What You Learn Trying To Crowdfund $7.3 Billion Dollars To Build A Burning Man Wall

Last month you may have seen my face. It was the face asking you to contribute to a $7.3 billion dollar crowdfunding campaign that would build a 300-mile wall around the bay area during the week of Burning Man. I urged you to “make the best week in San Francisco last forever.”

Now I’m back to being a regular schlub whose face isn’t doing squat aside from occasionally itching. Since the viral part is over and now my company, Cultivated Wit, is nothing but washed up internet has-beens, I figured we might as well reflect on what we learned and share it in a Medium post. The official closing chapter of any Silicon Valley talking point.

Before I sigh deeply and begin reflecting, here’s some synthesis:

  • The campaign lived on a made up crowdfunding site for massive infrastructure projects we called Megagogo. Just to be abundantly clear: We made this up. It’s not real.
  • That Megagogo page saw 200,000+ visitors within the first 48 hours.
  • The video had more than 120,000 plays within that same window of time.
  • Those numbers occurred with virtually zero distribution. We shared it within our Cultivated Wit community, but didn’t partner with any larger sites or pay for ads.
  • This means everything that happened was 100% “organic” / “earned” / “earnganic”
  • And one more time because a significant percentage of the media and public at large did not grasp this, the campaign was a joke. It was not real. We took no money.

Great. So here are some things we now know after making a satire thing people found funny and shared with their friends…

Everyone Wants To Know Where An Idea Comes From

The answer to this is never quite as exciting as I think people imagine it in their heads. But because it’s the most frequently asked question, here is the answer. In this case, the recipe was one part easy observation (“Man, non-burners sure do love Burning Man week”), one part absurd riffing on that notion (“What if we tried to crowdfund a wall to make that week last forever?”), and roughly two years of letting all that stew (“Remember that Burning Man wall idea? I still think that’s funny.”).

Once we decided to finally do it, three important builds on the core idea pushed it to a state of readiness:

1.) We first discussed walling off or dropping a dome over Black Rock City to trap everybody there. But that felt too logical and obvious. Building the wall around SF, essentially trapping ourselves inside, felt stupider and, thus, funnier.

2.) We briefly entertained making it a real project on Indiegogo or Kickstarter, but we doubted that they’d allow it. Then we considered skinning a fake page that looked exactly like one of those sites. But at that point we figured we might as well invent our own fake crowdfunding site where a $7.3 billion dollar project would feel less out of place. That birthed Megagogo, “the funding platform for large-scale infrastructure,” perhaps our favorite component of the whole thing.

3.) It felt essential that we not let the wall be the entire joke. It made for a great headline, but ultimately felt superficial, a little easy, and only amounted to “Burners are weird and should go away.” So we agreed to turn the mission of building this wall into an opportunity to forge a more perfect community. A chance to instill founding principles (stolen directly from Burning Man). And more than anything, our moment to set an example that could inspire the entire planet. All that rhetoric — the kind you see in actual Burning Man crowdfunding efforts, of which we watched far too many — felt like the more deserving target.

Okay, we’ll admit that No. 10 is not a part of the Burning Man principles.

Analytics, Facebook’s Power, & Media Spread

Guess what everybody? Facebook is powerful. Like, 80% of our traffic powerful. Consider us members of the ever-growing hoard of people wishing Facebook’s analytics were better, not to mention more honest *ahem video plays ahem*. I wish we knew more about that giant slice of our traffic pie, beyond how much was mobile (most of it). Burning Man’s official Facebook page was one of the first to share the link and we suspect that single share to be the most influential traffic driver. But alas, we can’t really know for sure.

Our favorite piece of data underscores a pretty core philosophy of our company: that constructing jokes with computer code in addition to words and video is exciting, immersive, and doggone-it people like it. That’s evident in the 34,773 clicks on our “Related Projects” at the bottom of the page. There were no links, but it’s pretty clear that a world where we built pages for Reroute The Mississippi River, Tunnel Under The Midwest, and LA Blimps! would have been a world that made more people happier.

The map might be my favorite joke within the entire campaign.

The final observation here: as fun and exhilarating as it is to get massive amounts of media pickup, it doesn’t drive traffic. At least not much. Sure, there are less quantitative benefits that increased exposure can offer, but if traffic is your biggest goal then convincing blogs to write about you probably won’t help too much. Of the 50+ sites that wrote about this wall, they combined to provide us with roughly 11 percent of our traffic. If a major component of journalism’s long term health is its ability to drive awareness and attention, then that number is scary. Meanwhile Facebook’s 80 percent number, well, says plenty about media’s biggest challenge.

Whole Lotta Reblogging, Whole Not-Lotta Reporting

Continuing on the journalism thread, of those 50+ media outlets that ran some piece of content about this campaign a total of four reached out to us for some sort of comment. Four.

I’ll acknowledge that this fell into a pretty meme-y category of internet talking points, and nearly all the “facts” involved were jokes. But in the carnivorous quest to crank out copy we saw numbers misreported, Cultivated Wit called a “comedy troupe” on multiple occasions, and far, far too many respectable outlets taking the site at face value and assuming we had actually raised all that money.

As a sidenote on that, we did notice a pretty direct correlation between people who believed the site was real and who cannot distinguish the difference between billions and millions when the number is listed out in full.

There’s something interesting to me about this “Hey, check it out!” variety of reporting / content creation. Namely how it doesn’t really amount to anything more than the Facebook content those media outlets are essentially trying to compete with in the first place. The value of the 300-word glorified reblog is lost on me, but maybe that’s just because I still subscribe to printed Sunday newspapers.

In the end, somebody out there could have grabbed the headline “We Talked To The Creators Of The Burning Man Wall Campaign” and nobody went for it. And thus, here I am writing on Medium.

The “Techie Gentrifier” Assumption

Within the small amount of negativity projected at this campaign the phrase “techie gentrifier” got bandied about on more than one occasion, and always in reference to me, the host of the video. I feel like there’s a whole bunch of fascinating Bay Area analysis within the prevalence of those two words.

For starters, the assumption that the campaign was orchestrated by techie gentrifiers immediately suggests the commenter believed the campaign was real. They had to believe it stemmed from an actual member of the SF community and not comedians — excuse me, a comedy troupe — or they wouldn’t have been angry in the first place. That assumption says three things to me:

1.) The Bay Area is not very familiar with comedy or commentary emerging from within their community.

2.) The Bay Area is very familiar with harebrained ideas that have ludicrous amounts of money attached to them.

3.) Everybody, for the most part, still believes something if the web page looks legitimate enough. Our bullshit-o-meters are not yet well tuned for the internet. Basically if numbers move and links don’t take you directly to a bunch of clown and banana GIFs, a good percentage of people will think it’s real.

That last one isn’t too shocking, but the first two really reveal something about this city. There is plenty of absurdity here and very little of it is self-aware or intentional. When I moved here three years ago I expected to find a larger, more organized contingent of people tackling the culture here with commentary or satire. I see it sporadically and usually conducted by rogue individuals with a funny idea, but I wish there was more.

So yeah, let’s do that. Let’s make more. If you want to help San Francisco tune their bullshit-o-meters by dumping more jokes into the regular wash of tech news and Kickstarter campaigns, email me (brian@cultivatedwit.com). Or at least just join our mailing list.

We might not be able to build a wall, but we can at least assemble a decent amount of goof offs who find their fun somewhere besides a desert.

Yours Truly,
TG

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