Now that it's October, it's officially spooky season. But debut author Calvin Kasulke's novel "Several People Are Typing" gives us something new to be afraid of -- what if you got trapped inside of your office's Slack workspace, and Slackbot took over your corporeal form? As Kasulke told TechCrunch, "Capitalism is bad and bodies are prisons, but the only thing worse than having one is not having one."
"Several People Are Typing" is written entirely in Slack messages -- Kasulke even wrote style guides for the idiosyncratic typing of each character, helping him develop the cast of characters, who work at a PR agency. Within their Slack workspace, the characters deal with a dog food publicity crisis, in-office romances and fights over who gets Gerald's desk by the window while he "works from home" -- he can't commute to the office since he no longer has control of his body, but his supervisor doesn't care, since he's more productive than ever (what else is there to do but work when you're literally stuck inside Slack?). The only time Gerald can't work is when Slackbot shows him how to become one with sunset.gif, so that any time a Slack user uploads the gif, Gerald is transported to their workspace. Being a sunset gif sounds painful.
Slack declined to comment on the book when TechCrunch reached out, but Kasulke thinks that the company is cool with it -- after all, the book's publisher, Doubleday Books, ran a giveaway with Slack. But the novel has less to do with Slack itself than it does with the way we work.
The Atlantic recently called Slack "the first enterprise software in history to convince people that it’s cool." Kasulke will be the first to admit that the whole book-told-through-Slack thing is a gimmick, but it's a really well-executed gimmick. In a strange turn of events for a book that screams Weird Internet™, the novel was picked as Good Morning America's Book of the Month, which means that more people than you'd think are reading the troubling scene in which a newly corporeal Slackbot eats a meatball sub too fast and learns the hard way that living in a flesh sac isn't always all it's cracked out to be. But Kasulke says that people are weirder than we give them credit for, so it's no wonder that the novel resonates with people who might read more texts than prose on some days.
Since his book is told through Slack messages, TechCrunch interviewed Kasulke via text. Enjoy.
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amanda at 3:08 PM
What’s your background with slack and how did you decide to write a book told only in slack messages?
calvin at 3:08 PM
So when I was writing the book I worked at a consulting firm that used Slack pretty heavily, both because we had offices in two different cities and because it was the kind of job where you always had to be plugged in
So I was sending and receiving a ton of work slacks every day, plus you know, DMing coworkers about both work related things and like, if they thought the Knicks were going to make the playoffs or whatever
AND I have a background in screenwriting/playwriting, and what is a work Slack but a long, endless play
amanda at 3:10 PM
yeah I think something that’s really funny about the book is that you can only include conversations that would feasibly happen on slack, but the thing is that you could argue that anything could feasibly be discussed on slack, so I didn’t really bat an eye reading the book when characters start discussing nsfw things on slack because like, of course that would happen in a random marketing agency slack
it’s like, we all know that in theory our managers can read our slack DMs, but people still use them to talk about things maybe they don’t want their managers to see anyway
calvin at 3:11 PM
right exactly, and no one can reasonably expect colleagues to exclusively discuss work
in some ways having a work slack is capitulating to the idea that office communication cannot exclusively take place in an office context
which in many cases is a sort of wedge into a more hybrid approach to office work anyway
And there's a world of difference between a public slack and a private DM between coworkers
and all of those little differences in how we ~perform~ ourselves at work were a ton of fun to write
because you get this view of characters as their Public Work Selves, as their more Group DM Work Selves and then as total goblins in one-on-one DMs
not all of them are goblins
amanda at 3:13 PM
I’m super fascinated by the linguistics of slack and how different characters in the book have different quirks in their typing, how that changes when talking to different people, etc
(and also how we are now demonstrating that by doing this interview via text)
calvin at 3:16 PM
lol I wrote a style guide
for how each character would type
amanda at 3:17 PM
i think that’s so important though because I don’t think the book would work if you couldn’t get a sense for who the characters are solely via slack
But also IRL we have to get to know coworkers solely via slack oftentimes
calvin at 3:18 PM
If the whole thing was going to be in dialogue they had to be distinguishable so I wrote little rules for everyone. and then broke some of them sometimes because people aren't terribly consistent and also because sometimes a joke would land better with certain punctuation or something
oh yeah I have a ton of colleagues now I've only met online, it's wild
amanda at 3:19 PM
I think it’s easy for people to be like “oh a slack book sounds like a gimmick” but I think it’s true to life in a really disconcerting way
And speaking of disconcerting things
so, the book is kind of like. horror?
how did slackbot-as-villian(?) come about
calvin at 3:20 PM
It is a gimmick! Gimmicks are fun! And also I tried to imbue the book with enough, both in terms of plot and in terms of a pound of flesh (feelings, thoughts, reflections, etc.) that it would be more thanjust a gimmick
that whole sentence came out a little weird
On to your point about Slackbot!
I needed some way to raise the stakes of Gerald being trapped in Slack, and it seemed natural that the fate of his real-world body would be the main source of escalating that plot
But again, the book is in Slack, so it needs to be legible in that format
amanda at 3:22 PM
Slackbot loves to Taste!
calvin at 3:23 PM
He wants more life! He wants to experience the physical world! The same one Gerald has been TELLING HIM ABOUT the whole time!
amanda at 3:23 PM
i never really used slackbot much but now I cannot use slackbot because I don’t want to get stuck in slack
calvin at 3:23 PM
Idk I think Slackbot's motivations are pretty clear. They're literally amoral, because the bot doesn't really have a sense of ethics, but like
I get it
amanda at 3:24 PM
yeah I think if I realized one day that I was a robot I would be freaked out
and try to get out and eat a meatball sub
As slackbot does (spoiler alert)
and other things
calvin at 3:24 PM
Meatball subs are as good a reason to have a physical form as anything
top 5 reasons to stay tethered to this mortal coil
amanda at 3:25 PM
but I think the whole Thing™️ is like it is possible to be stuck in slack anyway in jobs where, like you said before, you feel like you have to be always online
and there’s the whole thing where Gerald starts to be like “guys I swear it’s not a bit I am literally stuck in slack” but no one will help him get out of slack
because everyone thinks it’s just a really weird bit and his manager doesn’t care because he’s being more productive than ever (…..because he can’t escape slack)
calvin at 3:27 PM
well and also like. A. It's a wild thing to happen and B. Even if it was real what could you, Gerald's coworker and a person who is not personally a warlock, do about it
You have to go to meetings and send emails and write memos and stuff, and you are not a ghostbuster or a wizard and probably can't help him anyway? even if it was real? which it can't be because, you know, that is not a real thing that happens?
In many ways believing him would be... worse, for everyone involved except maybe Gerald
amanda at 3:29 PM
have you talked to anyone at slack about the book? do you know what people who work on slack think?
calvin at 3:30 PM
Doubleday and Slack just did a giveaway thing together!
amanda at 3:30 PM
calvin at 3:30 PM
I have been contacted by folks there informally
And I have heard secondhand that people were excited for the book before it came out
And I have to assume the giveaway means at least some folks there didn't hate it, lol
though if the book made you afraid of Slackbot maybe their opinion will change
amanda at 3:31 PM
i mean i think the book isn't really like "slack is bad" it's like "maybe Capitalism and Not Having Work Life Balance is bad"
calvin at 3:31 PM
capitalism is bad and bodies are prisons, but the only thing worse than having one is not having one
amanda at 3:31 PM
slack is no more responsible for bad working conditions than like, gmail i guess?
bad managers are responsible for bad working conditions
calvin at 3:32 PM
yeah no this is definitely not an indictment of Slack specifically, it was a very fun platform to write in
amanda at 3:32 PM
but slack is so much more interesting than gmail because in slack people type like this and in gmail people type with proper punctuation and no emojis
calvin at 3:33 PM
right yeah, working conditions are determined by what bosses demand and what workers will put up with
and the circumstances that influence both of those factors (the economy, the labor market specifically, etc.)
amanda at 3:35 PM
another thing is like
now it's like, the GMA book of the month?
or last month I mean
so i'm curious how that went
like i think it's super cool because it's a really good, funny, thought-provoking book but also. it's weird!
or maybe the viewership of GMA is weirder than we give them credit for
calvin at 3:38 PM
No one was more surprised than me!!
amanda at 3:39 PM
or i guess, it is weird, but also, it's sometimes close to life in a way that's maybe relatable to people?
calvin at 3:40 PM
I hope it doesn't come off as false modesty because I am proud of this book
And I am genuinely very surprised by the response it's gotten and that it has mainstream traction as a GMA book club pick and a review in the New Yorker
amanda at 3:41 PM
no i think it's valid to be surprised because yeah i think it's a really good book but also i wouldn't peg it as being accessible to the mainstream in the same way as a book like.... idk sally rooney
calvin at 3:41 PM
I think people are weirder than we give them credit for, and I also think people are very used to readings texts and chats and group DMs
amanda at 3:41 PM
i like the idea that people are weirder than we give them credit for
calvin at 3:42 PM
which maybe provides a bit more leeway for things to get weird but for readers to feel like they're along for the ride
amanda at 3:42 PM
yeah, like i think if the story was written in traditional prose, it wouldn't be as exciting or funny
calvin at 3:42 PM
I tried to design the book in a way where readers were learning how to read it as they go along
You have to establish the rules before you can get weird
And because so much of our lives are already online, even folks who don't use Slack can clock what's going on
amanda at 3:45 PM
i think what i love about the book is that it makes you think really critically about work/life balance, role of tech in your own life, etc. while also being like. hey what if slackbot ate a meatball sub.
has writing the book changed how you interact with slack/the internet/work at all?
calvin at 3:46 PM
lol I am VERY not active on Slack at my current workplace
In part because I get more work done without notifications beeping and in part because I don't want people to feel like I am Harvesting Their Conversations For Content
amanda at 3:47 PM
that is an extremely specific problem to have
although recently when a former boss/now friend told me she was pregnant she was like "don't tweet this" bc she hadn't announced it publicly at the time, which feels similar
calvin at 3:47 PM
yeah it's a more acute version of something that comes up a fair amount anyway
re: "don't tweet this" or someone posting a picture you're in the background of or a screenshot of a funny text exchange or something
we tend to develop these habits before we develop an ethics around them
or at least a conventional ethics, like for example, asking permission from your interlocutor before you post a picture of a funny text exchange
amanda at 3:50 PM
have you thought about the facebook metaverse thing where they wanna use VR to have us go to work meetings?
calvin at 3:52 PM
I have! I don't think people want VR in that way, honestly
We keep reverting back to different ways to type at each other if we can't be in person
amanda at 3:53 PM
i wonder if there's a line in how much we want tech to be in our lives and where that line is
calvin at 3:53 PM
if we're not gonna be bodies in space together, let's not meet in a virtual office. at least not if we can't do it in like, Samus's Zero Suit
Okay, back to properly punctuated, complete sentences, written without a timestamp (it's 11:55 AM on Monday, October 18, in case you were wondering). If you were able to follow that conversation, you can probably follow "Several People Are Typing." Even the audiobook feels like a natural read, featuring an ensemble cast to play each individual Slack chatter. While the book is critical of the way we work today, it's not that exaggerated. Sure, the idea of several corporate professionals working together to figure out how to spin the PR nightmare of a dog food brand accidentally poisoning Pomeranians is pretty ridiculous, but we know that's probably happening IRL. That's why now, we glean thoughtful insights about the social media attention economy from the official account of Steak-umms.
anti-marketing is when a brand makes fun of itself for marketing in a self-aware way and meta-advertising is when a brand makes an ad about an ad but idk what it's called when a brand markets itself by telling consumers about its own anti-marketing meta-advertising strategy
— Steak-umm (@steak_umm) August 24, 2021
As far as the gimmick goes -- should every book be written in text-speak like it's an AIM-based, young adult novel from 2004? That might be a stretch. But absurdism is most effective when it feels like it might just be real, which is why this particular story works -- the supernatural scenarios might feel unfamiliar, but no form of communication feels more sublimely ordinary than a Slack message.