room. Suddenly, so many people joined Usenet that the existing community could not pass on local culture and values quickly enough. Post quality fell into a downward spiral, and the Eternal September began.

The downfall of Usenet carries with it a lesson that is critical to Burning Man. With approximately 35% of participants in 2014 identifying as first-timers, the sustainability of the event hinges on our actively reaching out to teach the principles that make our community special. Not just to our first-timer friends, but also to those playa neighbors who just rolled up in their trailer, bouncing with excitement and lacking a single clue about what they have gotten themselves into. Or that guy who just walked up to you asking where he can throw away his garbage. Or, most importantly, the countless people in your local area who just got a ticket to Burning Man and don’t know what to do next.

San Clan 2014” by Axxter99 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The AfrikaBurn community seems keenly aware of this, and their Eleventh Principle guides efforts to actively engage and mentor new participants. Similar efforts are beginning to appear in the American Burning Man community, with local Q&A events being organized to help new Burners as they prepare for the event.

The more we do this, the more people will go to Burning Man already understanding the importance of radical self-reliance and civic responsibility. This will help Burning Man evolve into the event that we always knew it could be, with Yellow Bikes roaming free all week and toilet seats clean enough to eat bacon off of.

What a wonderful Burn that will be.

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