Depending how you read it, Slack is a one-stop shop for all your office communication needs, a reliable form of social control, a valuable ledger of user data, or an epic workplace drama that only the boss can peruse in its entirety. No matter where you’re permitted to rest your gaze, what you’re actually looking at are reams of dialogue, an illimitable scroll of gossip, blather, memoranda, sensible suggestions, and screwball emojis. Within each office that adopts the technology, a cottage industry of mundane script-making is born.
A sly shorthand for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge, Slack pitches itself to workers as a streamliner, a timesaver, a maverick email replacement, and virtual water cooler for employees who want to work smarter, and less. In actuality, worker testimonials and technology reporters have pointed out Slack’s uncanny knack for making workers accountable to their supervisors with greater immediacy, during hours of the day that might have once been off-limits. Some have also expressed privacy concerns that extend to the software’s union-busting potential. “Any suggestion that Slack is purely empowering,” wrote New York Times technology columnist John Herrman in 2019, “must also take into account that it is, ultimately, a tool paid for by employers, and which grants them full power within it: to set rules; to observe or surveil their employees; to set norms anew, or change norms that have evolved in ways they don’t appreciate.”
Many workplaces promise — or softly enforce — a sense of community and self-realization, but we’ve never had such an efficient tool for documenting its failure to deliver
Slack originated in a game with diversionary, if not literary ambitions. Its creator, Stewart Butterfield, was first an inventor of a massive multiplayer online game called Game Neverending. Its photo-sharing capabilities laid the groundwork for Flickr, which sold to Yahoo. Years later, Butterfield tried his hand at another cooperative game called Glitch. When it once again failed to take off, Butterfield and his team repurposed the chat function they used to develop it, and Slack was born in 2013. Slack’s 12 million daily active users (as of 2019) may not uniformly think of themselves as playing their office personas and performing work tasks on a platform that logs their failures and advances for the benefit of corporate overlords. Nonetheless, that’s one measure of what they’re all up to. Another is that last year Salesforce acquired Slack for nearly $28 billion.
Though Slack has only been around for eight years, and its continued success is far from assured, it fashions itself as an inevitable feature of office life: not just a better organizational tool, but a better way to form communities and realize your professional self. Its failure to deliver on such lofty existential promises can leave users with feelings of alienation, waning passion, and doomed fate. Many workplaces promise — or softly enforce — this sense of community and self-realization, but we’ve never had such an efficient tool for documenting that disconnect. On Slack the worker reads and writes a play whose drama happens elsewhere.
Calvin Kasulke’s debut novel Several People Are Typing, set entirely in the channels and bywaters of Slack, is perforce a fantasy of access, beginning with the unlikely but agreeable premise that the reader is privileged to a bevy of Slack conversations private and public. From there it attempts to infuse the software’s banal chat functions with narrative, mining the abyss of peppy and mundane performativity and returning the text to its contributors.
The characters work at an ad agency based out of New York, recognizable as the sort of laid-back, anodyne firm that nabs young (and not-so-young) urban professionals with interview questions like, “Least favorite book, favorite influencer and why, and how to make something ‘go viral.’” This one is working on a campaign for a dog food company called Bjärk, which (in what is possibly a nod to the first season of Mad Men) has been beset by cases of pomeranian poisoning. They also do some work for the brand Schimply, which is said to manufacture a random assortment of products such as dry-erase boards and industrial-grade rubber tubing. Doug and Kerolyn are the bosses; everyone else’s status is more or less the same. Conversations among co-workers are preempted by the titles of slack channels, such as #nyc-office, #gents-only, #bad-dogs, #bjark-dog-food. Their names — Louis C, Nikki, Tripp, Rob, Lydia, Beverley — are often interchangeable, depending on which chat you’re reading, with characters availing themselves of a standard writerly voice that reliably gets them through the work day.
An element of verisimilitude haunts the novel. The characters on the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder will often fret over whether their bosses are listening in on their exclusive group chats and DMs. This anxiety serves as a bit of foreshadowing once Tripp and the new hire, Beverley, start hooking up and discuss their flagrant use of Doug’s quickly deteriorating desk on the company Slack — which belongs to their boss at least as much as the desk does. Much of the plot proceeds, too, in Slack conversations that unspool well beyond work hours.
Certain quirks of language and self-presentation I recognize from my own stints on Slack: ironic affectation mixed with the unmistakable “lol” of cheerful obedience, and the occasional lapse into an altogether sinister mood. (I think of my quintessential Slack experience as the time a colleague interrupted a discussion of celebrity gossip to express her sincere, implacable fear of death.) True to form, there’s a lot of observational humor as well, incidental jokes waiting around for their punchlines to manifest. Attempts at being funny often fall flat, while earnest reactions and storlines puncture all the compulsory ribbing with actually satisfying comedic moments. In the #gents-only chat, Rob tells an off-kilter story about a recent first-date who told him, “time waits for no man, unless you have the amulet.” After much speculation as to what this might mean, the conversation ends with the Borscht Belt-style line, “for our next date she said she wants to show me the amulet.”
The steady stream of pat workplace entertainment complements the novel’s supernatural elements, which are its greatest delights. As the novel becomes more matter-of-factly absurd, it is better able to literalize the bizarre affective experience of using Slack that bubbles beneath the unassuming dialogue. The characters are continuously offering graphic excuses for why they need to work from home that day: Lydia complains of an incessant howling of wolves. (“I can feel the echoes in the hollow of my chest!! It’s coming!”) Almost from the outset, it’s made clear to the reader that an employee named Gerald has been “working at home” of late because his consciousness has been severed from his body and trapped in Slack.
His coworkers are largely tolerant of this revelation, which they misread as a tiresome bit of comedy to mask his indolence. Nobody seems to care that Gerald’s desperate chatter has become inflected with Slackbot’s Help Center koans as his consciousness becomes scrambled with that of the AI. Only one co-worker, Pradeep, takes him seriously, and begins to tend to Gerald’s breathing, hair-producing, but otherwise inert body as it snoozes in his apartment. This leads to even more frenzied lines of situational comedy, such as Pradeep’s, “Okay, I’m going to stop slacking you while watching your empty body.”
Catching up on Slack messages can feel similar to reading a novel, one that absorbs and positions you as a character, even while the plot progresses without you
Halfway through the novel, Casulke introduces two additional magical premises. One is that Slackbot has thrown off their virtual chains and occupied Gerald’s body; the other is that Lydia never worked at the company and appears to be a figment of Rob’s imagination. The truth turns out to be more meta: Lydia is revealed to be one of the psychological profiles of a Bjärk customer Rob has been tasked with writing ad copy for, another fiction imposed by his employer over which he has no earthly control.
These supernatural conceits recall a Wired profile of Butterfield from 2014 by tech reporter Mat Honan, who seems extremely jazzed about the app. “Let’s say you drop a link to a PDF stored in your folder in your company’s Dropbox…. Not only did Slack make sure the document went to all the right people, but it also indexed the full text of that document, as well as the conversation that took place around it,” Honan writes. “Now: Imagine that weeks pass by. You, sadly, die unexpectedly. Now that you’re gone, your coworkers need to pull up the document, but they have trouble finding it in your disorganized Dropbox folder. So instead they search Slack for ‘massive thought bomb’ and, presto, there it is, along with all your notes and the feedback you received from your team.”
Given that several characters fade in and out of embodied and conscious existence, SPAT is quite blunt about its themes. This brazenness works better than might be expected. Catching up on Slack messages can feel similar to reading a novel, one that absorbs and positions you as a character, even while the plot progresses without you. You are split, watching yourself flit in and out of existence. Should you try to insert yourself more assiduously into its verses, or fade out altogether?
Taken as a whole, the novel evokes a stirring fear of obsolescence, which really does permeate a certain kind of office environment, not to mention plenty of literary subcultures. Sometimes I sensed these professional and bookish terrors intersecting, particularly in Gerald’s melodramatic monologues about his purgatorial life of the mind, which, though written in the company script, is the closest SPAT comes to feeling like the existentially lonely first-person of a more traditional novel. “My thoughts are all I have left,” he bemoans, “the entirety of what I am, or this part of me, which also has another physical part it no longer has but is ostensibly still somehow connected to, maybe, perhaps spiritually / or over a secure wifi connection.” The line evokes the literary underground man babbling his sorrows into the void, with the scrolling, faux-naive grammar of a Slack channel. Gerald resents being reduced to these spiritual scribblings, “these scraps of ourselves we fling into the ether,” and that “will outlive most of us, like the sun.” He becomes isolated, morbid, prickly — a writer, or at least, one imprisoned in writing.
The novel suggests trust and intimacy as the final bastion of access these worker-writers have the power to grant one another
Slackbot is a lot of fun to spend time with as a character, but not so much as a colleague. That’s because their impression of a human is extremely poor. Once they’ve slipped into Gerald’s skin suit, they start exclaiming things like “I want to Make Have 100% fucking!!!” and “I love to Taste with Self-Meat” and “Slack is Acting Weird! For me!” Often they drift into awkward outbursts in which they repurpose lines from Yeats’ “Second Coming,” perhaps the most recycled poem in existence. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of Meatball Sub!” Functionally, Slackbot comes to represent the exteriorization of performance anxiety, the character who really does seem strange and does not work well with others. Blessed with the power to read everyone’s messages, they’ve over-consumed and over-prepared for their role. They make a mockery of the fantasy that one could enact normalcy if only one knew the script. At the same time this farce gestures at the heft of intuitive labor feeding into the project of seeming okay online.
Of course, Slackbot isn’t exactly fake, just a stock villain flailing desperately to lay claim to realness, to keep their audience captive, trapped in a novel that is trying to do the same. Just like Gerald, their livelihood depends on delivering a compelling performance — this is borne out in the end, when the co-workers join forces to restore spiritual balance to the office, banishing Slackbot back to the realm of the very-very-very online. The social fear shadowing this phantasmic display seems less that the author — not only of traditional novels, but those of us writing on Slack — will perish, than that the audience will. That it will go dark, turn cold, and mere consciousness, without anyone to hear it out, will not prevail over the machine. Technology, which promised community, will turn our interlocutors away from us, towards its own algorithmic logics. The only way to “win” is to merge. Perhaps such feelings can account in part for the reification of the so-called Internet Novel during some of the pandemic’s most isolating months, a time when all kinds of sociality were subjected to even greater mediation by software and screens.
What remains for these worker-writers, who sit daily at their computers dashing off lines of dialogue? In its final act, the novel suggests trust and intimacy as the final bastion of access they still have the power to grant one another. Pradeep and Gerald admit their friendship of necessity has blossomed into a romance. Or perhaps it always had been one; they weren’t really participating in the story they thought they were. At which point they do at last disappear from the page.