June 15, 2015

What is “Iterating Grace”, the mysterious chapbook that’s captivating Silicon Valley?


One of the many handwritten tweets in Iterating Grace. (Image via Fusion)

One of the many handwritten tweets in Iterating Grace. (Image via Fusion)

“Crooks himself never tweeted. He never retweeted. But he had developed his own, impassioned way of favoriting.”

As Alexis Madrigal tells it, the first heard about Koons Crooks, he immediately wondered if Crooks had stolen his identity.

BuzzFeed executive editor Doree Shafrir received a copy in the mail of a small, impeccably designed and hand-numbered chapbook titled Iterating Grace: Heartfelt Wisdom & Disruptive Truths From Silicon Valley’s Top Venture Capitalists. Credited to “Koons Crooks”, and less than 30 pages long, it combined hand-drawn illustrations with an absurd satirical tale of a dot-com bubble expat who retreats to a Bolivian volcano where he communes with the Twitter accounts of prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists before meeting a bizarre end involving cat food and vicunas. The book also includes elegantly calligraphed reproductions of those VC’s tweets.

Madrigal had mailed Iterating Grace to Shafrir, so she asked him to explain. Except, in fact, he hadn’t, so he couldn’t.

As Madrigal wrote at Fusion, “At first I was confused, then I was a little annoyed. Some marketing dude was using my good name to get people to look at some book? What’s that about? But then I started to see snippets of the book in photos people posted to Twitter. And it is just brilliant.”

Madrigal soon received an envelope containing two copies of Iterating Grace, a handwritten note thanking him for “sending these out”, and a pressed dried flower. His copy was numbered 10 out of 140. This is where things started getting weirder.

The envelope was absent a postmark, meaning it was hand-delivered to his Oakland home. And the second book was addressed to writer Sarah Rich, his wife. Madrigal began asking around, and compiled a partial list of others who had received the book in the mail.

Alexis Madrigal
Sarah Rich, author
Nellie Bowlestech journalist, contributing editor Re/code
Allison ArieffSPUR editor
Doree Shafrir, Buzzfeed editor
Mat HonanBuzzfeed editor
Mike Monteiro, designer
Clara JefferyMother Jones editor
James Nestorauthor
Jon SteinbergSan Francisco Magazine editor
Casey NewtonThe Verge editor

Almost all media. Almost all San Francisco. Most covering technology.

Iterating Grace cites both Bowles and Nestor in its text, alongside other Bay Area-specific references, some obscure (Crooks wears a windbreaker with the logo of an actual failed startup) and bizarre (Crooks’ few possessions include a photograph of Vannevar Bush and a copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables.) And despite the text claiming that Crook’s Twitter account was deleted, @KoonCrooks (and all its 5 followers) is as of this writing.

Once Madrigal began writing about Iterating Grace and its mysterious provenance, the hunt was on. Others in the tech journalism community began tweeting their wishes to receive a copy, and chimed in with their theories and questions. How did the author know these writers’ obscure or unlisted addresses? Was it all a marketing stunt from the local coffee brewers? An analog incursion by Weird Twitter?

Madrigal began to believe that artist group The Grotto formed a link between the book’s recipients, and the exacting design and whimsical nature of the book, plus a familiar-looking chair on the stamp that adorned Madrigal’s envelope, also pointed toward McSweeney’s. Eventually Madrigal began to form a theory: that the first initials of the recipients who received the supposed 140 copies would form the next clue, in the form of a tweet.

Threatening to spiral off into complete niche-interest speculation, the case stalled. Then, a possible break. In the Google Doc which Madrigal created to collect the recipients’ names, an anonymous contributor left this clue: “hint–look through the notebooks at Farley’s Potrero Hill.”

As Dan Raile writes in Pando, this stoked Madrigal’s obsession. He raced to Farley’s, a local coffee shop, where he met Raile. They both began investigating the shop’s collection of notebooks from the 1000 Journals Project, a community art project begun in 2000 by Brian Singer, now a design manager at Pinterest. Raile and Madrigal did find some cryptic drawings in the notebooks which may have had some connection to Iterating Grace, but nothing substantial.

“I’m the editor-in-chief of [Fusion], and I really don’t have the time to be doing this. I was taking interviews in the Lyft on the way over here. I’m doing this after my wife and kid have gone to bed,” Madrigal said.

“If this person or people don’t out themselves, it’s going to drive me crazy. It’s frustrating, you know: just let me play the game, arrange to meet me under an overpass and then don’t show up. But leave some clue. Just something. I want to play.”

He showed me the email exchanges he had had with the owner of the gmail account printed on the back of “Iterating Grace.” The owner of that account had been curt and non-forthcoming.

If you’re starting to think this all sounds kind of overblown, you’re right. A mysterious satire of the self-congratulating tech world (which is basically a mountain factory built on top of a molehill mine) transforms a bunch of writers who get paid to critique the tech word into suspicious but delighted copy- (and status-) seeking pawns in a viral marketing strategy? It’s both groan-inducing and brutally effective. Raile quotes Ryan Holiday, whose writing I usually find distasteful but who in this case hits the nail squarely on the head:

“What fascinates me is how easy and simple it is to turn these supposedly cynical or protective journalists into conduits for the propagation of a message or stunt or project. I’m sure Alexis would argue that this is all in good fun and that readers clearly see it for what it is. The reality is–like the Ship Your Enemies Glitter stunt–is that the patterns of the press are so easy to predict that decently clever people can very easily find a way to make them dance exactly as they want.”

Raile has his own theories about who wrote and distributed Iterating Grace, and he doesn’t rule out Madrigal himself; Fusion’s been in the news as of late for their dismayingly low readership, and Iterating Grace (and, I admit, by extension, MobyLives) is certainly doing…something to draw attention to Fusion.

But Raile prefers that the mystery remain unsolved.

Unlike Madrigal, I would really rather the author didn’t come forward. I’d prefer this art to defy and exceed the crude positivist grasping of journalism. I’m a happy dupe, for once, in the surmounting of science and literalism by art.

Right on, Dan.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.