Burning Man has a gift economy. In my opinion this is the single greatest thing about the entire event. If you have never been there, you can't imagine how liberating it is not to even think about money for an entire week. Once through the gate, you can't sell anything, you can't buy anything (except Ice and Coffee and the proceeds from those go towards helping the local community). The gift economy is somewhat of a misnomer - it's more about being in a giving state of mind than it is about an actual form of economic structure.
Gifting Is Not Barter
First and foremost - do not confuse gifting with barter. A barter is a transaction. Gifting is giving something without expectation of something in return. We live in a transactional world and it's a hard habit to break, but leave that in the default world. When someone gifts you on the playa a simple thank you is all that is expected from you, although in most cases a thank you and a hug is even better.
What Makes The Gift Economy So Special
Receiving gifts is self explanatory, but there is more to it. The giver of the gift gets to see the joy on the receivers face - much like watching kids on Christmas morning. So by giving you are receiving too.
What Should I Give
This subject drives many first timers bonkers. The bottom line is that a gift does not have to be a material thing. Giving of yourself in the way of a helping hand, performance, etc... is also gifting. If you have a way to keep them frozen, something as simple as an otter pop during the heat of the day will make a burners day. One of my most memorable gifts was from someone who walked into camp after I had been on the playa for 12 days and handing everyone in camp frozen ice cream pops. Another was a personalized bracelet made for me by a fellow Eplayan. Regardless, I remember every person along with every gift and all are kept on display in a place of honor. The more durable ones I wear until I depart for next years burn. As for material gifts here is a list of popular ones:
- Handmade stuff of all types.
- Necklaces, pendants, dog tags, etc...
- Practical stuff to those in need - the possibilities here are endless but lip balm, lighters, dust masks, lights, and toilet paper are pretty common ones that you may have a spare of.
- Food - Sharing interesting food, especially bacon is a common pastime during the day. Be sure to read the guidelines about this if you plan to do more than share with your neighbors.
- Alcohol - Sharing booze is a very popular pastime on the playa, in fact there are many camps whose entire presence is devoted to running a bar and giving away booze.
- Camp swag is always popular. This usually is something that shows the camp's name and / or logo and the year, however these are generally coordinated by theme camps and outside the realm of this discussion.
What Shouldn't I Gift
Just as there are gifts that most burners love to get, there are those that burners detest. Avoid giving:
- Cheap crappy toys - avoid buying gifting items from places like oriental trading.
- Generally anything paper should be thought through first - most paper things will end up on the trash fence.
- Fast food coupons.
- Stuff that is likely to become Moop (matter out of place i.e. - litter).
- The free bookmarks you got at the library.
- Your bodily effluvia in their evaporation pond.
- Anything that shows a complete lack of thought or care.
In terms of tangible items, optimal gift choices are those that don't need to be placed in something - remember that the person you choose to gift may be naked or have no pockets. Not that other things can't be great gifts, but someone may not be thrilled to have to carry it. When making gifts try to think wearable (such as necklaces, bracelets, bandannas, clip ons, etc...). Stickers are fairly popular as they can be stuck to the body. Even practical items such as lip balm are improved greatly by attaching a neck lanyard to it.
When To Gift
This is purely a matter of personal preference, but here is how I do it:
Gifting my time / help - whenever I see anyone who could use it.
Gifting Brands - Whenever someone requests one and I feel sober enough to do it right.
Gifting my handcrafted stuff - to burners I have made some form of connection with in the form of a conversation or shared experience.
Gifting Special Stuff - I bring a very few special hand crafted items to gift to those I have made some sort of special connection with.
As you may have noticed above, I am freely giving of my help. Since the amount of hand crafted things I can bring is limited, I am a bit more particular about who I give them to. Others gift more randomly or with a shotgun approach. How you do it is up to you - everyone burns differently and there is no right way to burn.
For 2014 I had a cattle brand made and freely gifted brands of the man logo to any who wanted one. Both on skin or leather objects. It was great fun for all, a lasting remembrance, and bonding experience. We ended up doing dozens of human brands and where else but Burning Man could you use a cattle brand on your prom date!
We had such great fun with the branding that I will likely do it as long as I continue burning, and as of 2017 I stopped counting at well over 1,000 brands done. If this interests you stop in to Hookers & Makers Camp in Barbie Death Village and ask for Brand X (also known by some as Bobbin). Click here for more details about branding if this interests you. Another of my favorite pieces of swag shown here - the purple fur tail hanging from my kilt was gifted to me by Ratty.
Generally large scale gifting is organized by an entire camp. Common ones include, bars, food, entertainment, and so forth. One that I'm always glad to encounter is this camp doing silk screening right on the playa. These guys rocked it big time with a six station screening press and automated heat tunnel.
Which combined to make one awesome piece of swag - the 2014 ticket on a tee shirt!