How I Fell Out of Love With the Latitude Society — and What Burning Man Can Learn from It

Latitude ID card (front)
A well worn Latitude Society ID card. It’s not just a prop – it could literally open doors.

I’ve wanted to write about a piece examining Burning Man through the lens of The Latitude Society (or vice-versa) for some time. But I’m the kind of old-school that believes that when you join a secret society you goddamn well don’t go around saying “Hey, have you heard about this cool secret society?” Because dammit, words mean things. Maybe not when they’re written on t-shirts, or bumper stickers, but, otherwise.

However, now that The Latitude Society’s architect has opened a series of meetings up to a reporter for LongReads.com and gone on record about his plans for expansion – because apparently it’s damn hard to expand your secret society if people don’t know about it – I consider honor satisfied.

(UPDATE: Between the time I wrote this and the time I’m publishing it, The Latitude appears to have also shut down. More on this at the end.)

So hey, what do you think Burning Man can learn from an experiential arts community centered in the same place, involving many of the same kinds of people (or the very same people in many cases), but that does everything almost entirely differently from Burning Man?

I don’t have any data on this (The Latitude is a secret society, after all), but I’d be stunned if a working majority of its hundreds of members weren’t Burners. Literally every member of The Latitude I know personally (myself, obviously, included) has been to Burning Man and has at one time been active in Burner culture.

So the appeal, to at least a sub-section of Burners, of an organization almost wholly unlike Burning Man is clear. This isn’t a problem, exactly: most Burners belong to some organization that does things differently from Burning Man. The Republican Party. The Democratic Party. The AARP. Harvard. The SEIU. Christianity – Burners belong to a whole host of cultural institutions that have little in common with Burning Man, and that’s fine. That diversity, in fact, is both a strength and a precious commodity.

But The Latitude Society is an organization that is, at some level, dedicated to the same purpose as Burning Man: creating extraordinary arts experiences that will, over time, change the world. That mission statement doesn’t fit either organization exactly, but it’s certainly close to the heart of both. And it is in that context specifically that The Lattitude takes a 180 degree swing from Burning Man’s approach to … well … just about everything.

To begin with The Latitude is, however feebly, a secret society. There is no “radical inclusion” – it is by invitation only, and the whole point of it is to keep the kind of people founder Jeff Hull likes in, and the kind of people he doesn’t out. While there are now plans to expand membership (for financial reasons), everything about The Latitude, from its exclusivity to its “founding mythology” is about making sure there are walls, and that only the right people can find doors.

Then there’s the fact that a significant portion of The Latitude experience is a curated one: indeed, one gets initiated into The Latitude by going through a kind of quest that is closely curated and monitored, and one advances through the organization by going on other top-down quests to gain more knowledge and access than other members.

Now I need to emphasize that Burners often mean “curated experience” in a pejorative way, but I don’t here. Quite the contrary: That entrance experience? That quest you have to complete to activate your membership once it’s offered?

Holy fuck.

It is AMAZINGLY compelling if you don’t know what’s coming or why, and what can I say but hats off to you, Jeff Hull, and your band of merry designers, for an experience I will never forget. Not only would I bring you to Burning Man if I could, I would hire you to create my birthdays, Christmases, and miscellaneous nights at my favorite bar.

Writing The Latitude off because Burning Man doesn’t officially use curated experiences would be like writing the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh off because Burning Man isn’t in favor of self-mutilation. But that’s the point: Burning Man doesn’t object to curated experiences because they’re necessarily bad, it objects to them at an institutional level because it believes they don’t lead to the kind of experience and community we want. We can still appreciate greatness.

This is an area where The Latitude is actually straddling the line: despite its emphasis on curated experiences, most of what the society provides from day-to-day is actually the experiential equivalent of user generated content. Essentially it offers a service where people of like minds can offer their own creative experiences for one another. If I say “like frat parties, only for creatives,” would that be an apt or snarky metaphor? I honestly can’t decide.

Then of course there’s the commercialism. The Latitude didn’t have an annual membership fee when I joined, but it does now – although I wouldn’t criticize that too much if I were Burners, given that at $360, a year of membership in The Latitude costs less than most Burning Man tickets. But it doesn’t stop there: the Latitude sells t-shirts with “Absolute Discretion” (one of its mottos) on them for $36. It also sells Latitude Society sashes, and pendants, and gee-gaws of all kinds. Plus, inviting another person to be a member costs $34. An essential part of The Latitude Society’s business model is selling Latitude Society brand gear to its members. Here the contrast with Burning Man couldn’t be starker.

There’s lot’s more in this vein, but the essential point should be clear: both Burning Man (writ large) and The Latitude are trying to create more art and experiences and gradually change the world, but they’re doing it through almost oppositional methods.

This should be a perfect case study. A chance to learn something, certainly about ourselves, possibly about the world.

But what is that?

In many ways it may be too early to ask: Burning Man is a much older, more established organization (my impression is it’s barely a year old, though I could be wrong – though only by so much). The Latitude also much smaller, with membership limited to a relatively insular community in the San Francisco Bay Area. We should really give it time to grow – or fail, or change as much as Burning Man has – before we start drawing conclusions.

But I can speak from my experience as fairly active Burner and terribly inactive member of The Latitude. From the standpoint of Burning Man’s economic model I am a success, donating years of my time and labor, from the standpoint of The Latitude’s economic model I am part of the problem: I was brought in for free but bought no merchandise and invited no one else, and have barely shown up to any events, despite the presence of numerous friends.

Obviously there’s some kind of difference for me, and while this is a highly subjective lesson to draw, I think it may have value. So, here’s my story.

I was given my membership by a friend (who has also since grown largely, but not wholly, inactive), in a great show of mystery. I was one of the few, the elect – and for all that I believe in Radical Inclusion, that still feels great. I waited a week or so for my mysterious appointment with destiny to arrive, and even scouted out the area beforehand to make sure I had some sense of what was coming. It was thrillingly cloak and dagger. It didn’t prepare me, at all.

Which is to say that the exclusionary aspects of it, while they might very well have become an issue down the line, weren’t a problem for me at the time and certainly weren’t what chased me away. In fact, it actually spoke to part of my Burning Man experience as a Volunteer Coordinator: given limited spots on a team, how do you choose who does and doesn’t get them, and how do you then create esprit décor?

The Latitude, as the LongReads article relates, has as excellent filter for its community: first an existing member has to offer you membership, and they have to want it enough to put their own money on the table. Then the person offered membership has to actually activate their status and go through the initiation adventure. I was stunned, flabbergasted, to recently learn that a significant number of people don’t even both 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 new world of adventure, and you DON’T EVEN USE IT? C’mon, people: be better.

Then there are the people who go through the experience, but then don’t go any further. Finally you end up with active members.

Back when I was Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca, I would have killed to have a filtering mechanism this good. (My approach, somewhat infamously, was to fuck with potential new recruits for a while and see how they reacted. It was ad hoc and problematic, but dammit it WORKED!)

If anything The Latitude’s filtering mechanism is too good, hence The Latitude’s current membership problems – it got so exclusionary that people just stopped offering new memberships to people. But while The Latitude’s strategic goal of exclusion has no place at Burning Man, and I think is a terrible mistake, The Latitude’s tactical approach to figuring out who it wants too play with is sheer genius. While “Burning Man” as a culture and as an organization needs to remain open, I have no doubt that our various communities, as they seek to define their own identities and rituals, can learn a great deal from what The Latitude has done.

The experience I had after I walked through that door was, as I’ve said, amazing, and inspiring, and gave me membership at a basic level in The Latitude. I returned home about as eager as I could be to find out what happened next. Sadly that turned out to be the sensation of free-fall, not flying, and I was about to hit the ground.

Once I got back home, logged into The Latitude’s site, and used my newfound access to see what was behind the curtain … I hit bottom. I was crushed. This was what it was?

The first thing that got me was the “Absolute Discretion” t-shirts. Yes, yes, I know “Absolute Discretion” has two meanings, one being absolutely discrete, and the other having absolute discretion to do what you will. Aren’t we all clever. But it wasn’t just that this was merchandising: it was that it was merchandising that flew in the very face of the secretive nature of the experience I’d just been through: don’t ask me to suspend disbelief about being part of a super-secret society, and buy into the mythos of a long and august history, and then slap a logo on a t-shirt. The problem wasn’t the money, or the selling: it was the way in which the merchandise contradicted the premise.

The other purchaseable goods had a similar, though lesser, impact on me: they weren’t such deal breakers, but they still undermined the basic premise. No organization whose mission was as it had been laid out to me in the “Book 1” experience would really be operating this chintzy store and trying to get me to buy a sash.

The quest for meaningless badges and the artless accumulation of various kinds of points further put me off: all this minutia seemed impossibly off-mission. None of it was in any was relevant to either the imaginary mission The Latitude had asked me to participate in, or the goal of creating meaningful experiences.

It would have been one thing to be disappointed in them if I believed they were doing good, but The Latitude hadn’t been pitched to me as a charitable organization. The whole premise of the quest I’d just been through was that it was going to continue to offer me an incredible aesthetic experience. The moment that stopped, everything was up for grabs. The aesthetic nature of the “truth” of The Latitude – hundreds of years of “history” and “offices” all around the world, and a war that must be won – could not survive, for me, the moment it all resolved into one more social network.

Don’t think that an illusion can’t have weight, that a fiction can’t have mass: The Latitude’s curated experience had been something I was happy to lift, but when it suddenly became so light and airy I had to take it off. Stories can bind us to tasks, concepts can alter the paths we walk on. But stories are also timeless, which means that how they end can retroactively impact how they once began. Once The Latitude ended with a social network and a marketing scheme, that’s all it had ever been.

Of course the comparison to Burning Man couldn’t be more plain. Thus far I think (I know others disagree) that we have managed to avoid this fate precisely by keeping the stakes transparent: there is no mystery. There is no hidden curtain except what participants put up themselves. The stakes are exactly what they look like: whatever is happening is happening. And if that doesn’t suit you, something completely different is around the next corner.

That may be a vital component.

But isn’t that social network The Latitude developed at least worth being part of?

That’s a question that The Lattitude itself is figuring out: the truth of the matter is that even before The Latitude suddenly dissolved as an organization,  some active members were telling me that they really don’t need the curated experience or hierarchical organization to have their own content or network. Now that it’s gone, they are striving to keep the connections made together:  clearly The Latitude inspired a community of people to get together and do things.  That’s no small thing. To the extent it actually happens, it’s a success that we can learn from.

In fact now that The Latitude appears to have closed, this may be its chance to exist for real: as an actual secret society dedicated to real experiences that emerges out of the ashes of a fake secret society dedicated to curated experiences. The communities it formed don’t actually need a cool meeting house – and if the person at the top takes all their toys and money and goes home, maybe it doesn’t matter.  A real culture is bigger than the central office.  If The Latitude Society successfully (or inadvertently) created one, we should be paying attention.

 

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of the Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education department on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

19 Comments on “How I Fell Out of Love With the Latitude Society — and What Burning Man Can Learn from It

  • A Compeer says:

    My experience with The Latitude Society was wildly different than yours. That’s not to say I think you are wrong.

    I wonder if it would still be going if he had created a more cohesive experience.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      I wonder about that too. If it was a structural problem – if there was no way to combine the different elements that they’d wanted to create that would have satisfied me – or if it was an aesthetic problem, and they could have blended it in a more appealing way.

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  • Anon says:

    “A real culture is bigger than the central office.”

    It’s enough to make you wonder – maybe Burning Man would be better these days if the central office had packed up its toys and went home years ago instead of metastasizing into the Borg we all know and [something].

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      It’s a reasonable question, that reasonable people can disagree on. My take, at this point, is that no, we probably wouldn’t be better off. But I also firmly believe, to the point where I don’t think there is a possibility for reasonable disagreement here, that the culture is bigger and distinct from the Borg.

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      • The Hustler says:

        One can say the Borg is an unrelated entity from Burning Man, existing only to manage the skeleton of the beast, whilst the brain and tendons and blood operate at will. Maybe he Borg is the medulla oblongata, but carried in an external case, connected with poorly-insulated wires.

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  • Good Riddance says:

    Good riddance! Commercial cash grab nonsense we’re all better off without. Take your bougie tripe back to the mid-west!!!

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Obviously The Latitude’s approach to funding turned me the hell off. But I’m not going to accuse them of acting in bad faith: so far as I know they were sincerely grappling with the question of how to make a community like this sustainable, and far from condemning them for picking an approach that I don’t like, I’m grateful to them for trying it in such an impressive manner.

      I could be wrong, but that’s my sense.

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      • Marguerite says:

        You are absolutely spot on. I am someone who engaged deeply with the Latitude and who dove deep down the rabbit hole of discovering the many secrets and stories underneath the veneer of social networking/merchandise site. The people involved in creating the experience have, from the very beginning, sincerely grappled with the question of sustainability while retaining the authenticity, cohesion and spirit of the culture within. As someone who also yearns to be paid for the art and experience I help create, I have deep respect for the efforts to find a way to make it profitable for everyone involved.

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    • The Grue says:

      Ow. I don’t see what picking on the mid-west has to do with it.

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  • Anton says:

    Perhaps you meant “merchandising” instead of “marketing”? Words have meanings.

    Did you ever get to the part where you were “in love” with the Latitude? It seems like you had a good initial experience but then didn’t actually participate.

    And then, to be clear, your great disappointment was that they wanted you to spend money on things that you didn’t think befit the mystery you initially felt?

    You could use to be more careful when trying to a society of people. Its irksome when people try to define Burning Man as a “festival”, an “orgy”, or a “rave” because, although it *has* those things, it *is* not those things. Just because the Society might *have* a store, a “social network”, doesn’t mean that is *is* those things.

    Finally, did you ever get to your point? What can BM learn from the Latitude?

    Or, was this whole thing simply an airing of secrets—secrets that you felt begrudged to hold?

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    • joshu/tristero says:

      my thoughts exactly

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    • Lois Lame says:

      Surprise, surprise! Another poorly written opinion piece by Caveat. When will this blog have some decent content again?

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      • The Hustler says:

        I imagine you haven’t actually read any of Caveat’s blog posts. Or, maybe you have. His writing can be a bit dense, and occasionally about abstract and odd things or ideas. Sometimes I have to read them twice to fully grasp his rambling gibberish.

        And, the other blog posts — in all of their variety — are generally well-written and interesting. Generally. (Some things they need to cover aren’t always exciting, and the most knowledgable person may not be the snappiest writer).

        Maybe you just want attention, and I gave in and fed the Internet troll. (I actually go out of my way to do that, but the fun never lasts long).

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      • Still Lame says:

        Not a troll. I was agreeing with Anton’s post that the article is justwhiny rambling and doesn’t really have much substance. It’s too similar to the clickbait crap you see everywhere these days.

        I’ve read many of his past writings. Back in the day, I found them interesting, but these days, they’ve become too abstract and overly pretentious. Remember “12 Shocking Revelations about ultra-rich Burning Man plug-and-play camps!” article from last November? I can’t believe they let him continue to contribute after that fiasco.

        Will, if you’re reading this, please put more down to earth, art-related content in this blog. These sensationalist philosophy pieces make us all look like a bunch of elitist snobs.

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  • T says:

    Excellent post, Caveat. And thank you for sharing.
    I think you make some very valid points and i could relate to much of what you described.
    I too was disappointed (and confused) to see the merchandising element come up, wasn’t at all into the sashes and related stuff, but I loved the sense of community and wonderment it was developing.
    It will be interesting to see what comes of it, now that the main benefactor pulled out.

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  • Will Chase says:

    Mark me down as one of the pathetic sad-sacks with an unused Latitude card sitting on his dresser. I’m somewhat disappointed I didn’t get to use it, but I blame being overly committed. :-( I certainly do like the idea of participant-driven immersive art experiences. (I know, shocker, right?)

    This all does bring up the interesting conversation about making a living wage on one’s creation, and how to do it in a principled, authentic way. When we’re in abundance, it’s great to be able to gift our creativity to the greater world, because experience economy. But at some point (short of being independently wealthy, which, congratulations), it has to be wrapped around a sustainable business model. (Nobody’s gifting me my rent.)

    Jeff invested a lot, as I understand it, and is making attempts to make it sustainable beyond his own resources. It’s up to him to be clever and principled about it, and up to us, the participants, to support it if we believe in it, or not if we don’t.

    Finally, in the interest of fairness and full disclosure, Burning Man also has a marketplace where we sell some culture-bearing shwag, but our intention (and reality) is for it to be just that: culture-bearing stuff you might like to have — we intentionally kinda bury it, even. Financially, it merely covers its costs plus a tad more, and is far from a lucrative income source. Just putting that out there.

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  • Some Guy says:

    “esprit décor” is a marvelous eggcorn.

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  • ted says:

    Just my two cents. I will probably never go to Burning Man. Financially, my wife and I could never afford such a price for a ticket and the logistics that are involved. I would love to go, it is just never going to happen. I was never a monthly paying member of the Latitude society for the same reason. However I did complete Book I and II. It was a wonderful chance for me to experience a make believe world, and I did make friends with a few members that I would have never met because of this experience. As far as the merchandise side of it, i I did buy a few items. It made me feel a bit closer to something I had been longing for for a long time but could not afford to be a part of for both financial reason and daily responsibilities. A daily reminder I guess that I was part of something besides my day job and all of my responsibilities as a hard working dad trying to make ends meet. I also thought right off the bat that the space in SF must cost a small fortune to install, maintain, and to rent so I had no issues donating back to the creators that let me have a gimps. I hope they can recover into something more sustainable for both their sake and mine.

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  • Lee Wei says:

    I think it’s important to point out that for people who were initiated early on the experience was very different than people who came in once events were in full swing and Book 2 was released. There was a long period where the community got an opportunity to self organize and what came out of that was a strong group of friends and collaborators who continue to create together to this very day.

    I’ve also heard rumors that there is a large contingent of former members who are in the process of rebuilding the society, underground.

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