Are You Just LARPing Your Job?

Slack, maker of extremely expensive professional chatrooms, is annexing online work culture at a stunning rate. The industry narrative doesn’t quite cover it! Sure, a lot of companies are signing up and closing their Campfire chats, their Hipchats and their IRCs. But the thing about Slack that gives you that low dread of unstoppable acceleration is how fully it encompasses how you talk to coworkers: first it replaces a group work chat, then it gradually replaces your Gchats and the last remaining AIM conversations. Eventually — and this is when you finally begin to understand why, in the big fun-free casino of venture capital, the Slack table is so crowded — it starts to replace email. It’s a weird and distinct feeling, and one that often coincides with Slack apologetics. It is the process of Slackulatory capture.

There may be offices, and types of jobs, for which sitting in a chatroom all day makes everyone more productive. This does not seem to be the case in online media, which is most effusive in its praise for the service. Slack is where people make jokes and register their presence; it is where stories and editing and administrating are discussed as much for self-justification as for the completion of actual goals. Working in an active Slack (or Campfire for that matter!) is a productivity nightmare, especially if you don’t hate your coworkers. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either rationalizing or delusional.

The first way that Slack is truly replacing email is through its creation of a novel form of work-like non-work. There are many millions of privileged people for whom sending and responding to emails creates the impression of productivity, thereby justifying, in part or sometimes even in whole, their jobs. Slack allows, in the most extreme cases, for a full performance of work — the clocking in, the ambient noise, the watercooler discussions, the instant availability and accordant impression of responsiveness — without the accomplishment anything external. Email is extremely effective for people who LARP through their jobs. Slack is even better.

So if at least one of the major styles of Slack use is the semi-public role-playing of work, it makes sense that it would be used to create, and then to project, exclusivity:

Slack’s mission is to “make your working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.” It seems best-suited for the second goal on that list. Goofing off on Slack is really fun. The chat system makes it easy for users to create their own inside jokes. CollegeHumor treasures an emoji of a gluten-free duck; Briganti says its meaning is unexplainable to outsiders. Deadspin taunts staff writer Greg Howard with a mock rap CD cover featuring his face and dubbed “Hollywood Howard.” P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman, co-hosts of the Gimlet Media podcast Reply All, have created little emoji of each other’s faces that they use to further develop their lovingly antagonistic office relationship: Goldman drops a P.J. face in Slack to try to get his attention; Vogt inserts the Alex face to signify “bad news.” Slate favors a custom emoji of Outward editor Bryan Lowder with a toboggan Photoshopped onto his head; when editors drop into a private group to workshop headlines, they announce their presence with a taco emoji. When my friend Thomas, a 28-year-old designer, started work at a tech startup in San Francisco, he found that the office had customized its Slack to execute an elaborate hazing ritual. First, they programmed Slack so that “anytime I said anything, it came out as a GIF,” Thomas says. “Then they set up a bot to tell me I was fired every time I posted.”

As more readers perceive your work as sourceless units of attention distinguishable only by length and intensity of pleasure, it has become hard for publications to assert coherent identities (look at the front page of any site that publishes more than twenty times a day — stories that make sense alone in the context of your various feeds feel, taken together in a big unflattering stack, like barely-connected tricks and bids for your time). Slack offers a way to present the outline of an identity without actually manifesting it in your work. Stories about “our work Slack” are invariably intended to make the listener jealous, and always end with some variation of “you had to be there.” This does not work and will be listed among our charges as we are sentenced, one by one, to a life sentence in the future content mines. The machines will not be fooled or impressed by job LARPing.

In the meantime, Slack may find a foothold in actual businesses, in capital-c Corporate America, where it will be subjected to a new set of challenges: record-keeping regulations, regular subpoenas and legal discovery, pan-optical performance reviews, tightly scrutinized HR concerns, high-stakes hacks, and, most importantly, the application of real management. This is when chatting at work will finally cleave into something clearly distinguishable from chatting with friends. Professional emails are EXTREMELY dense with caveat and code and etiquette and formal requirements, and will seem incredibly bizarre to anyone reading them in the future (there is already a major stylistic rift, I think, between emails from offices that use Outlook and email from offices that use, say, Gmail). When mainstream work-LARPing moves to chat, what does that pained, compromised, inauthentically polite-but-pragmatic email tone look like? What are the equivalents of “just touching base” and “let’s loop back in a week” when everyone is logged on and available and oh-so-casual all the time? Will our chat messages all be tagged with our Myers-Briggs indicators? Will offices develop parallel shadow chats, robbing these new digital workplaces of their social vitality (as is right)? We will find out. In the meantime, happy LARPing.