How Secret Societies Stay Hidden On the Internet

By ​Matt King

It all started with a Facebook message from a dead guy.

His name was Ernest Howard Crosby and his profile picture showed an old-time portrait of a man in a dapper vest sporting a bushy Civil War beard. The message came on behalf of New York University’s Eucleian Society, a literary club formed in 1832 around the same time that secret societies began sprouting up at university campuses across the country.

"The Society is interested in your potential membership and would like to invite you to learn more… Time is of the essence."

There was a link to a Facebook group that contained a long list of male undergraduates, mostly white (like me), a few Latinos and Indians, and one black guy. The list also contained the avatars of a few other dead guys, like Crosby, and the identity of the Group itself was similarly concealed beneath another guise: “Vote Arthur Watkins for Second Circuit Judge.”

The page, paired with the campaign-ready photo of an old guy holding an open book, appeared to be a 1930s-era political campaign. The comments field on the Group page was disabled, but a note in the Description section directed us to fill out a questionnaire (via Google Forms) that asked about our backgrounds, our political views, and our religious ideologies.

Before submitting to interrogation, I first searched online for any information I could uncover about the “Eucleian Society.” A Wikipedia page drew on sources from NYU’s Bobst Library and Digital Archives, as well as academic books that covered the broader topic of “secret societies in America.” The society was founded the same year instruction began at NYU, first operating out of the Main University Building, where it held oratory debates and readings. Topics under discussion spanned philosophy (“Whether humanity is naturally depraved,” Decision: Affirmative) to legal theory (“Should the capital of large moneyed corporations be limited by statute?” Decision: Negative) to romantic truths (“Resolved that adultery is the only true way to cohabit”). The names of Eucleian alumni would later grace major buildings around campus (Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, Jerome S. Coles Sports & Recreation Center) and university curricula (Gallatin School of Individualized Study).

Then, in 1942, the society seemed to have disappeared.

NYU archives showed no official record of the society after this date, meaning everything that has turned up since then regarding its members and any ongoing activity is hearsay. Most recently, in 2009, there were student newspaper reports of a “beeper” prank which was attributed to the society: a handful of devices were choreographed to go off at the same time in various classrooms on NYU’s campus. Each device was attached to a signed note:

Truth is something you find outside of the classroom, outside of the walls of this university, and only from the professor in front of you insofar as he can serve as an experienced guide… NYU has its secrets too.

The prank elicited little response from the student body, perhaps a sign of the changing times. Maybe a new generation raised on unprecedented levels of connectivity was less intrigued by antiquated notions of “secrecy” or “privacy.”

My recruitment with the society was doomed from the beginning: Three months after I received the original Facebook message, I was slated to leave the country and study abroad for a year and a half. But I was still curious. I submitted my answers to the online questionnaire and almost forgot about the whole thing—until a week later, when we recruits received our first directive.

* * *

A mass email was sent to recruits’ NYU accounts, which we had provided in the questionnaire. The sender’s alias was “John S. / Odysseus” and he introduced himself as a senior member of the society and head of its recruitment efforts. He told us the process couldn’t begin until we chose a nom de plume for ourselves and created a corresponding Gmail account to be used exclusively for all society-related communication. His email included a list of links to over a dozen Blogspot pages, YouTube videos, and Google Groups, all of which he told us to read through and absorb “ASAP.” He also sent us a Google Calendar invite to join a weekly online group chat, the first of which would focus on discussing this trove of information.

Screenshot courtesy Matt King

I browsed the webpages, many of which contained abridged histories of the society, largely regurgitated from Wikipedia. One recurring storyline was the society’s relationship with Edgar Allan Poe, a frequent guest lecturer during its early era. After Poe’s death, the group adopted the raven (from his popular poem) as its unofficial mascot. Meme-ified photos captured various society shenanigans around Washington Square Park—a raven perched atop the Giuseppe Garibaldi statue; a faint trail of raven footprints around the fountain. Other blog posts included opinion pieces extolling Society philosophy (“Social Capital as Exclusive and Intergenerational”) and shared YouTube excerpts of films—like a scene from the 1990 comedy-drama Metropolitan about essential Manhattan evening wear—as though it were educational material.

Finally, I reached the page displaying an index of suggested Greek pseudonyms along with their associated mythological histories. I settled on Calchas, a famous soothsayer whose contributions included the Trojan horse scheme during the Battle of Troy. I created my corresponding Gmail address and notified John S. and the other recruits of my new name. I felt like I was wading through a time or reality warp, still doubting whether any of this was real.

The initial emails from John S. had been staid and boilerplate, but the impression he gave off in the online group chats was almost bipolar. He started the conversation by asking who was drunk, or trying to get drunk, or already hungover. Complete sentences collapsed into incoherent fragments, his tone swinging between mildly serious and almost manic. One minute, he sounded like a fraternity president rallying his rushes:

“let’s be clear there are going to be guys who you are doing shit for as apprentices that you don’t really hear from etc. if we ask you to send a get well card to sean sure he may not be around but get him one. if we want mike in Afghanistan to have a piece written for him about how he’s a fucking war hero of the type that has never been seen ditto”

The next minute, he devolved into misogyny:

“let’s run thru this like a girl on x and coke at a fraternity party”

“i hope you hit that lil girls ass so hard it looks like two jap flags”

Many of the recruits took turns responding with a “haha” or “lol.” Later they invented obscene one-liners of their own in a show of one-upmanship, a chorus of fake Greek names shouting obscenities at each other in digital bursts.

The “serious” work accomplished in these online chats involved appointments. Each Google Group represented an “initiative” the Society was pursuing around campus. These were coded in confusing acronyms (PUR, ICR, TT) but included relatively traditional ideas like an academic law review, a political debate club, and a community service organization. Recruits were to volunteer their time to lead as many projects as possible.

The strange thing was that no part of any of these “initiatives” had been established yet. It was apparently our class’s job to build the entire ecosystem from scratch. John S. advised that additional directions would later follow, but the best place to start was with a good-looking website—it was “the quickest way to make any org look legit.”

At this, my suspicion grew deeper. Given the hastily constructed webpages John S. had shared, this offhand piece of advice almost felt like something from his own playbook. He claimed to be an NYU alum, but was there any definitive reason to believe him? He could’ve been someone else entirely. A con artist performing one of his ploys or scams. Some prankster or hacker kid prodigy with an affinity for orchestrating elaborate online pranks in his spare time. Maybe the Eucleian Society really did die in 1942. And this is the problem inherent to secrecy, especially one as hyped-up as this: It leaves open the possibility for endless conspiracies.

About a month after we received the original Facebook message, two online group chats had taken place, dozens of virtual toasts and dirty jokes were shared, and all but one of the Google Group “initiatives” had assigned leaders (my task: a weekly newsletter covering the conservative side of issues affecting millennials). To celebrate such progress, John S. decided it was time we finally met each other in the actual world for our first “social.” Thursday, 7:30pm at La Maison Française, NYU’s French Intellectual House.

Maybe John S. was for real.

* * *

When I arrived 15 minutes late, there were no open seats left. The front of the room was blocked off by two large tables formed into a V. Seated on the near side were the familiar faces from the Facebook profiles of my fellow recruits. Standing before us were three strangers. A man with light-black skin and large freckles smiled and introduced himself as John S., his voice calm and cheerful. Behind him were two white guys introduced by first names only, fellow members of his induction class. All three of them were middle-aged and paunchy, wearing loose-fitting suits. John S. conceded that society activity had dwindled since the early days of their induction, but said a core group of guys, many of whom we’d meet later, were dedicated to reviving it.

He explained that we had been handpicked as potential members due to our academic achievement. (Later, after the third round of drinks, one tipsy recruit revealed with a goofy smirk that his GPA was under 2.0). He also made vague allusions to the society as a stepping stone to higher, more storied organizations. When one excited recruit asked if that meant the Freemasons, John S. just smiled. As he wrapped up his pep talk, two more strangers arrived, also in suits, both white, carrying between them a cooler full of beers and mini-bottles of wine.

Everyone grabbed a drink and broke off into pockets, one stranger per group. They talked generally about their work—commercial law, renewable energy, consulting for political lobbying firms. Many recounted stories of getting into trouble during their undergraduate days, and asked about what bars were popular now with students. Every few minutes we orbited back to the coolers for another drink, re-congregated into little circles and met another stranger.

As I looked around the room, it seemed like most of the recruits were buying into the show, or at least willing to participate in an extended trial period. The unspoken reality remained that we had nothing by which to judge the society’s integrity other than a bunch of shoddy websites and a few guys in suits talking about power and money. The real Twilight Zone moment of the evening arrived when I realized I almost didn’t have any more questions to ask. The older guys had an answer to every society-related inquiry thrown their way. Like a tall tale or fable, the truth they spewed was both outrageous but also undeniable—if only because it was by nature unprovable.

I remained in the recruitment loop through Invitation Week, which arrived just before I left for Europe. My final adventure was to the W hotel in Union Square, where, at my allotted time, I was to search the lobby for a man wearing a raven pin. I found him in the corner by the window. A stranger I'd never seen, he smiled and made a quiet “caw! caw!” sound as I approached. The envelope he handed me had a yellow faux-antiquated look and was sealed with red wax. Inside was a congratulatory note printed in calligraphy, followed by a breakdown of dues (total annual cost: $600).

Weeks later, from my hostel in London, I read urgent emails from John S. asking about these dues, but my mind was busy with plans to see the world. As I backpacked around Europe, I realized fewer group email threads populated my inbox. Society-related pages and groups on Facebook disappeared. I re-visited the old Blogspot pages and Google Groups, but the URLs were now broken. Finally, one night, I returned to the original forum only to find my login disabled.

Just like that, I had been phased out.

* *  *

Before the Internet, secret societies often covered their trail with fire. They burned unwanted documents, and if destruction wasn’t an option, they scratched out vulnerable names or references from physical records. For John S. and his mysterious constituents, covering their tracks online may have been easier—as simple as pressing a button to “Delete” or “Block User”—but it was also less complete. Email threads and attached documents remain archived in my inbox. Ernest Howard Crosby’s Facebook profile still exists, as do cached versions of a few of the Blogspot sites.

Given how easy the Internet makes it to create new environments and facades representing all kinds of identities, can we ever be certain about whom we’re speaking with, or who might be listening?

Sometimes now when I find myself in the Village, passing by La Maison Française, I’m haunted by the ghost of the experience. My imagination plays up the conspiracy. Perhaps we were just one of many online threads being run by John S., all of them largely automated, simultaneously opening and closing, roping as many peculiarly ambitious young men as possible into an ancient web of secrecy.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/how-secret-societies-stay-hidden-on-the-internet/375113/