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My Year in San Francisco’s $2 Million Secret Society Startup

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“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.

The Latitude Society invitation card. Image: Lydia Laurenson

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 fireplace entrance. Photo: Lydia Laurenson

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.

Shhhh. Photo: Lydia Laurenson

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 library. Photo: Lydia Laurenson

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.

The brass skull. Photo: Lydia Laurenson

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.

The new, more explicit card. Photo: Lydia Laurenson

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.

Sorry.”

“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.”

“What happened?”

“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.

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brittany
1663 days ago
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I didn't get too deep into the Latitude Society- but the Book experiences rocked.
San Francisco
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2 public comments
JayM
1662 days ago
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Cool
Atlanta, GA
skittone
1662 days ago
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Very long, maybe interesting enough.

Man Arrested For Stabbing Victim In Face At JFK Airport

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Man Arrested For Stabbing Victim In Face At JFK Airport A man was stabbed in the face outside John F. Kennedy airport yesterday afternoon allegedly during an argument with a fellow livery cab driver. His alleged assailant has since been arrested. [ more › ]
    






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brittany
2498 days ago
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Love reading this as I board a plane to New York.
San Francisco
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How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets

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This past January, Laura Poitras received a curious e-mail from an anonymous stranger requesting her public encryption key. For almost two years, Poitras had been working on a documentary about surveillance, and she occasionally received queries from strangers. She replied to this one and sent her public key — allowing him or her to send an encrypted e-mail that only Poitras could open, with her private key — but she didn’t think much would come of it.

The stranger responded with instructions for creating an even more secure system to protect their exchanges. Promising sensitive information, the stranger told Poitras to select long pass phrases that could withstand a brute-force attack by networked computers. “Assume that your adversary is capable of a trillion guesses per second,” the stranger wrote.

Before long, Poitras received an encrypted message that outlined a number of secret surveillance programs run by the government. She had heard of one of them but not the others. After describing each program, the stranger wrote some version of the phrase, “This I can prove.”

Seconds after she decrypted and read the e-mail, Poitras disconnected from the Internet and removed the message from her computer. “I thought, O.K., if this is true, my life just changed,” she told me last month. “It was staggering, what he claimed to know and be able to provide. I just knew that I had to change everything.”

Poitras remained wary of whoever it was she was communicating with. She worried especially that a government agent might be trying to trick her into disclosing information about the people she interviewed for her documentary, including Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks. “I called him out,” Poitras recalled. “I said either you have this information and you are taking huge risks or you are trying to entrap me and the people I know, or you’re crazy.”

The answers were reassuring but not definitive. Poitras did not know the stranger’s name, sex, age or employer (C.I.A.? N.S.A.? Pentagon?). In early June, she finally got the answers. Along with her reporting partner, Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer and a columnist for The Guardian, Poitras flew to Hong Kong and met the N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, who gave them thousands of classified documents, setting off a major controversy over the extent and legality of government surveillance. Poitras was right that, among other things, her life would never be the same.

Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro. He shares the home with his Brazilian partner and their 10 dogs and one cat, and the place has the feel of a low-key fraternity that has been dropped down in the jungle. The kitchen clock is off by hours, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table and a couch and a large TV, an Xbox console and a box of poker chips and not much else. The refrigerator is not always filled with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys occasionally raids the banana trees in the backyard and engages in shrieking battles with the dogs.

Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Glenn Greenwald, a writer for The Guardian, at home in Rio de Janeiro.

Greenwald does most of his work on a shaded porch, usually dressed in a T-shirt, surfer shorts and flip-flops. Over the four days I spent there, he was in perpetual motion, speaking on the phone in Portuguese and English, rushing out the door to be interviewed in the city below, answering calls and e-mails from people seeking information about Snowden, tweeting to his 225,000 followers (and conducting intense arguments with a number of them), then sitting down to write more N.S.A. articles for The Guardian, all while pleading with his dogs to stay quiet. During one especially fever-pitched moment, he hollered, “Shut up, everyone,” but they didn’t seem to care.

Amid the chaos, Poitras, an intense-looking woman of 49, sat in a spare bedroom or at the table in the living room, working in concentrated silence in front of her multiple computers. Once in a while she would walk over to the porch to talk with Greenwald about the article he was working on, or he would sometimes stop what he was doing to look at the latest version of a new video she was editing about Snowden. They would talk intensely — Greenwald far louder and more rapid-fire than Poitras — and occasionally break out laughing at some shared joke or absurd memory. The Snowden story, they both said, was a battle they were waging together, a fight against powers of surveillance that they both believe are a threat to fundamental American liberties.

Two reporters for The Guardian were in town to assist Greenwald, so some of our time was spent in the hotel where they were staying along Copacabana Beach, the toned Brazilians playing volleyball in the sand below lending the whole thing an added layer of surreality. Poitras has shared the byline on some of Greenwald’s articles, but for the most part she has preferred to stay in the background, letting him do the writing and talking. As a result, Greenwald is the one hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective. “I keep calling her the Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” Greenwald said, referring to the character in “The Usual Suspects” played by Kevin Spacey, a mastermind masquerading as a nobody. “She’s been at the center of all of this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”

As dusk fell one evening, I followed Poitras and Greenwald to the newsroom of O Globo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil. Greenwald had just published an article there detailing how the N.S.A. was spying on Brazilian phone calls and e-mails. The article caused a huge scandal in Brazil, as similar articles have done in other countries around the world, and Greenwald was a celebrity in the newsroom. The editor in chief pumped his hand and asked him to write a regular column; reporters took souvenir pictures with their cellphones. Poitras filmed some of this, then put her camera down and looked on. I noted that nobody was paying attention to her, that all eyes were on Greenwald, and she smiled. “That’s right,” she said. “That’s perfect.”

Poitras seems to work at blending in, a function more of strategy than of shyness. She can actually be remarkably forceful when it comes to managing information. During a conversation in which I began to ask her a few questions about her personal life, she remarked, “This is like visiting the dentist.” The thumbnail portrait is this: She was raised in a well-off family outside Boston, and after high school, she moved to San Francisco to work as a chef in upscale restaurants. She also took classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied under the experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr. In 1992, she moved to New York and began to make her way in the film world, while also enrolling in graduate classes in social and political theory at the New School. Since then she has made five films, most recently “The Oath,” about the Guantánamo prisoner Salim Hamdan and his brother-in-law back in Yemen, and has been the recipient of a Peabody Award and a MacArthur award.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Poitras was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when the towers were attacked. Like most New Yorkers, in the weeks that followed she was swept up in both mourning and a feeling of unity. It was a moment, she said, when “people could have done anything, in a positive sense.” When that moment led to the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, she felt that her country had lost its way. “We always wonder how countries can veer off course,” she said. “How do people let it happen, how do people sit by during this slipping of boundaries?” Poitras had no experience in conflict zones, but in June 2004, she went to Iraq and began documenting the occupation.

Shortly after arriving in Baghdad, she received permission to go to Abu Ghraib prison to film a visit by members of Baghdad’s City Council. This was just a few months after photos were published of American soldiers abusing prisoners there. A prominent Sunni doctor was part of the visiting delegation, and Poitras shot a remarkable scene of his interaction with prisoners there, shouting that they were locked up for no good reason.

The doctor, Riyadh al-Adhadh, invited Poitras to his clinic and later allowed her to report on his life in Baghdad. Her documentary, “My Country, My Country,” is centered on his family’s travails — the shootings and blackouts in their neighborhood, the kidnapping of a nephew. The film premiered in early 2006 and received widespread acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for best documentary.

Attempting to tell the story of the war’s effect on Iraqi citizens made Poitras the target of serious — and apparently false — accusations. On Nov. 19, 2004, Iraqi troops, supported by American forces, raided a mosque in the doctor’s neighborhood of Adhamiya, killing several people inside. The next day, the neighborhood erupted in violence. Poitras was with the doctor’s family, and occasionally they would go to the roof of the home to get a sense of what was going on. On one of those rooftop visits, she was seen by soldiers from an Oregon National Guard battalion. Shortly after, a group of insurgents launched an attack that killed one of the Americans. Some soldiers speculated that Poitras was on the roof because she had advance notice of the attack and wanted to film it. Their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson, retired, told me last month that he filed a report about her to brigade headquarters.

There is no evidence to support this claim. Fighting occurred throughout the neighborhood that day, so it would have been difficult for any journalist to not be near the site of an attack. The soldiers who made the allegation told me that they have no evidence to prove it. Hendrickson told me his brigade headquarters never got back to him.

For several months after the attack in Adhamiya, Poitras continued to live in the Green Zone and work as an embedded journalist with the U.S. military. She has screened her film to a number of military audiences, including at the U.S. Army War College. An officer who interacted with Poitras in Baghdad, Maj. Tom Mowle, retired, said Poitras was always filming and it “completely makes sense” she would film on a violent day. “I think it’s a pretty ridiculous allegation,” he said.

Although the allegations were without evidence, they may be related to Poitras’s many detentions and searches. Hendrickson and another soldier told me that in 2007 — months after she was first detained — investigators from the Department of Justice’s Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed them, inquiring about Poitras’s activities in Baghdad that day. Poitras was never contacted by those or any other investigators, however. “Iraq forces and the U.S. military raided a mosque during Friday prayers and killed several people,” Poitras said. “Violence broke out the next day. I am a documentary filmmaker and was filming in the neighborhood. Any suggestion I knew about an attack is false. The U.S. government should investigate who ordered the raid, not journalists covering the war.”

In June 2006, her tickets on domestic flights were marked “SSSS” — Secondary Security Screening Selection — which means the bearer faces extra scrutiny beyond the usual measures. She was detained for the first time at Newark International Airport before boarding a flight to Israel, where she was showing her film. On her return flight, she was held for two hours before being allowed to re-enter the country. The next month, she traveled to Bosnia to show the film at a festival there. When she flew out of Sarajevo and landed in Vienna, she was paged on the airport loudspeaker and told to go to a security desk; from there she was led to a van and driven to another part of the airport, then taken into a room where luggage was examined.

“They took my bags and checked them,” Poitras said. “They asked me what I was doing, and I said I was showing a movie in Sarajevo about the Iraq war. And then I sort of befriended the security guy. I asked what was going on. He said: ‘You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400.’ I said, ‘Is this a scoring system that works throughout all of Europe, or is this an American scoring system?’ He said. ‘No, this is your government that has this and has told us to stop you.’ ”

After 9/11, the U.S. government began compiling a terrorist watch list that was at one point estimated to contain nearly a million names. There are at least two subsidiary lists that relate to air travel. The no-fly list contains the names of tens of thousands of people who are not allowed to fly into or out of the country. The selectee list, which is larger than the no-fly list, subjects people to extra airport inspections and questioning. These lists have been criticized by civil rights groups for being too broad and arbitrary and for violating the rights of Americans who are on them.

In Vienna, Poitras was eventually cleared to board her connecting flight to New York, but when she landed at J.F.K., she was met at the gate by two armed law-enforcement agents and taken to a room for questioning. It is a routine that has happened so many times since then — on more than 40 occasions — that she has lost precise count. Initially, she said, the authorities were interested in the paper she carried, copying her receipts and, once, her notebook. After she stopped carrying her notes, they focused on her electronics instead, telling her that if she didn’t answer their questions, they would confiscate her gear and get their answers that way. On one occasion, Poitras says, they did seize her computers and cellphones and kept them for weeks. She was also told that her refusal to answer questions was itself a suspicious act. Because the interrogations took place at international boarding crossings, where the government contends that ordinary constitutional rights do not apply, she was not permitted to have a lawyer present.

“It’s a total violation,” Poitras said. “That’s how it feels. They are interested in information that pertains to the work I am doing that’s clearly private and privileged. It’s an intimidating situation when people with guns meet you when you get off an airplane.”

Though she has written to members of Congress and has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests, Poitras has never received any explanation for why she was put on a watch list. “It’s infuriating that I have to speculate why,” she said. “When did that universe begin, that people are put on a list and are never told and are stopped for six years? I have no idea why they did it. It’s the complete suspension of due process.” She added: “I’ve been told nothing, I’ve been asked nothing, and I’ve done nothing. It’s like Kafka. Nobody ever tells you what the accusation is.”

After being detained repeatedly, Poitras began taking steps to protect her data, asking a traveling companion to carry her laptop, leaving her notebooks overseas with friends or in safe deposit boxes. She would wipe her computers and cellphones clean so that there would be nothing for the authorities to see. Or she encrypted her data, so that law enforcement could not read any files they might get hold of. These security preparations could take a day or more before her travels.

It wasn’t just border searches that she had to worry about. Poitras said she felt that if the government was suspicious enough to interrogate her at airports, it was also most likely surveilling her e-mail, phone calls and Web browsing. “I assume that there are National Security Letters on my e-mails,” she told me, referring to one of the secretive surveillance tools used by the Department of Justice. A National Security Letter requires its recipients — in most cases, Internet service providers and phone companies — to provide customer data without notifying the customers or any other parties. Poitras suspected (but could not confirm, because her phone company and I.S.P. would be prohibited from telling her) that the F.B.I. had issued National Security Letters for her electronic communications.

Conor Provenzano

Laura Poitras filming the construction of a large N.S.A. facility in Utah.

Once she began working on her surveillance film in 2011, she raised her digital security to an even higher level. She cut down her use of a cellphone, which betrays not only who you are calling and when, but your location at any given point in time. She was careful about e-mailing sensitive documents or having sensitive conversations on the phone. She began using software that masked the Web sites she visited. After she was contacted by Snowden in 2013, she tightened her security yet another notch. In addition to encrypting any sensitive e-mails, she began using different computers for editing film, for communicating and for reading sensitive documents (the one for sensitive documents is air-gapped, meaning it has never been connected to the Internet).

These precautions might seem paranoid — Poitras describes them as “pretty extreme” — but the people she has interviewed for her film were targets of the sort of surveillance and seizure that she fears. William Binney, a former top N.S.A. official who publicly accused the agency of illegal surveillance, was at home one morning in 2007 when F.B.I. agents burst in and aimed their weapons at his wife, his son and himself. Binney was, at the moment the agent entered his bathroom and pointed a gun at his head, naked in the shower. His computers, disks and personal records were confiscated and have not yet been returned. Binney has not been charged with any crime.

Jacob Appelbaum, a privacy activist who was a volunteer with WikiLeaks, has also been filmed by Poitras. The government issued a secret order to Twitter for access to Appelbaum’s account data, which became public when Twitter fought the order. Though the company was forced to hand over the data, it was allowed to tell Appelbaum. Google and a small I.S.P. that Appelbaum used were also served with secret orders and fought to alert him. Like Binney, Appelbaum has not been charged with any crime.

Poitras endured the airport searches for years with little public complaint, lest her protests generate more suspicion and hostility from the government, but last year she reached a breaking point. While being interrogated at Newark after a flight from Britain, she was told she could not take notes. On the advice of lawyers, Poitras always recorded the names of border agents and the questions they asked and the material they copied or seized. But at Newark, an agent threatened to handcuff her if she continued writing. She was told that she was being barred from writing anything down because she might use her pen as a weapon.

“Then I asked for crayons,” Poitras recalled, “and he said no to crayons.”

She was taken into another room and interrogated by three agents — one was behind her, another asked the questions, the third was a supervisor. “It went on for maybe an hour and a half,” she said. “I was taking notes of their questions, or trying to, and they yelled at me. I said, ‘Show me the law where it says I can’t take notes.’ We were in a sense debating what they were trying to forbid me from doing. They said, ‘We are the ones asking the questions.’ It was a pretty aggressive, antagonistic encounter.”

Poitras met Greenwald in 2010, when she became interested in his work on WikiLeaks. In 2011, she went to Rio to film him for her documentary. He was aware of the searches and asked several times for permission to write about them. After Newark, she gave him a green light.

“She said, ‘I’ve had it,’ ” Greenwald told me. “Her ability to take notes and document what was happening was her one sense of agency, to maintain some degree of control. Documenting is what she does. I think she was feeling that the one vestige of security and control in this situation had been taken away from her, without any explanation, just as an arbitrary exercise of power.”

At the time, Greenwald was a writer for Salon. His article, “U.S. Filmmaker Repeatedly Detained at Border,” was published in April 2012. Shortly after it was posted, the detentions ceased. Six years of surveillance and harassment, Poitras hoped, might be coming to an end.

Poitras was not Snowden’s first choice as the person to whom he wanted to leak thousands of N.S.A. documents. In fact, a month before contacting her, he reached out to Greenwald, who had written extensively and critically about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. Snowden anonymously sent him an e-mail saying he had documents he wanted to share, and followed that up with a step-by-step guide on how to encrypt communications, which Greenwald ignored. Snowden then sent a link to an encryption video, also to no avail.

“It’s really annoying and complicated, the encryption software,” Greenwald said as we sat on his porch during a tropical drizzle. “He kept harassing me, but at some point he just got frustrated, so he went to Laura.”

Snowden had read Greenwald’s article about Poitras’s troubles at U.S. airports and knew she was making a film about the government’s surveillance programs; he had also seen a short documentary about the N.S.A. that she made for The New York Times Op-Docs. He figured that she would understand the programs he wanted to leak about and would know how to communicate in a secure way.

By late winter, Poitras decided that the stranger with whom she was communicating was credible. There were none of the provocations that she would expect from a government agent — no requests for information about the people she was in touch with, no questions about what she was working on. Snowden told her early on that she would need to work with someone else, and that she should reach out to Greenwald. She was unaware that Snowden had already tried to contact Greenwald, and Greenwald would not realize until he met Snowden in Hong Kong that this was the person who had contacted him more than six months earlier.

There were surprises for everyone in these exchanges — including Snowden, who answered questions that I submitted to him through Poitras. In response to a question about when he realized he could trust Poitras, he wrote: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.” When I asked him about Greenwald’s initial silence in response to his requests and instructions for encrypted communications, Snowden replied: “I know journalists are busy and had assumed being taken seriously would be a challenge, especially given the paucity of detail I could initially offer. At the same time, this is 2013, and [he is] a journalist who regularly reported on the concentration and excess of state power. I was surprised to realize that there were people in news organizations who didn’t recognize any unencrypted message sent over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world.”

In April, Poitras e-mailed Greenwald to say they needed to speak face to face. Greenwald happened to be in the United States, speaking at a conference in a suburb of New York City, and the two met in the lobby of his hotel. “She was very cautious,” Greenwald recalled. “She insisted that I not take my cellphone, because of this ability the government has to remotely listen to cellphones even when they are turned off. She had printed off the e-mails, and I remember reading the e-mails and felt intuitively that this was real. The passion and thought behind what Snowden — who we didn’t know was Snowden at the time — was saying was palpable.”

Greenwald installed encryption software and began communicating with the stranger. Their work was organized like an intelligence operation, with Poitras as the mastermind. “Operational security — she dictated all of that,” Greenwald said. “Which computers I used, how I communicated, how I safeguarded the information, where copies were kept, with whom they were kept, in which places. She has this complete expert level of understanding of how to do a story like this with total technical and operational safety. None of this would have happened with anything near the efficacy and impact it did, had she not been working with me in every sense and really taking the lead in coordinating most of it.”

Snowden began to provide documents to the two of them. Poitras wouldn’t tell me when he began sending her documents; she does not want to provide the government with information that could be used in a trial against Snowden or herself. He also said he would soon be ready to meet them. When Poitras asked if she should plan on driving to their meeting or taking a train, Snowden told her to be ready to get on a plane.

In May, he sent encrypted messages telling the two of them to go to Hong Kong. Greenwald flew to New York from Rio, and Poitras joined him for meetings with the editor of The Guardian’s American edition. With the paper’s reputation on the line, the editor asked them to bring along a veteran Guardian reporter, Ewen MacAskill, and on June 1, the trio boarded a 16-hour flight from J.F.K. to Hong Kong.

Snowden had sent a small number of documents to Greenwald, about 20 in all, but Poitras had received a larger trove, which she hadn’t yet had the opportunity to read closely. On the plane, Greenwald began going through its contents, eventually coming across a secret court order requiring Verizon to give its customer phone records to the N.S.A. The four-page order was from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a panel whose decisions are highly classified. Although it was rumored that the N.S.A. was collecting large numbers of American phone records, the government always denied it.

Poitras, sitting 20 rows behind Greenwald, occasionally went forward to talk about what he was reading. As the man sitting next to him slept, Greenwald pointed to the FISA order on his screen and asked Poitras: “Have you seen this? Is this saying what I’m thinking it’s saying?”

At times, they talked so animatedly that they disturbed passengers who were trying to sleep; they quieted down. “We couldn’t believe just how momentous this occasion was,” Greenwald said. “When you read these documents, you get a sense of the breadth of them. It was a rush of adrenaline and ecstasy and elation. You feel you are empowered for the first time because there’s this mammoth system that you try and undermine and subvert and shine a light on — but you usually can’t make any headway, because you don’t have any instruments to do it — [and now] the instruments were suddenly in our lap.”

Snowden had instructed them that once they were in Hong Kong, they were to go at an appointed time to the Kowloon district and stand outside a restaurant that was in a mall connected to the Mira Hotel. There, they were to wait until they saw a man carrying a Rubik’s Cube, then ask him when the restaurant would open. The man would answer their question, but then warn that the food was bad. When the man with the Rubik’s Cube arrived, it was Edward Snowden, who was 29 at the time but looked even younger.

“Both of us almost fell over when we saw how young he was,” Poitras said, still sounding surprised. “I had no idea. I assumed I was dealing with somebody who was really high-level and therefore older. But I also knew from our back and forth that he was incredibly knowledgeable about computer systems, which put him younger in my mind. So I was thinking like 40s, somebody who really grew up on computers but who had to be at a higher level.”

In our encrypted chat, Snowden also remarked on this moment: “I think they were annoyed that I was younger than they expected, and I was annoyed that they had arrived too early, which complicated the initial verification. As soon as we were behind closed doors, however, I think everyone was reassured by the obsessive attention to precaution and bona fides.”

They followed Snowden to his room, where Poitras immediately shifted into documentarian mode, taking her camera out. “It was a little bit tense, a little uncomfortable,” Greenwald said of those initial minutes. “We sat down, and we just started chatting, and Laura was immediately unpacking her camera. The instant that she turned on the camera, I very vividly recall that both he and I completely stiffened up.”

Greenwald began the questioning. “I wanted to test the consistency of his claims, and I just wanted all the information I could get, given how much I knew this was going to be affecting my credibility and everything else. We weren’t really able to establish a human bond until after that five or six hours was over.”

For Poitras, the camera certainly alters the human dynamic, but not in a bad way. When someone consents to being filmed — even if the consent is indirectly gained when she turns on the camera — this is an act of trust that raises the emotional stakes of the moment. What Greenwald saw as stilted, Poitras saw as a kind of bonding, the sharing of an immense risk. “There is something really palpable and emotional in being trusted like that,” she said.

Snowden, though taken by surprise, got used to it. “As one might imagine, normally spies allergically avoid contact with reporters or media, so I was a virgin source — everything was a surprise. . . . But we all knew what was at stake. The weight of the situation actually made it easier to focus on what was in the public interest rather than our own. I think we all knew there was no going back once she turned the camera on.”

For the next week, their preparations followed a similar pattern — when they entered Snowden’s room, they would remove their cellphone batteries and place them in the refrigerator of Snowden’s minibar. They lined pillows against the door, to discourage eavesdropping from outside, then Poitras set up her camera and filmed. It was important to Snowden to explain to them how the government’s intelligence machinery worked because he feared that he could be arrested at any time.

Greenwald’s first articles — including the initial one detailing the Verizon order he read about on the flight to Hong Kong — appeared while they were still in the process of interviewing Snowden. It made for a strange experience, creating the news together, then watching it spread. “We could see it being covered,” Poitras said. “We were all surprised at how much attention it was getting. Our work was very focused, and we were paying attention to that, but we could see on TV that it was taking off. We were in this closed circle, and around us we knew that reverberations were happening, and they could be seen and they could be felt.”

Snowden told them before they arrived in Hong Kong that he wanted to go public. He wanted to take responsibility for what he was doing, Poitras said, and he didn’t want others to be unfairly targeted, and he assumed he would be identified at some point. She made a 12½-minute video of him that was posted online June 9, a few days after Greenwald’s first articles. It triggered a media circus in Hong Kong, as reporters scrambled to learn their whereabouts.

There were a number of subjects that Poitras declined to discuss with me on the record and others she wouldn’t discuss at all — some for security and legal reasons, others because she wants to be the first to tell crucial parts of her story in her own documentary. Of her parting with Snowden once the video was posted, she would only say, “We knew that once it went public, it was the end of that period of working.”

Snowden checked out of his hotel and went into hiding. Reporters found out where Poitras was staying — she and Greenwald were at different hotels — and phone calls started coming to her room. At one point, someone knocked on her door and asked for her by name. She knew by then that reporters had discovered Greenwald, so she called hotel security and arranged to be escorted out a back exit.

She tried to stay in Hong Kong, thinking Snowden might want to see her again, and because she wanted to film the Chinese reaction to his disclosures. But she had now become a figure of interest herself, not just a reporter behind the camera. On June 15, as she was filming a pro-Snowden rally outside the U.S. consulate, a CNN reporter spotted her and began asking questions. Poitras declined to answer and slipped away. That evening, she left Hong Kong.

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

A protest in Hong Kong in support of Edward Snowden on June 15.

Poitras flew directly to Berlin, where the previous fall she rented an apartment where she could edit her documentary without worrying that the F.B.I. would show up with a search warrant for her hard drives. “There is a filter constantly between the places where I feel I have privacy and don’t,” she said, “and that line is becoming increasingly narrow.” She added: “I’m not stopping what I’m doing, but I have left the country. I literally didn’t feel like I could protect my material in the United States, and this was before I was contacted by Snowden. If you promise someone you’re going to protect them as a source and you know the government is monitoring you or seizing your laptop, you can’t actually physically do it.”

After two weeks in Berlin, Poitras traveled to Rio, where I then met her and Greenwald a few days later. My first stop was the Copacabana hotel, where they were working that day with MacAskill and another visiting reporter from The Guardian, James Ball. Poitras was putting together a new video about Snowden that would be posted in a few days on The Guardian’s Web site. Greenwald, with several Guardian reporters, was working on yet another blockbuster article, this one about Microsoft’s close collaboration with the N.S.A. The room was crowded — there weren’t enough chairs for everyone, so someone was always sitting on the bed or floor. A number of thumb drives were passed back and forth, though I was not told what was on them.

Poitras and Greenwald were worried about Snowden. They hadn’t heard from him since Hong Kong. At the moment, he was stuck in diplomatic limbo in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, the most-wanted man on the planet, sought by the U.S. government for espionage. (He would later be granted temporary asylum in Russia.) The video that Poitras was working on, using footage she shot in Hong Kong, would be the first the world had seen of Snowden in a month.

“Now that he’s incommunicado, we don’t know if we’ll even hear from him again,” she said.

“Is he O.K.?” MacAskill asked.

“His lawyer said he’s O.K.,” Greenwald responded.

“But he’s not in direct contact with Snowden,” Poitras said

When Greenwald got home that evening, Snowden contacted him online. Two days later, while she was working at Greenwald’s house, Poitras also heard from him.

It was dusk, and there was loud cawing and hooting coming from the jungle all around. This was mixed with the yapping of five or six dogs as I let myself in the front gate. Through a window, I saw Poitras in the living room, intently working at one of her computers. I let myself in through a screen door, and she glanced up for just a second, then went back to work, completely unperturbed by the cacophony around her. After 10 minutes, she closed the lid of her computer and mumbled an apology about needing to take care of some things.

She showed no emotion and did not mention that she had been in the middle of an encrypted chat with Snowden. At the time, I didn’t press her, but a few days later, after I returned to New York and she returned to Berlin, I asked if that’s what she was doing that evening. She confirmed it, but said she didn’t want to talk about it at the time, because the more she talks about her interactions with Snowden, the more removed she feels from them.

“It’s an incredible emotional experience,” she said, “to be contacted by a complete stranger saying that he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know. He was putting his life on the line and trusting me with that burden. My experience and relationship to that is something that I want to retain an emotional relation to.” Her connection to him and the material, she said, is what will guide her work. “I am sympathetic to what he sees as the horror of the world [and] what he imagines could come. I want to communicate that with as much resonance as possible. If I were to sit and do endless cable interviews — all those things alienate me from what I need to stay connected to. It’s not just a scoop. It’s someone’s life.”

Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.

“We are in partnership with news organizations, but we feel our primary responsibility is to the risk the source took and to the public interest of the information he has provided,” Poitras said. “Further down on the list would be any particular news organization.”

Unlike many reporters at major news outlets, they do not attempt to maintain a facade of political indifference. Greenwald has been outspoken for years; on Twitter, he recently replied to one critic by writing: “You are a complete idiot. You know that, right?” His left political views, combined with his cutting style, have made him unloved among many in the political establishment. His work with Poitras has been castigated as advocacy that harms national security. “I read intelligence carefully,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shortly after the first Snowden articles appeared. “I know that people are trying to get us. . . . This is the reason the F.B.I. now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. . . . It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”

Poitras, while not nearly as confrontational as Greenwald, disagrees with the suggestion that their work amounts to advocacy by partisan reporters. “Yes, I have opinions,” she told me. “Do I think the surveillance state is out of control? Yes, I do. This is scary, and people should be scared. A shadow and secret government has grown and grown, all in the name of national security and without the oversight or national debate that one would think a democracy would have. It’s not advocacy. We have documents that substantiate it.”

Poitras possesses a new skill set that is particularly vital — and far from the journalistic norm — in an era of pervasive government spying: she knows, as well as any computer-security expert, how to protect against surveillance. As Snowden mentioned, “In the wake of this year’s disclosure, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.” A new generation of sources, like Snowden or Pfc. Bradley Manning, has access to not just a few secrets but thousands of them, because of their ability to scrape classified networks. They do not necessarily live in and operate through the established Washington networks — Snowden was in Hawaii, and Manning sent hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks from a base in Iraq. And they share their secrets not with the largest media outlets or reporters but with the ones who share their political outlook and have the know-how to receive the leaks undetected.

In our encrypted chat, Snowden explained why he went to Poitras with his secrets: “Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the face of withering personal criticism, [which] resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.”

Snowden’s revelations are now the center of Poitras’s surveillance documentary, but Poitras also finds herself in a strange, looking-glass dynamic, because she cannot avoid being a character in her own film. She did not appear in or narrate her previous films, and she says that probably won’t change with this one, but she realizes that she has to be represented in some way, and is struggling with how to do that.

She is also assessing her legal vulnerability. Poitras and Greenwald are not facing any charges, at least not yet. They do not plan to stay away from America forever, but they have no immediate plans to return. One member of Congress has already likened what they’ve done to a form of treason, and they are well aware of the Obama administration’s unprecedented pursuit of not just leakers but of journalists who receive the leaks. While I was with them, they talked about the possibility of returning. Greenwald said that the government would be unwise to arrest them, because of the bad publicity it would create. It also wouldn’t stop the flow of information.

He mentioned this while we were in a taxi heading back to his house. It was dark outside, the end of a long day. Greenwald asked Poitras, “Since it all began, have you had a non-N.S.A. day?”

“What’s that?” she replied.

“I think we need one,” Greenwald said. “Not that we’re going to take one.”

Poitras talked about getting back to yoga again. Greenwald said he was going to resume playing tennis regularly. “I’m willing to get old for this thing,” he said, “but I’m not willing to get fat.”

Their discussion turned to the question of coming back to the United States. Greenwald said, half-jokingly, that if he was arrested, WikiLeaks would become the new traffic cop for publishing N.S.A. documents. “I would just say: ‘O.K., let me introduce you to my friend Julian Assange, who’s going to take my place. Have fun dealing with him.’ ”

Poitras prodded him: “So you’re going back to the States?”

He laughed and pointed out that unfortunately, the government does not always take the smartest course of action. “If they were smart,” he said, “I would do it.”

Poitras smiled, even though it’s a difficult subject for her. She is not as expansive or carefree as Greenwald, which adds to their odd-couple chemistry. She is concerned about their physical safety. She is also, of course, worried about surveillance. “Geolocation is the thing,” she said. “I want to keep as much off the grid as I can. I’m not going to make it easy for them. If they want to follow me, they are going to have to do that. I am not going to ping into any G.P.S. My location matters to me. It matters to me in a new way that I didn’t feel before.”

There are lots of people angry with them and lots of governments, as well as private entities, that would not mind taking possession of the thousands of N.S.A. documents they still control. They have published only a handful — a top-secret, headline-grabbing, Congressional-hearing-inciting handful — and seem unlikely to publish everything, in the style of WikiLeaks. They are holding onto more secrets than they are exposing, at least for now.

“We have this window into this world, and we’re still trying to understand it,” Poitras said in one of our last conversations. “We’re not trying to keep it a secret, but piece the puzzle together. That’s a project that is going to take time. Our intention is to release what’s in the public interest but also to try to get a handle on what this world is, and then try to communicate that.”

The deepest paradox, of course, is that their effort to understand and expose government surveillance may have condemned them to a lifetime of it.

“Our lives will never be the same,” Poitras said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy. That might be just completely gone.”

Peter Maass is an investigative reporter working on a book about surveillance and privacy.

Editor: Joel Lovell

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brittany
2599 days ago
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This should be required reading for anyone interested in getting into the world of documentary film. Being the media requires being brave.
San Francisco
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pfctdayelise
2574 days ago
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Excellent piece on the documentary fillmaker who has worked with Glenn Greenwald on the NSA stories behind the scenes. Snowden first contacted Greenwald but he did not respond to his requests to use encryption software. (!) Poitras did.
Melbourne, Australia
dshan
2599 days ago
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Such a killer read and important insight into the state of raw journalism today. True journalists (especially independent) are facing a scary world.
San Francisco, CA

I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

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New Statesman

Archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl Zooey Deschanel.

Like scabies and syphilis, Manic Pixie Dream Girls were with us long before they were accurately named. It was the critic Nathan Rabin who coined the term in a review of the film Elizabethtown, explaining that the character of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures". She pops up everywhere these days, in films and comics and novels and television, fascinating lonely geek dudes with her magical joie-de-vivre and boring the hell out of anybody who likes their women to exist in all four dimensions.

Writing about Doctor Who this week got me thinking about sexism in storytelling, and how we rely on lazy character creation in life just as we do in fiction. The Doctor has become the ultimate soulful brooding hero in need of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to save him from the vortex of self-pity usually brought on by the death, disappearance or alternate-universe-abandonment of the last girl. We cannot have the Doctor brooding. A planet might explode somewhere, or he might decide to use his powers for evil, or his bow-tie might need adjusting. The companions of the past three years, since the most recent series reboot, have been the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification, any attempt at actually creating interesting female characters replaced by... That Girl. 

Amy Pond was That Girl; Clara Oswald has been That Girl; River Song, interestingly enough, did not start out as That Girl, but the character was forcibly turned into That Girl when she no longer fit the temper of a series with contempt for powerful, interesting, grown-up women, and then discarded when she outgrew the role (‘Don’t let him see you age’ was River’s main piece of advice in the last season). ‘The Girl Who Waited’ is not a real person, and nor is ‘The Impossible Girl.’ Those are the titles of stories. They are stories that happen to other people. That’s what girls are supposed to be. 

Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's. As a kid growing up with books and films and stories instead of friends, that was always the narrative injustice that upset me more than anything else. I felt it sometimes like a sharp pain under the ribcage, the kind of chest pain that lasts for minutes and hours and might be nothing at all or might mean you're slowly dying of something mundane and awful. It's a feeling that hit when I understood how few girls got to go on adventures. I started reading science fiction and fantasy long before Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, before mainstream female leads very occasionally got more at the end of the story than together with the protagonist. Sure, there were tomboys and bad girls, but they were freaks and were usually killed off or married off quickly. Lady hobbits didn't bring the ring to Mordor. They stayed at home in the shire. 

Stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world, which doesn’t mean that those stories can’t be stupid and simplistic and full of lies. Stories can exaggerate and offend and they always, always matter. In Doug Rushkoff's recent book Present Shock, he discusses the phenomenon of “narrative collapse”: the idea that in the years between 11 September 2001 and the financial crash of 2008, all of the old stories about God and Duty and Money and Family and America and The Destiny of the West finally disintegrated, leaving us with fewer sustaining fairytales to die for and even fewer to live for.

This is plausible, but future panic, like the future itself, is not evenly distributed. Not being sure what story you're in anymore is a different experience depending on whether or not you were expecting to be the hero of that story. Low-status men, and especially women and girls, often don't have that expectation. We expect to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we're lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero's shoulder and carried off the end of the final page. The only way we get to be in stories is to be stories ourselves. If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else, and when you’re a young girl looking for a script, there are a limited selection of roles to choose from.

Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing. 

For me, Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the story that fit. Of course, I didn't think of it in those terms;  all I saw was that in the books and series I loved - mainly science fiction, comics and offbeat literature, not the mainstream films that would later make the MPDG trope famous - there were certain kinds of girl you could be, and if you weren't a busty bombshell, if you were maybe a bit weird and clever and brunette, there was another option.

And that's how I became a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The basic physical and personality traits were already there, and some of it was doubtless honed by that learned girlish desire to please - because the posture does please people, particularly the kind of sad, bright, bookish young men who have often been my friends and lovers. I had the raw materials: I’m five feet nothing, petite and small-featured with skin the color of something left on the bottom of a pond for too long and messy hair that’s sometimes dyed a shocking shade of red or pink. At least, it was before I washed all the dye out last year, partly to stop soulful Zach-Braff-a-likes following me to the shops, and partly to stop myself getting smeary technicolour splotches all over the bathroom, as if a muppet had been horribly murdered. 

And yes, I’m a bit strange and sensitive and daydreamy, and retain a somewhat embarrassing belief in the ultimate decency of humanity and the transformative brilliance of music, although I’m ambivalent on the Shins. I love to dance, I play the guitar badly, and I also - since we’re in confession mode, dear reader, please hear and forgive - I also play the fucking ukelele. Truly. Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe. 

I’m fascinated by this character and what she means to people, because the experience of being her - of playing her - is so wildly different than it seems to appear from the outside. In recent weeks I’ve filled in the gaps of classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl films I hadn’t already sat through, and I’m struck by how many of them claim to be ironic re-imaginings of a character trope that they fail to actually interrogate in any way. Irony is, of course, the last vestige of modern crypto-misogyny: all those lazy stereotypes and hurtful put-downs are definitely a joke, right up until they aren’t, and clearly you need a man to tell you when and if you’re supposed to take sexism seriously. 

One of these soi-disant ironic films is (500) Days of Summer, the opening credits of which refer to the real-world heartbreak on which writer-director Scott Neustadter based the character of Summer" 'Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.'  

Men write women, and they re-write us, for revenge. It's about obsession, and control. Perhaps the most interesting of the classics, then, is the recent 'Ruby Sparks', written by a woman, Zoe Kazan, who also stars as the title character. It’s all about a frustrated young author who writes himself a perfect girlfriend, only to have her come to life. When she inevitably proves more difficult to handle in reality than she did in his fantasy, the writer’s brother comments: "You've written a girl, not a person."  

“I think defining a girl and making her lovable because of her music taste or because she wears cute clothes is a really superficial way of looking at women. I did want to address that,” Kazan told the Huffington Post. “Everybody is setting out to write a full character. It's just that some people are limited in their imagination of a girl.”

Those imaginative limits, that failure of narrative, is imposed off the page, too, in the most personal of ways. I stopped being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl around about the time I got rid of the last vestiges of my eating disorder and knuckled down to a career. It’s so much easier, if you have the option, to be a girl, not a person. It’s definitely easier to be a girl than it is to do the work of being a grown woman, especially when you know that grown women are far more fearful to the men whose approval seems so vital to your happiness. And yet something in me was rebelling against the idea of being a character in somebody else’s story. I wanted to write my own. 

I became successful, or at least modestly so - and that changed how I was perceived, entirely and all at once. I was no longer That Girl. I didn’t have time to save boys anymore. I manifestly had other priorities, and those priorities included writing. You cannot be a writer and have writing be anything other than the central romance of your life, which is one thing they don’t tell you about being a woman writer: it’s its own flavour of lonely. Men can get away with loving writing a little bit more than anything else. Women can’t: our partners and, eventually, our children are expected to take priority. Even worse, I wasn’t writing poems or children’s stories, I was writing reports, political columns. I’ve recently been experimenting with answering ‘fashion’ rather than ‘politics’ when men casually ask me what I write about, and the result has been a hundred percent increase in phone numbers, business cards, and offers of drinks. This is still substantially fewer advances than I receive when I the truthful answer to whether I wrote was: “sometimes, in notebooks, just for myself.”

I don't often write about love and sex on a personal level these days, even though I spend a great deal of time thinking about it, like everyone else in the It's Complicated stage of their twenties. Lately, though, as I've been working on longer ideas about sexism and class and power, I keep coming back to love, to the meat and intimacy of fucking and how it so often leads so treacherously to kissing. I flick through a lot of feminist theory in the down hours where some people knit or go jogging, and I was prepared for the personal to be political. What I didn't understand until quite recently was that the political can be so, so personal.

There was never a moment in my life when I decided to be a writer. I can't remember a time when I didn't know for sure that that's what I'd do, in some form, and forever. But there have been times when I didn't write, because I was too depressed or anxious or running away from something, and those times have coincided almost precisely with the occasions when I had most sexual attention from men. I wish I’d known, at 21, when I made up my mind to try to write seriously for a living if I could, that that decision would also mean a choice to be intimidating to the men I fancied, a choice to be less attractive, a choice to stop being That Girl and start becoming a grown woman, which is the worst possible thing a girl can do, which is why so many of those Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters, as written by male geeks and scriptwriters, either die tragically young or are somehow immortally fixed at the physical and mental age of nineteen-and-a-half. Meanwhile, in the real world, the very worst thing about being a real-life MPDG is the look of disappointment on the face of someone you really care about when they find out you’re not their fantasy at all - you’re a real human who breaks wind and has a job.

If I’d known what women have to sacrifice in order to write, I would not have allowed myself to be so badly hurt when boys whose work and writing I found so fascinating found those same qualities threatening in me. I would have understood what Kate Zambreno means when she says, in her marvellous book HeroinesI do not want to be an ugly woman, and when I write, I am an ugly woman. I would have been less surprised when men encouraged me to be politer and grow my hair long even as I helped them out with their own media careers. My Facebook feed is full of young male writers who I have encouraged to believe in themselves, set up with contacts, taken on adventures and talked into the night about the meaning of journalism with who are now in long-term relationships with people who are content to be That Girl. I would have understood quite clearly what I was choosing when I chose, sometime around the time I packed two suitcases and walked out on Garden State Boy, to be a person who writes her own stories, rather than a story that happens to other people. 

I try hard, now, around the men in my life, to be as unmanic, as unpixie and as resolutely real possible, because I don’t want to give the wrong impression. And it’s a struggle. Because I remain a small, friendly, excitable person who wears witchy colors and has a tendency towards the twee. I still know that if I wanted to, I could attract one of those lost, pretty nerd boys I have such a weakness for by dialling up the twee and dialling down the smart, just as I know that the hurt in their eyes when they realise you’re a real person is not something I ever want to see again. I still love to up sticks and go on adventures, but I no longer drag mournful men-children behind me when I do, because it’s frankly exhausting. I still play the ukelele. I wasn’t kidding about the fucking ukelele. But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairytale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.

So here’s what I’ve learned, in 26 years of reading books and kissing boys. Firstly, averagely pretty white women in their late teens and twenties are not the biggest, most profoundly unsolvable mystery in the universe.  Trust me. I should know. Those of us with an ounce of lust for life are almost universally less interesting than we will be in our thirties and forties. The one abiding secret about us is that we’re not fantasies, and we weren’t made to save you: we’re real people, with flaws and cracked personalities and big dreams and digestive tracts. It’s no actual mystery, but it remains a fact that the half of the human race with a tendency to daydream about a submissive, exploitable, transcendent ideal of the other seems perversely unwilling to discover.

Secondly, you can spend your whole life being a story that happens to somebody else. You can twist and cram and shave down every aspect of your personality that doesn’t quite fit into the story boys have grown up expecting, but eventually, one day, you’ll wake up and want something else, and you’ll have to choose. 

Because the other thing about stories is that they end. The book closes, and you’re left with yourself, a grown fucking woman with no more pieces of cultural detritus from which to construct a personality. I tried and failed to be a character in a story somebody else had written for me. What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds. Writing is a different kind of magic, and everyone knows what happens to women who do their own magic - but it’s a risk you have to take.

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brittany
2638 days ago
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"When you’re a young girl looking for a script, there are a limited selection of roles to choose from."
San Francisco
alliepape
2642 days ago
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"Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's."
San Francisco, CA
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2 public comments
satadru
2641 days ago
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It was suggested to me this morning that one of the first MPDGs was Maude from Harold and Maude...

Also, related: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBNss2PMj60
New York, NY
graydon
2644 days ago
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"Irony is, of course, the last vestige of modern crypto-misogyny"

Oh, if only it was the last!

The real reason Google wants to kill RSS

6 Comments and 24 Shares
Marco Arment:

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople.

That world formed the web’s foundations — without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn’t exist. But they’ve now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down. “Sunset” it. “Clean it up.” “Retire” it. Get it out of the way so they can get even bigger and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.

Well, fuck them, and fuck that.

Lockdown [marco.org]

    


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brittany
2638 days ago
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I like to think of NewBlur as an OS freedom fighter.
San Francisco
popular
2641 days ago
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cinebot
2640 days ago
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a worthy read.
toronto.
digitalhumor
2640 days ago
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The real reason why google killed rss.
ÜT: 28.46867,77.07026
zwenk
2641 days ago
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there is truth in it
agrant3d
2641 days ago
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Don't know how much I believe this but shutting down Reader is enough to make me like google a heck of a lot less.
Montreal, Quebec
AndyG1128
2641 days ago
Ah, but without the shutdown, I would have never have found this wonderful home we know as Newsblur. If I could use instapaper, and other aps, I'd be in rss heaven
MIU
2641 days ago
Andy: Agreed, I love newsblur, more than I liked google reader. I'm still cross at them for largely starving the RSS market and then leaving us all in the lurch, though.
MIU
2641 days ago
agrant3d: I've shifted a fair bit away from google's stuff because of this. I'm still really pissed by the whole experience.
flndr
2641 days ago
It's certainly made me think about how much I rely on Google. And, I do too much. It sucks that their offerings are just that good that I don't diversify.
flndr
2641 days ago
I dig newsblur so far, but I don't like how it handles unread items. And I really don't like how there are still issues with not marking items as read on Android. Eventually, newsblur will surpass where Reader was.
cinebot
2640 days ago
seriously, stop forcing people to use plus. it's not going to take off so quit it!
MIU
2640 days ago
cinenbot: I largely use google plus only to keep up with my friends who are google employees, heh.
cinebot
2640 days ago
me too, i think only ooglers are on plus to be honest.
Harvison
2640 days ago
I'm like most quite upset with the shutdown, but the very happy end result...I found NewsBlur. Too bad I didn't find it before.
cinebot
2640 days ago
does newsblur allow you to tag/sort your saves? i haven't found it yet. newsblur also didnt import all my tags from reader either...

a real mess of peas

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a real mess of peas // the first messa real mess of peas // the first messa real mess of peas // the first messpeonies + pea shoots // the first mess

“And then on May fifteenth, a balmy sweet day if ever I saw one, my seeds went into the warm, welcoming earth, and I could agree with an old gardening manual which said understandingly, “Perhaps no vegetable is set out in greater expectancy…for the early planting fever is impatient.”

A week later I put in another row, and so on for a month, and they did as they were meant to, which is one of the most satisfying things that can possibly happen to a gardener, whether greenhorn and eager or professional and weatherworn.

Then came the day with stars on it: time for what my grandmother would have called “the first mess of peas.””

-M.F.K. FISHER

When I settled on the title of this site, I had been poking around some works by M.F.K. Fisher quite a bit when I hit on that little passage inAn Alphabet for Gourmets. It was perfect. Tracing that little slice from her life that would come every year. It said everything that I needed it to. Sure, it nods to the embrace of change in the fields, bringing that shift into your home and being grateful for what you can grow right where you find yourself in this world (total freedom, in other words). It says a lot more about how I find myself here, traipsing along with all of you too.

I generally eschew the designation of “expert” in any context, including food and food preparations. I screw things up a lot: not getting a recipe concept nailed in the initial trials, adding too much salt, forgetting that something is under the broiler, swearing at the waffle iron in a predominantly chill brunch setting. I post things here that people straight up tell me they do not like. I value that engagement too. If you recognize me on the street and tell me that some salad recipe from here was shit, I will have that conversation candidly. First attempts, first forays, first fuck-ups, first harsh criticisms, first rationalizations… They all have their place here and in life.

Any instance of mess means having your feet on the ground, and your hands in the work. That one was obvious, but hey.

It addresses this weird spot I’m finding myself in, worrying that buying and owning a home to make many future meals in will change my brain on a cellular level. Those rooms and floors that can hold us up, the land that we’ll find ourselves on… they might force a protective response. I worry that my scattered idealism will fade and stretch towards obsessive safeguarding of what will become undoubtedly 100% ours, that any ideas on what can bein a future sense will be scratched out. Mostly, that we will change fundamentally, that it will be observed.

It weirdly highlights my preference for a Coors Light in some casual drinking situations. Sometimes I want to slowly drift into hot-messyness over the course of an afternoon with marginally hydrating refreshment, rather than volunteer tasting notes on someMercenary Vortex Triple IPA that’s been exposed to wild yeasts in upstate New York. I’ll take a relaxed sinking-in over instances of who’s-drank-what when it comes to beer-hangs. Read also: french fries, iceberg lettuce, Nescafé, ZZ Top and Jim Beam. All of those things are great in context and you know it.

It also points to creative engagement for me. I started this project after much deliberation, all with high intention because, seriously, if people are going to let you into their lives in some tiny sense you better make it good. I seek other channels to fuel inspiration for this space often, and it helps tremendously. A real-life scheduled job, music, books about alternate realities, films about wars, travel, extreme landscapes; there’s always something there. Right now, I’m certain that if I abandoned the site, I would be a person without dreams (is that corny/dramatic? Whatever.). When you push yourself to live and die by the project, the approach feels new and refreshingly frenzied every time. It’s helped me grow a lot.

Anyway, all of this is just to say thanks for sticking with me. Two years of many kinds of messes later, and it feels like we’re doing just fine :)

Big hugs,
Laura

dill for dressing // the first messmise en place // the first messa real mess of peas // the first messsprouts // the first messa real mess of peas // the first mess
a salad with all of the peas, potatoes, acidulated shallots potatoes + creamy dill dressing
serves: 2-4
notes: The dressing is your homie here. It’s so good. Tangy, lightly sweet, flecked with dill, creamy but not in a ew-it’s-still-coating-my-tongue kind of way. Make it for this salad or make it for other stuff, seriously. I also “acidulate” the shallots to soften their bite a bit–just covering them in vinegar while the rest of the salad happens. Super simple technique, super delicious results.

acidulated shallots ingredients:
1 small shallot, cut into thin half moons
1/4-1/3 cup red wine vinegar

creamy dill dressing ingredients:
1/3 cup mixed raw cashews + sunflower seeds (I’d say 3/4 of that should be cashews), soaked in water for at least 2 hours
juice of 1/2 a lemon
splash of the vinegar from the shallots
1 1/2 tsp dijon mustard

2 tsp – 1tbsp raw agave nectar/honey
splash of water (enough to get the motor of your blender moving–like 3 tbsp-ish)
fat pinch of salt
lots of black pepper
3-4 sprigs of dill, leaves removed and chopped

salad ingredients:
1 small shallot, cut into thin half moons
1/4-1/3 cup red wine vinegar
8 small new potatoes
4-5 big handfuls of pea shoots
1 cup shelled fresh peas
1-2 cups snap peas, cut in half down the center
handful of snow peas, chopped
additional sprouts if you feel it (I added some radish sprouts)
extra dill to garnish
more salt + pepper

Place the sliced shallots in a small bowl and cover them with the red wine vinegar. Let the shallots soften up in this until you’re ready to serve the salad.

Make the dressing: throw all of the ingredients except for the dill into a blender and blend on high until you have a creamy, homogenous mixture. Thin out with additional water until you get an appropriate dressing consistency. Pour the dressing into a jar and stir in the chopped dill. Set aside.

Place the sliced shallots in a small bowl and cover them with the red wine vinegar. Let the shallots soften up in this until you’re ready to serve the salad.

Place the potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Place them on the stove over medium heat and bring to a boil. Simmer until potatoes are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, run some cold water over them and set aside to cool.

Arrange the pea shoots on the base of your serving platter. Scatter the acidulated shallots, shelled peas, snap peas, and chopped snow peas on top of the shoots. Cut the cooled potatoes into quarters and arrange them on top. Season the whole thing from up high with salt and pepper. Drizzle the dressing over top. Garnish with additional sprouts and extra dill sprigs and serve it up.

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brittany
2651 days ago
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Peas please!
San Francisco
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