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?
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.