JULIE JAMMOT I Getty Images.

AT THE END of last week and into the weekend, nightly news bulletins featured scenes of mass flooding at the Burning Man festival in Nevada. Flooding, of course, is standard fare on news bulletins these days, as our increasingly fragile climate warps weather patterns. If it’s not floods, it’s crippling heatwaves. But this flood was different, because for once those mired in muddy turmoil weren’t poor people who already have enough to contend with without biblical-level natural disasters befalling them, it was the wealthy: tech bros, the creative class, new age hippies and, of course, influencers. Lots of influencers.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with Burning Man, it’s a nine (nine!) day festival in which 70,000 people from all over the globe descend on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. There revellers, or spiritual truth-seekers, as many of the attendees might describe themselves, form a pop-up city in the desert, share resources, and experience all the grounds have to offer. The festival ends with the symbolic burning of a man-shaped totem pole.

This year heavy rain reduced the desert floor into thick mud that no one could drive through. As a safety precaution, the event organisers closed the roads leading in and out of the campsite. By Monday, though, the ground had begun to dry, and attendees were finally able to leave.

Now, I don’t know about you, but as I watched these scenes play out each night on the news, rather than nod sadly at my TV and feel some semblance of pity at the attendees’ plight, I instead found myself internally forming the words ‘sucked in’. I was enjoying, not the suffering of my fellow humans, but the hellish inconvenience to them. This was pure, unadulterated schadenfreude, unbound by the usual constraints that usually accompany a natural disaster: that people might actually be suffering or that livelihoods are at stake. Here in the desert, this wasn’t the case—one person reportedly died at the festival but it was unrelated to the weather.

JULIE JAMMOT | Getty Images

The results of the floods had a startling impact on social media. Rather than feeds being lit up by day-glo images of a particular type of off-the-grid, braided-hair hedonism, we instead got sodden reels of campervans getting bogged and BMXs fossilised in clay.

I admit experiencing a similar smugness when watching the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix, and I will cop to feeling a little pleased when last year’s Splendour in the Grass festival became a sloshy shitshow.

Where do these feelings come from? Am I, are we, all closet sociopaths who secretly wish misery on our fellow humans. Yes and no. If those humans are celebrities, nepo-babies, tech bros, bankers, or influencers, which despite Burning Man’s counter-cultural roots, is the type of clientele it increasingly attracts, then yes, guilty as charged. But still, where does that enmity come from?

Envy is the most likely culprit. Who wouldn’t like to have the freedom and means to sip on Ayahuasca and frolic about in an alternate spiritual realm in the desert for nine (nine!) days? Most of us, I suspect.

That envy is perhaps also indicative of what a festival like Burning Man, and possibly Coachella, represents. Attendance isn’t just an experience. It’s a cultural badge of honour that carries with it the patina of rarefied, elusive hipsterdom. It’s out-of-reach enough to be almost mythical, which is perhaps why if you know anyone who has actually attended, you will have born witness to them drop it into all manner of incongruent conversations: “Can’t believe a bunch of bananas is $7 bucks. Reminds me of when I was at Burning Man and they were charging $15 for bottled water.” As a typically merciless Betoota Advocate headline read this week, “Oh no: photos from 2023 Burning Man floods gives former attendees reason to talk about Burning Man”.

We also shouldn’t ignore the presence of another rather base emotion at play here: FOMO. Not so much in the case of these ‘elite’ festivals, like Burning Man or Fyre, but certainly with Splendour, a rite of passage for twenty-somethings, it can be annoying when people you know have actually got their shit together and gone rather than just talking about it. When things go wrong; your friends get a flat tyre or their tent gets flooded with faeces, for example, you can’t help but feel a little happy about it.

Of course, genuine schadenfreude is contingent on the stakes involved. If Burning Man had resulted in hundreds of deaths, we would feel very differently about it. Similarly, if you’ve ever watched footage of the Rolling Stones play at the Altamont Festival in 1969, in which five people died, including one who was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel, the grimly macabre scene means you don’t feel anything but pity for anyone who was there. More recently, the crowd crush at the Astroworld festival in Texas in 2021, in which eight people died and 300 were injured, or the 2016 Falls Festival crush in Lorne, in which 70 people were injured, are genuine tragedies in which the victims deserve our sympathy. They also highlight how dangerous festival mismanagement can be.

At this point, it is perhaps worth looking at schadenfreude more broadly. A German word meaning ‘harm-joy’, it’s defined in English as the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Not surprisingly, it has its detractors. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called it “an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness”. A little OTT perhaps, but I suspect Schopenhauer had never seen an influencer drop their phone in a portaloo.

Festivalgoers began to evacuate the grounds on Monday morning.
JULIE JAMMOT | Getty Images

While schadenfreude is perhaps on shaky ground in a purely moral universe, that’s not where we live. The fact is society needs a little enjoyment at the misfortune of others to sustain it and to distract us from the troubles and misfortunes that inevitably befall all of us from time to time. If the targets of schadenfreude are the wealthy, the famous and grifters attempting to become wealthy and famous (read: influencers) and no one gets hurt, then you have to ask, where is the harm?

The reason the celebrity gossip mag persists to this day is because many of us like to look at a pic of a flabby actor looking glum or a starlet’s cellulite to feel better about ourselves while we purchase groceries. The internet and social media have, of course, supercharged this once private emotion into a collective, gleeful blood sport, but again, if the targets are sufficiently insulated by their wealth and fame, I don’t see the harm.

Tiffany Watt Smith, author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune makes a particularly compelling and eloquent case for the emotion: “Schadenfreude may appear antisocial. Yet it is a feature of many of our most cherished communal rituals, from sports to gossip. It may seem misanthropic, yet it is enmeshed in so much of what is distinctly human about how we live: the instinct for justice and fairness; a need for hierarchies and the quest for status within them; the desire to belong to and protect the groups that keep us safe. It may seem superior and demeaning, yet it also speaks of our need to appreciate the absurdity of our attempts to appear in control in a world forever slipping out of our grasp. It might seem isolating and divisive, but it testifies to our need to not feel alone in our disappointments, but to seek the consolations of being part of a community of the failed.”

So no, don’t feel guilty about your glee for the Burning Man ‘survivors’ because know this: the way to truly know you’ve made it in this crazy world of ours, is to be the target of another person’s schadenfreude.

Five failures worth celebrating

Fyre Festival

Tickets cost up to $100,000 and guests were promised luxury accommodation and “the best in food, art, music and adventure” in the Bahamas. Instead they turned up to mattresses on rain-soaked floors, meals of cheese slices on bread and their luggage thrown into an unlit car park. Absolutely sick levels of schadenfreude.

Fyre Festival. | Twitter / @onedaylight

The Lionesses’ loss to Spain in the WWC final

Mostly here due to recency bias. They knocked out the Matildas and played a little dirty. It was good to see them get their comeuppance against Spain.

Charlie bit my finger

A 2007 clip of a boy who wants attention, putting his finger in his baby brother’s mouth, then being bitten until he starts to cry. So pure, so simple, it’s basically schadenfreude as an algorithm.

Donald Trump’s arrest

This should have provided orgasmic levels of schadenfreude yet Trump’s weaponsising of his demonic mugshot, and subsequent attempts to make money off it, took away a little bit of the shine.


Sucked in (not really, just playing) if you got caught up in the hype this ‘Twitter (X) killer’s’ release. Threads rocketed to 100 million users within five days of its launch in early July; but failed to retain even half of them before the end of the month.


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