You've likely read multiple accounts of the Jejune Institute-adjacent secret society in the Mission created by the company Nonchalance, dubbed The Latitude, which folded in September 2015 after a brief attempt to become profitable as a startup, real-life social network. For those of you who haven't, there's a lengthy "epilogue" by Latitude visionary and trust fund kid Jeff Hull screencapped here (the Latitude site isn't loading these days), and devoted member Lydia Laurenson just wrote her own extended reflection on it for Vice's Motherboard blog. It was all highly top secret, and details were well guarded by the society's members until last fall when it became clear that the fun was all over and Laurenson's description of her initial discovery is especially rich, but you can also read others here and here.
Basically, members were given plastic invitation cards that demanded their "absolute discretion" by friends sometimes these were close friends bestowing the invitations as special gifts, at others they were given out randomly by mercurial members to total strangers with no explanation, but they cost $25 to $32 apiece so those people were probably rich. The card got you entry to the fully staffed initiation location in the Mission, which involved an ornate oak slide, tunnels, a tiny library you sat in to listen to the "Fable" of the Latitude for the first time, and a lounge where an unseen person left you a cocktail glass with fresh ice. There was an initial "adventure" around the Mission that you were supposed to complete, and then there were member gatherings called Praxis that I don't really understand. The person who invited you in was called your "ascendent," and parts of the experience just sound like one of the creepier episodes of Lost with the Dharma Initiative.
It was part game, part puzzle, part immersive performance, and part social gathering opportunity. Says brief member Jason Baldwin, who sounds like he was less heavily involved than Laurenson, "So, hat's off to you Latitude Society. You made me feel like a kid again, imagining crazy adventures and exploring secret worlds hidden just under mundane skin of everyday life. You crazy knuckleheads created something truly amazing."
Suffice it to say, the society experience appealed especially to non-jaded twentysomethings in tech and creative fields who got turned on by the elaborate mythology of it all, even though it was just a sort of faux cult created by a creative agency that, like the earlier Games of Nonchalance and Jejune (detailed in this 2012 documentary) was an expensive attempt to get people off the internet and out of bars and doing something out of the ordinary.
How expensive? This account floated operating expenses of $3,000 a day, and the Motherboard piece suggests that Hull sank $2 million of his own personal wealth in The Latitude, with that thoughtfully designed and constructed headquarters/initiation space taking three years to build. That sum has not been confirmed by Hull, however.
At $32 apiece (the price went up at one point), those invitation cards, which could be ordered online by members, weren't exactly paying the bills, which necessitated the controversial and ultimately fatal decision to start charging members hundreds of dollars a year for the privilege, which suddenly made it all feel a whole lot less special and obviously a whole lot more for-profit. In total, a reported 1,200 to 2,000 people were given cards and did some part of the initiation, which means the most revenue from that aspect of the Latitude that they could have made was $60,000.
You can see a "Business Proposal" slide deck here from Nonchalance, dated August 2015, clearly showing that they were hoping to grow the society in other cities. But is it just me, or does this not seem like the sort of kooky (and vaguely culty) organization that only flies in San Francisco, with its plethora of geeks, Burners, and gaming nerds with money to burn?
The point of the society, according to the slides, was to offer members a sense of meaning through "Ceremony. Ritual. Rites of passage. Initiation leading to genuine social cohesion... Kinship, mentorship, communion."
All that, of course, doesn't fly for the more suspicious and cynical among us, not to mention people who are not naturally joiners. One former member told Motherboard that she was weirded out from the start by the lack of clear guidelines around members' privacy and anonymity, and she received backlash from friends and other members when she deactivated, with them all getting totally cult-creepy on her and wondering if she was going to tell outsiders any secrets.
Hull, meanwhile, appears to have flamed out under the dual pressures to stop the thing from losing money, and becoming a new parent. On Facebook he wrote, "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." Hull reportedly shut the entire thing down one day in late September, only a month or so after that above proposal was written.
It's clear that The Latitude was a cool and fun experience for some, and even a central touchpoint in the lives of a few, for the short moment that it existed.
I can't say I would have turned down an invitation, had anyone ever offered me one, but yeah, would I have wanted to socialize with random strangers who had Burning Man-esque nicknames and go on silly scavenger hunts with them, or whatever it was they did, when I can barely find enough time to keep up with my actual friends? Uh, no.
Update: Founder Jeff Hull reached out to SFist with a message that he also sent to the writer of the Motherboard piece, Lydia Laurenson. Specifically, he wanted to clarify the presumption about his inherited wealth (his dad, Blair Hull, sold an algorithmic trading firm to Goldman Sachs in 1999 for $531 million, and, Hull says, this wealth was not inherited because he worked for his share of that money): "The truth is I worked for Hull Trading Company for several years in the 90's and became a partner in the firm at the time it was sold to Goldman Sachs," Hull writes. "Since that time I stand on an Investment Committee to strategically manage these and other funds. I chose to invest in the Latitude (and Oaklandish and the Jejune Institute) because I believed in the vision. While certainly there was nepotism in my rise to that position, I did earn a wage and stake through years of employment in my family's company. It did not simply fall in my lap. This inaccuracy in itself is no big deal, but it leads to further articles like in the Sfist today characterizing me as a "trust fund kid" instead of as an artist or producer (a reputation I spent the last 20 years building through impassioned service to the bay area community). It's pretty belittling to have your career reduced in this way."