My Year in San Francisco’s $2 Million Secret Society Startup
The rise and fall of Latitude, an exclusive, for-profit underground society started by a wealthy backer, is a fable for modern Silicon Valley.
Photos: Lydia Laurenson
"Can you keep a secret?"
I blinked. I didn't know Justin very well. I did know that he was a very affable bearded man, and we both lived in the Bay Area. At the time, he ran a small creative agency, while I worked as a writer and digital media consultant.
"I think so," I said cautiously. "I think I can keep a secret." Justin raised his eyebrows. "Of course I can," I said.
"I've been thinking about giving you something," he said. Justin told me he'd been considering giving me a gift for weeks, and finally decided to go through with it after reading an article I'd written about how people use pseudonyms to explore their identities. "But you have to promise me that you won't tell anyone about it. No one."
I nodded, and he handed me a plastic card—much like a credit card, but pure white with a line of black zeroes. It came in a black slipcase embossed with the words "ABSOLUTE DISCRETION" and a distinctive golden hexagonal symbol.
On the back of the card, in the spot that would normally hold a credit card signature, there was a sentence in elaborate black script: "You have received an invitation to visit the San Francisco House of the Latitude." Below the script, I saw a web address and a code.
I turned it over in my fingers.
"What is this?" I asked, but Justin refused to answer my questions. He laughed as I pulled out my phone, went straight to the web address and entered the code in the form I found there. The website was elegant and basic, black serif text on a grey background. After I logged in, the site showed me two definitions of the word "discretion (noun)." One defined "discretion" as freedom of choice, while the other emphasized subtlety and secrecy.
I clicked through these definitions, and then the website subjected me to an intimidating Terms & Conditions form before displaying time slots to "sign up for an appointment."
Justin's offer, the dramatic website, the mysterious appointment—the entire experience made me catch my breath, made me laugh aloud. I felt like I was in a fairy tale. I felt like I'd been chosen for something special. I couldn't help but wonder what this Society was building, what secret they were protecting. I looked at the blank white "credit card," and I couldn't help wondering how much money was involved.
I signed up for an appointment immediately.
After I made my appointment, the Latitude website sent me an email:
Your appointment is for you, and you alone.
A visit to the Latitude House is not for the wary or timid of heart. It is an experience reserved for those willing to bravely leap into the unknown.
The message listed an address; it encouraged timeliness and, again, discretion. Weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon, I stood before a pair of grey doors in San Francisco's Mission District. People walked past me, normal people walking around on a normal day, while I tried to be invisible. Beside the doors, there was a card reader embossed with the same golden symbol printed on the card case. I glanced around, then slid my card through it. The doors opened.
Inside, I discovered a polished wooden fireplace—a fireplace that contained a white oak slide, descending into darkness. It was illuminated by two scarlet pulsing lights, and surrounded by a low thrumming. I saw nothing else but a camera above my head, with a small light that indicated I was being surveilled.
The lights began to pulse faster, and the thrumming rose to an urgent hum. The floor vibrated beneath my feet. My heart thumped. I launched myself into the slide, emerging fast into a dim reception room with three wooden doors.
A still, silent figure sat behind a frosted glass ticket window. Above the ticket window, a neon sign said SHHHH. I suspected the figure was a mannequin, but couldn't be sure. As I gazed at this silhouette, a cabinet beside the window clicked open. There was a sign within it, asking me to leave all my possessions inside.
Standing in that quiet waiting room, I remembered back to the day Justin gave me the invitation. I'd asked Justin: "How long will this take? Will I be able to meet my clients the next day?" He just smiled and shrugged.
Now, confronted by the cabinet, I wondered if I was about to be hooded and bundled into a van, or removed from San Francisco by helicopter. How well did I know Justin? Not very well. And I had no idea who'd built this place.
I felt scared and exhilarated, like I was falling down a rabbit hole. I drew a deep breath, then another one—and I surrendered both my phone and my wallet. The figure behind the ticket window seemed to watch me, unmoving.
As I closed the cabinet, one of the doors thrummed. I tried the other two doors—locked—and then I opened the third, which led into a dark tunnel. I got down on my hands and knees, and the twisting tunnel led me into a library so tiny that I didn't have space to stand. So I sat and looked around the stately shelves.
Each one was lined with identical tall grey books, whose spines said The Latitude and bore that same golden hexagonal symbol from the card.
The tiny library was as elegant as a Renaissance painting, as meticulous as Disneyland. Before me, on a short lectern, one of the grey books lay closed. I ruffled through the pages; they were blank. Then the blank white pages lit up, and a woman's voice began to speak.
"There was an island," she said softly. "And at its centre was a village. And on its shore there was a port…"
Her words drew themselves in calligraphy on the page. Alongside the words, an illustration of the sea coalesced. Quickly, the illustration's perspective swept forward and arrived at the base of a towering rock that rose directly from the water.
I had never seen a real-life social network puzzle before. I was already obsessed.
I wasn't kidnapped, and there were no fanciful helicopters. But the day's adventure did end up taking me all across the Mission District, on foot, following enigmatic messages and hexagonal symbols. After the glowing fable in the book, I pulled other books down from the tiny library shelves. Each book was blank—and yet, beyond the blank pages, each book contained an identical index that started like this:
A Ghost Train ... AZURE 5305
Abraxoids (or Abraxas Stones) ... AZURE 4280
Absolute Discretion ... INDIGO 1937
Absolute Zero ... ONYX 4887
Abydos ... OPAL 0121
Administration of Sympathetic Resonance ... FERN 5457
Aerodamnation ... ONYX 6062
The minutes stretched on as I pored over the index, recognizing some names but not most. I'd heard of the Fibonacci Sequence and the Mesopotamian city of Nineveh. I knew the name of John Dee, the medieval scholar-magician who advised Queen Elizabeth I. Under W, there was an entry called We Are Being Observed.
A disembodied voice came whispering softly into the library: "Lydia, you need to move on." I glanced up and saw another red-lit camera watching me, and smiled.
From the library I proceeded into a lounge, dim in tangerine-colored light, lined in dark couches and antique black-and-white photos. A low table bore a brass skull. A bar in the corner displayed a bottle of unlabeled liqueur and an inviting glass filled with ice. I picked up the glass; the ice was fresh, its edges crystalline. Someone else had been here, moments ago. They'd left this ice for me, but I was alone in the room.
I felt a deep, unsettling thrill at the sense that I was being watched, tested, measured—welcomed, anticipated, and understood.
There was an old-fashioned black telephone sitting on a side table. I picked up the handset, and it delivered a recorded message laden with cryptic clues. I retrieved my possessions from a locker, then sat on a black couch and waited, without drinking anything. I figured that since someone had told me to move on from the library, there was another person coming through behind me. When he arrived, I convinced him to work with me. We encountered another girl on the way. I snared their contact information, learned who invited them both to the Society, and started to build a mental membership chart.
I'm not usually good at puzzles. But this was a new kind of puzzle. I was dying to know: Who else was a member of the Latitude Society? What was the internal hierarchy? How could I find the people who'd created it?
I had never seen a real-life social network puzzle before. I was already obsessed.
By the end of the day, our mission had led us to a roomful of arcade games. As we played one of the games, a staticky vision appeared and delivered a mysterious speech containing a code word. This word allowed us to return to the Latitude website and log in, whereupon we discovered Forums where all the participants used assumed names. I recognized some names from weird Bay Area art projects: Justin's moniker was Dr. Professor. I chose Noisemaker, an old Burning Man nickname.
Immediately, I set about figuring out how to meet the Society's mysterious creators. The few people I knew in the Society didn't know much (or acted cagey when I asked them for details). Through Google, I gathered only that it was a project created by Nonchalance, a company that previously created an art "cult" called the Jejune Institute.
I learned many things from the Forums, and I grilled Justin—Dr. Professor—with a flurry of questions. Dr. Professor explained that, in Latitude parlance, he was my ascendant. (As the person who received the invitation from him, I was his descendant.) He was several steps ahead of me in the Society, and he had already gathered a lot of information. But in response to my thorniest questions, he always asked: "Are you sure you want the answer? Or do you want to figure it out on your own?"
Aside from the Forums, the Latitude website contained a Marketplace where we could buy merchandise, like a t-shirt that said ABSOLUTE DISCRETION. The irony made me laugh, and I bought it immediately. The Marketplace also sold invitation cards for $25 apiece—cards like the white one I'd already received, each with a different unique code. I purchased several invitations, but invited only one person; I held on to the rest.
I barely knew what I'd joined, and I had no idea what inviting others might mean. But I was eager to learn.
I started wearing my ABSOLUTE DISCRETION t-shirt everywhere, because it helped me identify Latitude members in the wild. I even posted it to Instagram, with glee and trepidation. Was I breaking the rules? (What were the rules?)
One day, I met a local artist for lunch. He laughed when he saw the shirt and spoke a Society code word. I carefully asked him for details. He shrugged. "Oh, the Latitude Society," he said, and, for the first time, I heard some of the names of people who might be behind it. "It's Jeff Hull," he said, "Kat Meler. You know. Those people." I nodded like I knew what he was talking about, and I held the names close to my heart, like a prize.
For a few months after I joined, members met in person by arranging gatherings on the Forums. Often, we simply met for drinks or meals, but impromptu traditions emerged. For instance, some members conducted regular explorations of San Francisco's privately owned public spaces. Then, after several months, the Society itself introduced official "Events." The first Event was what the Society called Praxis: a ritualistic gathering in the lounge I'd seen on my first day, the lounge with the brass skull.
Praxis always began with a senior Society member retelling the Fable that we'd heard from the glowing book:
There was an island... And at its centre was a village. And on its shore there was a port....
The fable-teller was always from the Affairs Guild, a group of volunteers that ran Society events. Each Guild member had their own way of telling the Fable, which changed depending on their mood. After the Fable, each Praxis went in different directions, but it was always creative and ritualistic. The first Praxis I attended was led by an ethereal, soft-spoken redhead in her twenties. I thought she might be Kat Meler.
Slowly, between jaunts and parties and Praxis events, I collected a group of Society friends; the artists, gamers, and general weirdos who formed its core. We traded tidbits about how the Society was structured and we investigated its mysteries. For example, the website contained a hidden form that enabled members to look up codes from the grey books' Indexes. Several members mined that form to make spreadsheets of terms like "abraxoids" and "abydos," and then we searched those spreadsheets for patterns.
"I felt like part of a vast and dynamic underground community."
"Attendees were game and came focused," Anthony Rocco, who was part of the Affairs Guild and ran a lot of Praxis events, told me later. (Rocco is a co-founder of the experience design firm Foma Labs.) "People made showing up a priority, and they dove in right away. I felt like part of a vast and dynamic underground community."
Greg Gioia, who tended bar at many Society events, said that "There was a feeling that by stepping into the lounge, you'd traveled in time to an underground world only slightly connected to the city above."
Soon, the community members developed new rituals in the Society style. Some members told the Fable as a bedtime story for their children. Others came up with unique invitation experiences when they gave away invitation cards. I heard a rumor that one ascendant led all his descendants through a stone tunnel and onto a beach at night, where a robed circle of candlelit chanters granted the card.
I soon felt confident enough to start inviting people myself. There were no official instructions about how to choose descendants—we knew that we should invite people "of like mind and heart," but that was all the criteria we were given. I went slowly, because I wasn't always certain about who was right for the Society, and invitations weren't free. Yet despite these limitations, I invited at least two people per month. The Latitude Marketplace raised the price on invitations to $32, yet I kept buying them. It was becoming an expensive hobby.
In fact, granting invitations was one of my favorite aspects of Latitude membership. Everyone reacted to my invitations differently. A few of my descendants became highly involved members. Some people passed through those doors, had their adventure, and went back to their lives unaffected. And others never even activated their cards; they told me sheepishly that they were "too busy."
I'm an inveterate networker, and I thought the Latitude might be a good networking tool. But inviting colleagues and clients proved risky, even when I was certain that they'd love it. For example, one ex-colleague seemed thrilled and honored to receive the invitation. "I feel like I'm in a movie," he breathed as I handed it to him. But later, he mailed it back to me with a note: "I started signing up for an appointment, but… While I'm cool with the cloak-and-dagger-ness (in fact, I kinda like it) the information asymmetry really bothered me, i.e. giving personal information away without knowing who I was giving it to or for what."
It ended up creating a new awkwardness between us.
This became a known factor among experienced Society members—that many invitees never used their cards. One member wrote later that "I was stunned, flabbergasted, to learn that a significant number of people don't even bother taking that step. A friend sits you down, asks of you absolute discretion, and then gives you a mysterious card that, if activated, literally opens a door to a new world of adventure, and you DON'T EVEN USE IT? C'mon, people: Be better."
Why were some of us drawn in like moths to a flame, while others reacted zero?
"We were looking for meaning, and the Society seemed like a space where we were doing that together, more than being a performance," said Thomas Lotze, a Society member in his mid-thirties. In his daily life, Thomas leads statistical experimentation at the payment processing company Square. "There was a focus on taking the time and attention to reflect on ideas. I feel like much of my life is so focused on Doing The Thing that I don't take that kind of time very often. The feeling of warmth and excitement and sparkling eyes was really strong, and it formed a lot of my sense of what this group was and why it was meaningful."
Lena Strayhorn, an experimental musician and stay-at-home mother who has worked as a nonprofit administrator, told me that "I was vaguely confused yet elated by Praxis. It was like performance art as a secret society meeting. I threw myself into participating, building the art-life project along with other members. The long-term collective storytelling arc deepened for me, every time I attended."
So although I can't say exactly what drew me to the Latitude, I was hooked. Over the course of my year in the Society, I fell madly in love with a new boyfriend—yet even in sleepless delirium, I kept Society events on my calendar. I worked hard to build my consulting brand, which led to a dream job at a media startup. So my work schedule became punishingly intense, but I made time for the Latitude.
And finally, after months of puzzle-solving and card-granting, I received an invitation from Kat Meler herself. She invited me into the Affairs Guild and offered me the chance to run a brand new Praxis—with Jeff Hull, the founder of Nonchalance.
What is a social network? Is it a community, a zeitgeist, an artwork?
The internet has shaped new ways to understand, utilize, and monetize human relationships. As digital media matures, the process of developing social networks is codifying into a set of best practices. Here's an example of a Social Media Best Practice: When social networks begin, they should be exclusive, even if they plan to get big later.
One reason startups tend to limit the early userbase is testing. It's useful to test the product on a small number of people and make sure it's good, before taking on the logistical burdens of a million members. A second reason to limit the early userbase is targeting: It's easier to appeal to a small, well-understood market than to target the world's diverse population. A third is to make users feel special. Networks often feel more exciting when they're exclusive.
This is relevant because the Latitude Society was, in reality, produced by the profit-seeking startup Nonchalance.
The company's founder, Jeff Hull, started Nonchalance in the early 2000s. His employees included Kat Meler and many other artists, community-builders, and engineers. The seed money came from Jeff's inherited wealth; his father, Blair Hull, sold an algorithmic trading firm to Goldman Sachs in 1999 for $531 million.
Within the Society, Jeff sometimes styled himself "The Anonymous Benefactor," and he rarely posted on the forums or attended events. The company's growth strategy was not discussed outside Nonchalance, but Jeff had reportedly said that he hoped to monetize the Latitude Society and make it self-sustaining. This wouldn't be easy, because the Society was an expensive endeavor—given the technical design, manpower, and elaborate spaces, including multiple rented locations across San Francisco. The primary location took nearly three years to build before they opened it to members, and a staff member told me that the Latitude Society cost Jeff $2 million in total. (Jeff has neither confirmed nor denied this number.) It was obvious that if the company stuck to invitations and t-shirts, they'd never earn enough to cover Jeff's investment.
If Nonchalance's growth strategies mimicked that of a social media product, its problems did too. The most obvious parallel is the grow-first-and-figure-out-revenue-later strategy, famously used by many media startups. (This attitude is sometimes mocked with the phrase, "Build it and they will come.")
But the company faced special challenges, too—like issues with its First Time User Experience (startups sometimes abbreviate this to FTUE). The Society's invitation-only structure came straight out of the modern social media playbook, yet its FTUE was exceptionally hard to manage, because so many aspects took place in locations that weren't directly controlled by Nonchalance.
For example, the initial adventure around the Mission District was enveloped in real-world messiness. As I gave out invitations, I became accustomed to descendants texting me with technical issues ("I reached the third station, but the door won't open!") or confusion ("I received the special Society coin from the bartender, so I tried putting it in this jukebox on the street, but the jukebox jammed… I think I made a mistake. How do I get a new coin?"). Some of my descendants only got halfway through their FTUE, and never finished at all. In other words, there were major glitches because the product was buggy.
Another hard-to-control factor was the invitation process. Some members, like me, thought carefully about each person we invited. Other members had a more casual flair. They carried cards everywhere, and handed them out to interesting strangers without even leaving a phone number behind. Nonchalance tried to manage this by issuing guidelines about what ascendants ought to tell descendants. Eventually, the company iterated on the invitation cards by printing instructions directly on the card case, where recipients couldn't miss them.
As I learned more about the company's operations, I became increasingly curious. It felt strange that my extraordinary Society—to which I gave more and more of my personal time and energy—was "just another Bay Area startup." But did that necessarily make the Society hollow at its core? Meaningless?
I heard about people who got invited to the Society only to quit in disgust, saying that its elaborate mythos was nothing but a marketing ploy. Other people believed it was actively dangerous. One of the Society's most articulate critics was Rebecca Power, the 26-year-old CEO of experience studio Quixote Games; she is now an artist in residence working on game design for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Rebecca was an early Society invitee, like me, but she canceled her account soon after she joined.
Rebecca sent me an email outlining her critiques—here's an abridged version of her message:
No matter where I start a conversation about the Latitude Society, I end up talking about corporate responsibility. If there was a Terms of Service agreement, why did it not include a formal procedure for releasing yourself from it? I know the employees were monitoring us, but who was monitoring them?
Immersive experience design as commercial entertainment is in its infancy, and it doesn't have established legitimacy. If the Latitude came apart because of an incident caused by Nonchalance's lack of oversight, how would it affect the work of other artists like me? Scarier yet, what would it say to artists if the Latitude Society succeeded?
I received my invitation card from someone I knew. The day after my appointment, he messaged me privately on Facebook to say he'd been watching me on the video cameras. At the time, I brushed it off. It ruined my enjoyment of the theatrical experience, but there were plenty of other ways I could engage with the project without engaging with him. Then another employee gave my boyfriend a card and told him that I'd been playing for several weeks. That was not great for our romantic relationship. Finally, at my first and only Praxis, yet another employee told the group what I did for a living, effectively outing my actual identity.
I requested that they deactivate my membership. But when I left, I became a security risk. People I knew made vague threats that I would regret leaving or talking about it. A roommate of mine stopped telling me where he was going when he left the house. Friends whom I trusted contacted me and played stupid about their own involvement in order to suss out what I knew. I can't say with confidence that Nonchalance encouraged this behavior, but they should have been able to predict it. The fact that Nonchalance had no procedure in place to identify, address, and rectify the antagonistic behavior resulting from their product, and made no effort to put those procedures into place once that behavior became obvious, demonstrates a lack of concern for their consumers that, if applied to other industries, would result in fines or a class-action lawsuit.
I recognize that some people's lives were changed for the better because of their involvement in the Latitude Society. I have no desire to denigrate their experience, nor do I hold everyone who maintained membership in the Society responsible for the actions of a few. But my own experience—the one with paranoia and intimidation and inexperienced people abusing fabricated power—is equally real, equally a product of the architecture Nonchalance designed and built. How can I praise someone for the beauty they created, if they cannot also accept responsibility for the ugliness?
Rebecca's concerns are similar to critiques leveled at social media platform companies, which often struggle with harassment and oversight issues. (Twitter's harassment problem, for example, is legendary.)
And yet, even as I heard stories like Rebecca's, the Society was still giving me experiences I loved. I wanted to believe that Nonchalance would figure out how to do it right. And I wanted to help.
Jeff Hull is a shaven-headed man in his mid-forties, with a neat dark beard. In the lounge with the brazen skull, Jeff sat on a black couch, totally at ease. During our early conversations, I didn't ask many questions because I didn't want to seem like a desperate fangirl. At the time, I was thrilled and honored by the opportunity to brainstorm a new Praxis with him.
There was another Society member with us that day, Anthony Rocco. Together, the three of us had developed the idea for a Praxis called "Fable Exquisite Corpse." It was named after the collaborative Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, in which participants create a story or drawing together.
I perched excitedly on the couch opposite Jeff and asked, "Can I read a copy of the Fable before we begin? I don't think I remember it all."
"It's not written down anywhere," said Jeff. "The Fable is never recorded," he added emphatically. "But you've heard it enough times—you know it. Remember? The island, the village, the port...." He retold the Fable, and I memorized each plot point.
We lit candles on the table and laid out snacks. As twelve Society members trickled into the lounge, we asked them to join us on the couches. We began with the formal opening ritual, and then we explained how Fable Exquisite Corpse would be played.
There was an island....
"It was a tropical island with a beautiful beach," said one person.
And at its center was a village, and on its shore there was a port....
"The port traded spices from around the world," said another.
"In the village, the roofs were almost all blue," said a third.
"But a few roofs were yellow and green," said a fourth.
"Legal codes governed which colors were allowed," said another.
"There were political battles over who could use which colors," I added.
We went on for an hour. We added visual details to the village, developed its culture, explored the heroes' motives. At the end of it, when the attendees left and we were cleaning up, Jeff said: "That was great."
Anthony and I both glowed.
A lot of members were obsessed, even in love with the Latitude Society. But what was Nonchalance building, exactly?
A slide deck, recently posted on Slideshare, shows how Nonchalance tried to pitch the Society's business case. Slide No. 6 places the Society at the center of a Venn diagram with three circles: "Peer To Peer Community," "Social Gaming," and "Cultural Events."
Slide No. 7 says, "A Dynamic Cross Media Roll Out With Multiple Revenue Streams." Among other streams, that slide mentions "merchandise" and "membership services."
In mid-2015, Nonchalance rolled out the "membership services," and they took the form of what the media business calls a "paywall." With little fanfare, the Society announced that many aspects of being a member—such as Praxis and other official meetups—would now require a paid membership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this caused controversy; if you watched the New York Times roll out its paywall, you might have predicted that Society members would be upset by one, too.
Much like San Francisco itself, the Society hadn't felt like it was intended for people with money—until, suddenly, it did.
Yet within the Latitude Society, there were extra reasons members got upset by the paywall. Many of us poured hours of volunteer work into the Society, and we felt hurt at being asked to pay when we'd given so much already. Plus, many of us weren't rich. The new membership plan cost hundreds of dollars a year. The Society had its share of "tech gentry," but membership was expensive even for some techies, let alone artists and social workers. So the paywall felt out of touch with the community—and it created a hierarchy of wealth, where previously members had distinguished themselves via creativity and service. It was a new and unwelcome type of exclusivity.
The announcement hurt especially for members who were struggling to hang on to their homes in a city that was fast-becoming the most expensive in the nation. Much like San Francisco itself, the Society hadn't felt like it was intended for people with money—until, suddenly, it did. Living in San Francisco, one often feels trapped in a playground for the carelessly rich, and it hurts to be treated like a toy.
And finally: How could we feel good inviting others to the Society, knowing that our descendants would be asked to pay? Someone started a thread on the Forums titled, "When a gift comes with a price tag," and it quickly gathered responses.
Today, there's a public staff list of who worked on the Latitude Society. (You can get a sense of the operation's scale from Jeff's "Epilogue" note on the Society website. I am credited as Noisemaker. Note that the site has been having trouble loading lately, so there's a screenshot of the Epilogue here.) Back when I got invited, however, it was hard to determine who was officially employed, because there was no staff list and nobody listed the company on their LinkedIn profiles. The most visible team member was Kat Meler. She was an experience designer—when they built the tiny library, she'd spent hours hand-rubbing the carpet with oil of vetiver. She ran all the events, so she absorbed most of the negativity from the membership rollout.
Although it was clearly painful for Kat to tell us something we didn't want to hear, she held firm. Nonchalance really needed to monetize the Latitude, she told us. Other Nonchalance employees, including Jeff, supported her by attending events and posting on the Forums. The entire community held meetings and wrote comments about how the Society could earn money. Hundreds of people signed up as paid members.
Yet ominous details emerged during that time, too. I learned that Uriah Findley, the longest-running staff member, had left. He'd been at Nonchalance since before the Latitude, and his departure portended major change. (Later, Uriah told me, "I was effectively Jeff's partner in crime for years, but the company was changing direction.")
Rumors soon came that Jeff planned to cease production on physical locations and move entirely to virtual reality. I heard from a Nonchalance employee that Jeff had said he thought we were "entitled," that he was angry because he'd given us a $2 million gift we didn't appreciate properly. One person told me that Nonchalance didn't have a profit-and-loss sheet—the most basic method of tracking business finances—which implied that the company couldn't possibly have a meaningful monetization plan. Members started to ask each other: Given that Jeff was mind-bendingly rich, could he understand what he was asking the community for? And then: Did Jeff actually want non-wealthy members in the first place?
I learned later that a few months after the membership services rollout, Kat and another core employee submitted their two-week notices. Then an article was published about the Society — an article Jeff had sanctioned. It was the Society's first major modification to our official policy of discretion, which was jarring, and it didn't help that Jeff was quoted saying unkind things.
"I hate it, it's so stupid," Jeff had reportedly said of one community initiative. He'd also said: "I'd be happy to kick people out. My team is a little more sympathetic and they have more compassion than I do. But I, personally, would be happy to kick people out. It's not for everybody. It's not even for everybody who thinks it's for them."
Naturally, members reacted to this article with confusion and pain, and there were more explosions on the Forums.
Less than a week after that article was published, Jeff shut down the website. He left only a note that the San Francisco House of the Latitude was closed. It was so sudden that I had to contact two people and tell them their mysterious appointments, scheduled later that week, would never happen after all.
The Society closed on Monday, September 28, 2015. In the year since I joined, I'd taken a full-time job. I was at work when I got the afternoon phone call from Dr. Professor.
My ascendant—always several steps ahead of me—had become leader of the Affairs Guild, and he often worked on other internal projects too. My heart fluttered as I picked up the phone, then fell at his words.
"Hey, you and I are supposed to run a Praxis tonight for new members," said Dr. Professor. "But I just heard that Jeff is shutting the Society down."
Even as my stomach clenched, I wasn't surprised. "Oh...," I said. I got up from my chair and left the office so my colleagues wouldn't overhear me.
"What are we going to do?" I asked when I was safely outside.
"I don't know," he said.
"Who else knows it's closing?"
"Almost nobody else, yet," he said. "I think you, me, and the employees know. Honestly, I wouldn't even be telling you, except we're supposed to run this Praxis tonight."
"When will it happen? Can we still get into the building tonight to run Praxis?"
"I don't have any details. I'm more concerned about what we're going to tell the new members," said Dr. Professor. "I mean, should we still run a newbie Praxis if we know the Society is closing?"
I gnawed my lip. This is my last chance ever to run Praxis, I thought. I said, "Yes."
"In that case," he said, "I'll check on whether we can get into the building. But we can't do the normal introduction into the Society, right? So we just have to tell them what it meant to us."
Soon after Jeff closed the Latitude Society, he posted an update on Facebook. A few Society members copied the update and passed it around. Some expressed anger, some sympathy:
"I have been rolling a boulder up a hill for four years, and it kept getting heavier. It was my most audacious undertaking (beside parenthood) and getting to the top meant 'success.' Recently, as my shoulders began to give out under the weight, I looked around, and seeing no relief in sight, I decided to do the most healthy thing I could possibly do: let go."
After he closed the Latitude Society, Jeff wrote publicly about its history: "It will be an enduring and inescapable mystery how a game built to offer shared whimsy, inspiration, and play can result in trauma for the people most closely involved."
I tried to contact Jeff via Facebook to learn more about his feelings, only to discover that he'd unfriended me (and some other Society members). I heard rumors that Jeff was absent when the equipment was dismantled, that he sent instructions to Nonchalance remotely. I texted Jeff and he agreed to an interview, but then he didn't respond to any questions about why he shut it down, saying only that he'd written everything he cared to write.
There was a vision behind the Latitude Society, but as it grew, it needed more than vision—it needed attention. For any product, you begin with a prototype, and then you work with your users to iterate and improve. Kat Meler told me that "off the top of my head, roughly 1,200 people came through the doors, and there were 200-250 paid memberships in a given month." (Another estimate puts the number of attendees closer to 2,000.)
Iterating a product with one or two thousand users (and 200 fiercely dedicated power users) demands a certain skill set. Iteration demands patience and process; it demands empathy and humility. The story of the Latitude Society is a parable of Bay Area tech culture genius and exuberance, and of the ways this culture can be fickle and fail.
I will always wonder why Jeff felt so negative that he cut off most of the Society and employees that he mentored. Perhaps Jeff felt like the community rejected him. Perhaps he felt like a failure as a businessman—or an artist.
But although many Society members felt burned and forsaken, many are still grateful.
"It was just the beginning of something amazing for me," said Society member Naomi Rifkin, a 46-year-old resource coordinator at a charter school in Oakland. "As awful as it was, the way the Latitude Society ended, I think ultimately it was good to realize that it didn't rest in the hands of one person. Jeff tapped into something he didn't own—it's a mindset that we can cultivate for each other. The friendships I've made, with people who value the ability to incite wonder, is the most valuable thing I've ever had."
In contrast to Jeff's feelings, his employees' feelings seemed very clear. Even Jeff's staff didn't know that he was shutting down the Society until the day it happened. Thus, many of them felt a mix of sadness, anger, embarrassment—and fear, due to sudden unemployment.
Their fear was compounded by the fact that Jeff owned all the intellectual property from the Latitude Society, and it was wrapped up in a Non-Disclosure Agreement. This made it hard for employees to develop a portfolio, or describe their work. (For example, Uriah told me that months after he left Nonchalance, Jeff texted asking him to remove a one-sentence phrase from his professional website because the two of them had often used it together.)
On Facebook, many Society employees posted and reposted this status:
"If I gave you an invitation to a Thing, that Thing is now over. I'm sorry you missed it, because it was the work of so many careful and skilled hands and it was truly a thing to behold.
And if I didn't, I'm so sorry. There were a ton of invitations I'd been waiting until, well, this week to give out. I don't believe in harboring regrets, but this unfortunate timing does sting.
There will be more things.
But if you still have the card, it is now a fossil.
"I personally believe that one good thing that occurred was a sort of social shelter where people could interact and connect in a very intimate way," Kat wrote me in an email. "But as far as 'secret,' I'm rather off that word. I'm more for 'surprises' now, I think. A surprise is a secret that everyone agrees will only last for a finite time, and will ultimately be gifted and shared. I don't want to hold my breath that long anymore."
On the night the Latitude Society closed, roughly a hundred members went to the Sycamore, a local bar that was significant during our first Latitudinous mission. A storm of messages flew among ascendants, descendants, and internal Latitude cliques. The Forums were gone, so the messages were a scattered spiral; we had no way to reach everyone at once. Many of us didn't even know each other's names in "real life."
"I can't believe it's over!"
"No way. Isn't Jeff just playing a new game?"
"Wait, who's Jeff?"
"Jeff is the 'anonymous benefactor.' Anyway, I don't think this is a game… Did you hear about Jeff's Facebook update?"
"Hey, I heard people were going to the Sycamore...."
Late in the evening, I passed a Society friend in the street as she came home from the bar. She caught my arm and silently handed me a hexagon made from pipe cleaner. She was carrying a basket full of them. But I missed the Sycamore gathering, because Dr. Professor and I were running our Praxis in the brass skull lounge. It was strange. It had been intended to orient greenhorns to the Society, and instead it became a wake.
After Praxis, I went back into the tiny library and opened the book to watch the Fable one last time. I began to take a video. Two minutes later, I heard Dr. Professor's voice behind me.
"Lydia! Lydia!" He was using my real name.
"Just a minute! I'm recording," I called back.
"No!" he snapped, and squeezed into the library with me. "The Fable is never written down. It's never recorded. That's one of our traditions!"
I blinked at him. "This is all going away," I said. "We'll never see it again if I don't do this!"
"I am surprisingly angry at you right now," Dr. Professor said fiercely. "The Society might be done, but the traditions still mean something." Then he deflated. "Please," he said. "I can't stay mad at you. But please don't do this."
We fought for five minutes, and I finally acquiesced. I felt like crying as I crawled out of the library. But I went back into the library and recorded the Fable an hour later, when my ascendant was distracted, and couldn't stop me.
"We always intended to start a real secret society that cared, and mattered, and treated people well."
As I wrote this article, I debated whether to publish the recording. So I asked three people, including Kat Meler and Jeff Hull. In Jeff's short email response, he wrote: "I don't think any of the released material needs to be a secret. It's out there already." And Kat—who narrated the Fable—wrote: "I'd love for your video of the Fable as told in the SF House Library to be public."
The third person was Uriah Findley, the experience designer who originally created the Fable. "One of my proudest creations was that Fable," he told me. "I respect Society members' desire to treat our made-up tradition as a real thing, because it feels real to them and is important to them. But the Fable is one of the most beautiful portions and it's one that we made, and I'd love to see it out there."
"I hope people realize we were trying to make something special," Uriah added. "There's this perception now that it was only about making money. But we were operating under the assumption that the Latitude could only survive if it could support itself. We always intended to start a real secret society that cared, and mattered, and treated people well.
"We believed the Latitude Society could give people something that was missing in the modern age, and we wanted them to give that to others."
So, here you go. I wish I could offer you my invitation ritual, that I could grant you the fateful card, that you could have seen the Latitude Society yourself. But since I can't give you those things, this will have to do.
Update: After the publication of this article, Jeff Hull reached out to clarify that he did not inherit his wealth, but earned it by working at the Hull Trading Company before it was sold to Goldman Sachs.
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