“The Secret Life of Passwords,” published by The New York Times Magazine, examines the humanity that often hides in a simple string of characters, and reveals the ways we imbue our passwords with meaning despite all recommendations to the contrary. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, an ode to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — there is something captivating, inspiring even, in these tchotchkes from our inner lives.
Addressing such a secretive topic required The Times to venture into uncharted visual territory. We found inspiration in that challenge. Our video illustrations mixed abstract colors and patterns with real interview footage to recreate the mental process each person went through in conceiving his or her password. The double-exposure silhouettes allowed us to capture the appropriate lightness or gravitas of each story, and at the same time represent the two layers of secrecy embedded within — not just the person’s identity, but also the emotional secrets inside the passwords that made them personal.
Asking hundreds of people to tell their secrets was not easy, but a surprising number of them were willing to talk. Once the content had been collected, the reporting team created an elegant, seamless experience on the web. Viewers were offered full-page immersion as characters told their own stories in a modal experience that wove in and out of the written story.
Entrancing in their own right, the stories people offered also hinted at something larger: how humans are creative and sentimental creatures, what drives our quirky routines, how we turn shackles into art.
Perhaps the hardest conversation was with Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald. He cried while recounting how he spent the first 24 hours after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, killed over 650 of his colleagues, including his brother. Mr. Lutnick later agreed to sit on camera and describe how he phoned the families of the dead and collected from them the personal trivia about their missing loved ones that would allow a team of Microsoft technicians to more quickly guess how to access dozens of the firm’s most important accounts.
The reaction to the multimedia package was remarkable. Within a week, the print and video page received roughly a half-million views, over 60,000 of them from new Times readers. It was shared on Facebook and Twitter over 30,000 times and widely disseminated on weekly “Best Journalism” lists, from GQ, Esquire and National Geographic to LongReads, Wired and NextDraft.
Foreign news outlets also reacted strongly. “Fabulous,” observed the BBC. “Lovely, thought-provoking,” said The Telegraph in London. The URL was tweeted or posted on Facebook in more than 85 countries. About 25 percent of the web traffic to the story came from outside North America. “Beautiful,” said Sri Lanka News. “Delicioso,” editorialized Portugal News. “A lovely meditation,” added the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The best part of the public reaction to the video and the print story, though, were the reader emails — more than 500 of them, many from people offering deeply personal stories of their own. For example: the serial number of the M16 that saved an Army sergeant’s life, the name of a family dog that was killed by an errant driver, the brand of a drum set lost when a childhood home burned to the ground. One man wrote that he still did not understand why for 20 years he used “Troop 64” for his password as it was a reference to a summer camp from his youth where a counselor molested him and dozens of other boys. “Does staring at your demons actually make them less scary?” he asked. The topic opened a portal into intimacy that is rarely accessible to strangers.