Postscript: A Secret Society Shuts Its Doors

What happened inside the Latitude Society? In September, we featured a Longreads Original by Rick Paulas, “‘We Value Experience,’” which told the story of artist/entrepreneur Jeff Hull and his group’s attempts to build a sustainable “secret society” in the Bay Area. Paulas has shared the following postscript on what happened after his story about the group went public.

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Five days after my article went up at Longreads (“’We Value Experience’: Can A Secret Society Become a Business?”, 9/24/15), visitors to The Latitude’s website were met with the following prompt:

latitudeclose

Newly interested parties were unable to inquire about invitations. Old members (known as “compeers”) were unable to access either their accounts or the site’s forum. The latter was particularly troubling as, following the piece’s publication—which brought public intrusion into this ostensibly private affair—compeers were responding at a relatively furious pace. (Vitriol was aimed primarily at Hull, who granted me access to the group, and secondarily at myself—with many other opinions in between.) This seemingly instantaneous pulling-of-the-rug left a heap of unanswered questions for participants, prospective initiates, and me.

What happened? Where did Hull go? Why did it close? Why now? Was this a case of a startup running out of capital and shuttering in an avalanche of exits? Was the question the piece tried to answer—whether or not a secret society could become a business—answered with a simple “Nope?” Or, did I participate in the destruction of something I truly enjoyed?

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There was nothing but silence for about two weeks, stressful ones without knowledge of what, exactly, had happened. But now Hull has posted an “Epilogue from The San Francisco House,” throwing open the curtain by detailing the project’s origins, giving credit to the many people involved, and even posting the 10-slide pitch deck that was (is?) meant to lure potential investors.

However, the parts that should draw the most attention—particularly if you didn’t have the chance to experience the project—are the detailed walkthroughs for both Books 1 and 2. While they don’t entirely capture the intricacies of the design elements—how could they?—the walkthroughs offer a glimpse at, as highly esteemed compeer Doctor Popular put it on Twitter, “one of SF’s most amazing art projects.”

Hull’s epilogue also includes an illuminating postmortem of where it all went wrong:

Without a clear border to entry, and with hugely varied levels of engagement, the Latitude invited a great deal of confusion and mismatched expectations. Was experiential adventure a new product and service category? Was it an inspiring form of play and entertainment? Was it a self-organized social club? Was it a religion? I don’t know if anybody completely agreed. There were so many blanks to be filled in. The Latitude may have served multiple purposes, but ultimately it could not be all things to all people.

Was there struggle? Was there strife? Was there tension? Glorious amounts. Were there hurt feelings, and heart break? All too much. But let us not speak of such prime things now in this disembodied way. Suffice it to say, that it will be an enduring and inescapable mystery to me how a game built to offer shared whimsy, inspiration, and play can result in trauma for the people most closely involved.

In an email to me following the Epilogue’s posting, Hull clarified what led to closure. “Two highly valued employees quit,” he wrote. “The rent on our space was raised by 60%. I received a call from Alcohol and Beverage Control inquiring about an underground speakeasy. That’s when the article came out, and there was outrage on the forums.”

Hull mentions a $3,000-a-day expenditure needed to keep it all running, a steep sum to swallow when day-to-day operations were no longer pleasurable. “I was no longer doing the creative work I love,” he wrote in the email. “It was ceaselessly political, reactive, managerial and administrative. And joyless. I felt like I was going to have an ulcer and I looked at the ceiling one morning after a restless night and said ‘I don’t have to do this anymore.’”

And so, he pulled the plug on his creation. As he writes it in the Epilogue:

Unfortunately there was no concession or contingency plan. A very ceremonious undertaking was ended very unceremoniously. I am sorry for that.

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If this is truly the end of Hull’s vision of The Latitude, how are we to examine it? Is it an abject failure? Was its attempt at participatory art and community-building too big to work? Was its concept built on a foundation of matchsticks, ready to crack at the first tremor? I don’t believe so.

If Hull had written down his mission for the project when it was first conceived, three big components would be: 1. Build an experience; 2. Teach others how to create their own; 3. Move onto something else. There would be a few other major bullet points—say, 2b. Sustainability, 2c. A slow and deliberate transfer of power—but those three would be front-and-center. And, despite the wounds from the society’s forced closure, those goals have been accomplished.

Hull did cultivate a truly unique experience that I, and many others, are lucky to have been a part of. He has informed the visions of those still involved. And now, he has moved on, no longer needing to be the one holding open the gate: A group, however small, had made it through.

While The Latitude proper has collapsed, it may not be gone forever.

Immediately following Hull’s announcement, a small group of compeers scurried to pick up the pieces. The first task was collection. An invite-only Slack channel—previously created for a communication space beyond the society’s proper forum—became central base. Invitation into the message stream was passed through word-of-mouth, or email-to-email, from compeer to compeer, a less-intensive/more-urgent version of the original hand-to-hand invitation process that began entry into society proper. When the quickness and pace of Slack showcased logistical problems—people have jobs, real-time messaging left too many posts for users to comb through—the conversation shifted onto another, secret forum.

The new forum’s a lot like the old one. There’s still rancor present from the sting of unforeseen heartbreak—and, now, Hull’s “spoiling” of the Books—but that will settle down, as these things always tend to do. A new Council of Elders has emerged, albeit unofficially and with membership dictated by whomever wants to put in the extra work. The group’s even on the brink of hosting their own Town Hall to sort out new rules, codes of conduct, and what they should call this new thing they have anyway. And all the meanwhile, plans are still being hatched for meetups, bake-offs, art shows, and curated experiences for the members that remain, and the ones that have yet to find their way in.

“[N]ow that The Latitude appears to have closed, this may be its chance to exist for real,” wrote one compeer in a lengthy post comparing The Latitude with Burning Man. “As an actual secret society dedicated to real experiences that emerges out of the ashes of a fake secret society dedicated to curated experiences.”

For now, the as-yet-named group amasses behind secret websites, under the dictum of “absolute discretion,” through a strict invitation policy. They include a fraction of those who experienced the Books—for comparison’s sake, the number of those on the forum is near 150, while roughly 2,000 went through the experience—but they were, and are, the most hardcore. They do not completely mimic the tone of what The Latitude was, before Hull closed the doors, just as the loudest few do not necessarily speak for an entire group. But they do point towards what it will become.

The creation has left the creator, likely to the benefit of both. The latter can continue blurring the line between art, performance, group-building, whatever else you’ve got. The former can become the small, exclusive democratic organization it believed it was. Their rebuild continues, slowly and sometimes painfully. And what happens will be fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, unless you’re a member, you won’t be able to.

The society, ever so briefly opened to the world, is now truly secret.

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