Ivy Zmuda:

How I spent my first Burning Man on Clubhouse

Photo credit: Manny Becerra via Unsplash

No, I was not actually in the desert, clad in extravagant costuming talking with others on the Clubhouse platform. Like many others, my hopes of attending this year were dashed by a global pandemic that we may not see the end of for years. I believe, though, that I had the experience of Burning Man, or as close as possible given the current predicament we all face.

I haven’t included this piece in my Clubhouse Chronicles series because it’s a piece that is inherently unobjective: it’s about my feelings, my perceptions, and my experiences. It is an effort to inject some soul and humanity into the current wave of policy pieces about the platform, its inhabitants and its future. It is also highly personal, and ultimately an attempt at virtual reality in text form; to let you hear the things I have heard, and feel the things I have felt.

Having never been to Burning Man, I have had to come to understand it by assimilation rather than firsthand experience. In truth, I have been to a total of one music festival in the before-times, but it was a festival that radically altered the trajectory of my life. Before talking about how Clubhouse was my first Burning Man though, it’s important for me to state how much of my life has been unexpected coincidence, serendipity, and things that shouldn’t have worked.

I was faced with the choice early on in my career of dropping out of university or taking a job with what has now become General Electric’s intelligent platforms division, essentially their business unit for tackling industrial automation. Many told me that if I did drop out, I would regret it for the rest of my life, that I would never “make it”, and other similar warnings against pursuing an unconventional path.

I heard them, but I never really listened to them. I very much enjoyed post-secondary life, I loved living in residence. My social life was full, there was rarely a week where there wasn’t enjoyment, adventure, or real connections being made. But I also knew it would end soon, and I just couldn’t see myself settling down into graduate school. I felt too full of life, rebellion, and a desire to fully embrace the description of one girl against the rest of the world.

Taking that job radically altered the course of my life. I don’t know what the Ivy in reality B would be like, but I also don’t even know if she would call herself by that name. And that’s a possibility so frightening that I will never look back through a pair of ‘what if’ glasses.

Such decisions continued to be made, culminating with my decision to leave a relatively stable tech job for the world of legalized cannabis. In many ways, that part of my journey was also my first Burning Man.

Building an industry from the ground up, attending lavish parties, enjoying some measure of celebrity life all were immensely transformative. I was able to shed so much trauma and doubt that fully coming out as transgender became an option. I must also give credit to my employer, Tantalus Labs, and one of my mentors, Dan Sutton, for enabling all of this, and never once having ‘the talk’ with me about never living life through a filter. Having to guild my words, thoughts, or actions for anyone is another reality that is just too frightening to imagine, or to entertain as a possibility.

I was never invited to Clubhouse. I signed up for early access through the web form, and for some reason was given almost immediate access to the platform. Since I wasn’t invited, I wasn’t given a formal onboarding, and as I opened the app for the first time, I was reminded of the first cannabis conference I had attended. An experience where no one knew my name, I could easily move unseen, and watch those whose words and deeds I had read about and listened to. It took a little while to get my bearings.

Unlike the world of cannabis however, where it did take some time and more than a few moments of serendipity to make my mark, it didn’t take long at all for that to happen on Clubhouse. One of the first rooms I created was to talk about the direction of moderation on the platform, and I was certain no one would join. What I was met with, however, was hours of intelligent and reasoned discourse, and a feeling that this platform truly was not the same repository of division that all other social media platforms have become.

It wasn’t the subject matter, or even the attendance that sent the first Burning Man vibes my way. It was instead that I truly felt listened to, and that my voice mattered. As someone with both a speech impediment and social anxiety, I often feel excluded from ‘normal’ social interactions, which is why I’ve gravitated so much to text-based mediums. In that respect, Clubhouse is almost a perfect balance of real social interaction with obfuscating personal appearance and affect to some degree, which minimizes judgement.

The radical concept of ‘everybody is somebody’ was what really made an impact on me. Rather than the class divisions between the platform elite and everyone else I was used to on social media, I could be judged on the basis of my conduct and content. People early on told me I was, ‘good at Clubhouse’, and the difference between that and being ‘good at Twitter’ really hit home. To be good at Twitter, you have to know who to avoid and what not to say. I really felt as though to be good at Clubhouse, you just had to be unapologetically you.

It was what came after that really solidified my love for the platform. A good size for an intimate conversation on Clubhouse is four to six speakers, and I have had too many of these moments of serendipity and intimacy to count. Some have involved talking about Burning Man experiences, including giving me firsthand advice to be used when I do actually get to attend in person. There is also an element of radical transparency and raw honesty that is hard to put into words, such as this piece of advice: “Your playa boyfriend is not necessarily your actual boyfriend.”

As I wandered in and out of rooms, I felt very much like someone might feel at Burning Man, wandering the playa and sometimes observing, sometimes taking part in the activities, communities, and discussions taking place around me. Sometimes this took the form of large events, sometimes intimate conversations, and other times rooms fell somewhere in-between. Beyond that, I felt accepted, welcomed, and valued.

Feeling these three things in an environment where I was a relative nobody was something very special, and not something that I have been able to find in the real world. I didn’t feel like being queer or transgender was something that was held against me, but rather just part of who I was and what I brought to each conversation. I’ve spoken about my experiences with gender and psychedelics many times on the platform and have been able to both bring and take away something different each time.

A recent late night conversation on psychedelics made me feel exactly as I did while wandering the grounds of Bass Coast amongst the fellow denizens of that festival. It felt exactly as if I had wandered on a group of people, sitting in a circle near one of the stages, and was invited in to share and receive knowledge and emotions.

My experience at Bass Coast radically changed my life, and it felt quite magical. That word is used a lot on Clubhouse to describe both the environment and how it leaves people feeling. Part of that feeling is the relative lack of walls separating socioeconomic classes. I’ve had the chance to become friends with ex-Survivor contestants, candidates for public office, artists, venture capitalists, executives, and others from many other walks of life. In the same way while traversing the paths and villages at Bass Coast had no barriers to participation, neither does Clubhouse.

I have become quite emotional at times over the past few weeks about the possibility of rave culture and music festivals perhaps never returning after the pandemic resolves. It was a community I felt deeply connected to, and welcomed in. I really, really, really hope it hasn’t disappeared forever.

Clubhouse has been able to provide me a window back in time. Not to experience a music festival again, but to enable feeling those feelings of community, connection, and love.

If there’s one thing I have learned about these moments of magic and serendipity, it’s that they can’t be intentionally created or forced. When they are, they are but a jealous shadow of the real thing. What can be done, however, is creating conditions favourable to them happening, which is what I believe both Burning Man and Clubhouse have done. We have to appreciate them, cherish them, but never hold onto them so tightly that they slip through our fingers. There are divided opinions within Burners as to whether the event has gotten “too big”, and the same discussions are currently happening around Clubhouse.

Rather than end this piece on a somber tone however, I’d like to instead position the reality of serendipity in a positive way. It is possible that one day, Clubhouse will no longer feel magical to me, and that’s okay. At that time, it may feel magical to someone else. The magic and serendipity of the universe, in any form, isn’t something to be hoarded. Instead, it’s something to be shared with love and generosity. I have an infinite measure of gratitude for the Clubhouse team, and all the connections that have been facilitated on the platform.

The Clubhouse that is may not be forever, but it will forever occupy a place of magical positivity in my heart and soul. If nothing else, it’s a place that has helped me to no longer feel awkward when people call me Ivy, the person I’ve always been. Perhaps that has more to do with the community than the platform itself, but I’m forever grateful all the same.