Kandi Kids and Skin In The Game: How Plastic Beads Make the Rave Scene

When I went to my first rave, I approached maybe thirty different girls inside of twenty minutes. I somehow managed to take this long series of rejections incredibly well. But I recognized very quickly that I liked meeting girls at raves. I already knew we had common interests when I approached them. It was a field day.

By my second rave, I had discovered kandi. Yes, I started making kandi to meet girls. (I’m not the only one.) Trades were a great excuse to say hi to someone and break the initial awkwardness. But there was an immediate side effect which I did not expect.

When you trade, people tend to remember you. When your arm is covered from above the elbow down to your wrist, people definitely remember you. And in the rave scene, everybody knows everybody. Though I only had a few friends to rave with, I recognized that if a random person did not know me, they definitely knew me through at most two degrees of separation. My behavior immediately changed: In my mind, it was no longer the equivalent of an anonymous bar. I suddenly had reputation, or skin in the game.

Skin in the Game is the title of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s upcoming title. It is a term which refers to having a personal stake in the outcome of something. Example: Companies love an employee with no bank of savings, as this person needs continual payment from the employer. The employee has skin in the game, personal commitment, which is leveraged into power by management. Another example: We automatically avoid the friend who takes but does not give back. This person has shown their hand as a leech, out for his own interests, not yours. It is instinctual.

What sets the rave scene apart from other music scenes? Do not listen for music here. Use your eyes instead. We have our own dress, our own rituals. People expect you to be polite, courteous, even self-effacing. The Bro at Paradiso sticks out in our memory because they do not wear colorful clothing. On average, they show territorial behavior, whereas the rave is communal. And I bet you remember one who did not get out of your way. (I use the Bro as an example because they are a memorable stereotype.) The rudeness of the Bro is explained by an absence of skin in the game: Their reputation relies on approval from their own social group, not the tribe of the rave.

Subculture and the outsider

Culture requires time and momentum to spread. When an event grows in popularity too quickly, the existing social pressures and influences do not have enough time to assimilate newcomers. If nothing shifts the trend the other way, a culture will entirely disappear.

I have never been to Shambhala. Burning Man is far too costly for me. But I can tell you what they have in common.

They all started small. There was no corporate sponsor (at least initially) to advertise these events to the masses. Growth was slow and organic, through last year’s attendees telling their friends. These events grew as communities, where you knew with reasonable certainty that the face you recognize from last year, was in fact there last year. And the last. And the last.

When complete strangers will commonly give you a necessity if you need it — a bottle of water, toothpaste, a condom — just because you share membership in their community, that is human bonding in its purest form. Both parties will associate a feeling of unity with each other and the event itself. (If you attend Shambhala and feel like I am reading your mind right now, feel free to let me know.)

Another important part is barriers to entry. I can say with certitude that some people, hearing stories about heroic acid trips and open nudity, will never attend either of these events. Note that when I say “some people”, I mean no one in particular. I am sure some current politicians make a yearly trip to the Ranch, and hope their privacy will remain (the draw of community is strong). But when twelve inches of ketamine being divided up every hour is not the most outstanding story, some simply turn away (somehow if it was cocaine, these people might feel differently). Barriers to entry contribute to keeping the culture strong, and the wrong kind of person out.

Embrace the rave

Shambhala and Burning Man do not attract kandi kids the way other dance events do. It is not a part of their culture. But it seems the rave scene has kandi kids and PLUR everywhere else in North America. Insomniac Events and USC have made a wise choice embracing kandi kid culture. I think they know it, but not why.

Along with skin in the game motivating better behavior, kandi and the PLUR mindset have the qualities of an idea virus.

First, kandi and trading is highly visible. A member of the kandi kid tribe displays their identity, much in the way a girl wearing fluffy boots and last month’s rave wristband is obviously a part of the scene. You know her through a friend of a friend, but you aren’t sure which one.

I have observed the same thing happen again and again: I trade with one friend, who is a kandi kid from another state, but goes to many festivals. I later hang out with another kandi kid at the festival, who is from yet another state. They tell me they are inviting a friend to join us. It is my friend from earlier.

Second, trading kandi tends to initiate non-members into members. You, the kandi kid, trade with another kandi kid. The non-member sees a trade happen and, since humans desire inclusion, wants to be a part of a trade. They will either ask for one of yours (“Give me a good one!”) or make their own for next time. I myself have transformed many friends into kandi kids this way. You can see their excitement. It is a rewarding feeling.

Third, PLUR encourages good behavior. It is truly an oral tradition (no one cares about it because I mention it in a blog post) which spreads like wildfire. By being a part of the kandi trading ritual, ravers culturally self-inforce good behavior by reminding each other of it constantly. As a result, people have more good memories of unexpected kindness, and less bad memories of someone who was pushy or disregarded your wellbeing. Over time, these positive memories compound into a simple urge to return to the rave.

Lastly, these behaviors all signal skin in the game. It is a visible indicator that you are likely a good time. I have a rational expectation that someone who trades kandi will be open to my friendship, since we share a common interest and have similar pleasant memories of sliding a single over the fingertips of a new friend. When he finds out that one of my friends knows his friends, my credibility goes up at the same time as we recognize that both want to leave a good impression.

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