#29 The Takeover
June 25, 2015
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Thomas Oscar is an Australian teenager who tried to make the most boring Facebook group possible - a group where members pretend to be corporate drones in a non-existent office.
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Welcome! Here are the episodes we mentioned at the top of the show:
You can find more stories by Karen Duffin at her website.
Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Our ad music is by Build Buildings.
You can check out the Stackswell and Co. Facebook page here.
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PJ VOGT: Hey I'm PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I'm Alex Goldman. So this week our most recent episode Shipped To Timbuktu is appearing on This American Life and if you are coming to our show from This American Life, we'd like to suggest a couple episodes that you mic really like.
PJ: I think you just said mic really like.
ALEX: I did say mic really like.
PJ: Okay, seems good enough. We will have links to these in the show notes. But one recent one that was really good:
ALEX: Episode 23: Exit and Return. Its about a Hasidic Jew that finds himself at odds with his community after accidentally stumbling on the internet.
PJ: Yeah, that's a good one. And then another good one was one that Alex did which was Episode Nine. It's about a campus that starts using an anonymous social messaging service and discovers the sort of awful, racial id that nobody's talking about and suddenly everyone has to reckon with.
ALEX: And then Episode Six, where PJ jumps headlong into online boyband conspiracy theories. Of course, you know, if you just want to listen to all of them in order...
PJ: That's fine.
ALEX: Yeah. They're all there. It's not like you have to listen to the ones we're suggesting.
PJ: Yeah. And they're all pretty good. *Pretty* good.
PJ: Sorry man. Okay, enjoy the show.
ALEX: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the Internet. I'm Alex Goldman. This week's episode is basically wall-to-wall swear words with the occasional word appropriate for your children. So listener, you've been advised.
PJ: So this is a story about the struggle for control of a multinational company with thousands of employees. The only thing is is that this company, it started & mostly existed in the mind of a teenage boy. Reporter Karen Duffin has the story.
KAREN DUFFIN: The boy is Thomas Oscar. He’s seventeen.
THOMAS OSCAR: Hey, hello Karen.
KAREN: Hey Thomas. How're you doing?
KAREN: He lives in this sleepy beach town in Australia. Mostly just hangs out with his friends, plays with his dog Shisha. He volunteers at a thrift shop.
THOMAS: I just kind of stand around and look busy.
KAREN: That’s cool. Why do you do it?
THOMAS: I don’t know. I don’t really have much else to do on Saturday mornings.
KAREN: So this story starts last summer.
THOMAS: It was a rainy Tuesday night like a few days after I turned sixteen and I was sitting in my room very bored and I was like, what can I do for tonight? So I was like, I'll just make a Facebook group light for slight lols.
KAREN: Slight LOLs. Thomas likes to make Facebook groups when he's bored, like deliberately lame Facebook groups. Like Facebook groups for mushroom foraging diehards. So, this time around, he thinks, how about office life? His Mom has an office job and she likes the work, but he just can’t really believe how stupid the actual office culture is.
THOMAS: It's just like playground shit. Like it's stuff that's really immature like leaving like passive-aggressive notes on the fridge kind of like, somebody didn't wash this spoon after they stirred their coffee blah blah blah if we catch you doing it again there'll be a formal complaint. Stuff like that. Really petty shit, you're like, Who cares?
KAREN: And so he makes his newest, lamest Facebook group. It’s a group for people who want to gather online and imagine that they all work in this office together. Online roleplaying, but for an office job.
THOMAS: And that was the birth of Stackswell and Co.
PJ: Stackswell and Co?
KAREN: Stackswell and Co.
ALEX: What do they sell?
KAREN: They shift units.
ALEX: Oh it's like Spacely Sprockets on the Jetsons? They just shift sprockets?
KAREN: They just shift units, yeah.
KAREN: Thomas made himself the CEO, invited his friends, and started taking applications.
THOMAS: I just wrote up this post saying you have to submit a resume telling what job you want and I assigned everyone job titles and jobs and I had like, for each department I had a head of department, like there was a Head of IT and for sales there was a Head of Sales. And underneath them was all like, sales representatives, like senior sales executives. And they all had to report to the head of their department who reported to me.
KAREN: Within days they had everything from an office dress code to HR regulations, environmental policies, an inventory spreadsheet. Even an office Intranet.
ALEX: What does this look like? Can you show it to us?
KAREN: Yeah yeah yeah. So at the very beginning, so you can kind of see down here
PJ: We’re looking at a typical Facebook group. The banner image is a bunch of computers in a cubicle and then there’s a bunch of associated tags, and the tags are "synergy," "office," and "hard work."
KAREN: And the very post is about a training for the new toilet system, or there’s this other post from a guy named Bradley that says: "Team, I think we'll be potentially actioning our key accounts to reflect on our core values moving forward."
PJ: They know all the fake words. It's also so vexing that teenagers know adult slang and adults are mystified by teenage slang. Like if we don't know fleek they shouldn't know core values.
KAREN: No, they shouldn't. They know KPI’s!
ALEX/PJ: I don’t know what a KPI is.
KAREN: A key performance indicator. I worked in corporate America for ten years, so.
KAREN. Yeah, exactly. I mean the posts looks like emails. They have subject lines, to’s, and from’s. And the emails look like what you might actually get in an office.
KAREN: There’d be like a post that's like, it gets halfway through and then it cuts off in the middle, and then in the comments they'd be like, "Oops, hit send too fast!"
PJ: Tim did that last week.
KAREN: It happens.
TIM HOWARD: Still haven't heard back.
THOMAS: It was funny like a kind of a bit of meta way I guess. It was funny because everyone was taking it so seriously.
KAREN: And then there’s a lot about fake fun. Cause that's a thing in offices. So Zach Donald comes on and says, "For anyone who's interested. I'll be hosting a get together at my mother's house for soft drink and lite beers. We've earned it!"
PJ: Sorry I just want to bring up, from this morning.
KAREN: Oh! We're going to get a real email.
PJ: “To: Gimlet Media Staff. Hold for Gimlet Grills, offsite.” That's our offsite fun, grilling thing that we're doing, which I'm generally excited about because I'm boring and old. We sent around an interoffice poll to see when people could schedule time for fun.
ALEX: It was like a spreadsheet poll.
PJ: It was a spreadsheet.
ALEX: And it was like, "Please tick off your availability over the next four weeks."
PJ: Which, let me just say, there's not an alternative. Like you can't pull out a super soaker from your desk and be like, “We're partying!” In actual adult life, you need spreadsheets to have your fun.
KAREN: But did you just give up fun?
ALEX: It does make your fun feel a little gray.
ALEX: It does. It's like, we've slotted our fun into this hermetically sealed box that will occur two weeks from now. It does feel like a little,
PJ: The thing you're describing is called a calendar. And it's like how people live their lives.
KAREN: So, anyway. Thomas told me that when he was taking applications, one big problem that he had was that too many of his friends just wanted to be janitors.
THOMAS: Like yeah, I wanna be a janitor. I was like "fuck off, you're like the thirtieth person to say that. You're not funny. "You're never going to have a company that like, if you only have five sales reps in your company, which like, when it was small. You're not gonna have like, twenty janitors which is what everyone like thought it would be funny to be, or who like, people who wanted to be like "yeah, I want to be a toilet technician" or I want to be the like, "sole cleaner of the microwave" in fucking, in the like the break room. I was like, no one does that in an office. That's not a thing.
KAREN: Wow you were super serious about this.
THOMAS: We were trying to be so serious about it. We were just trying to be, I remember at the start I was spending three or four hours every night on upkeep of the company.
KAREN: But within a few weeks, Thomas’s joke about boring, meaningless office work was starting to resemble boring meaningless office work. Fake resumes are piling up, they needed to be vetted. So Thomas is like, screw this, he finds a friend and asks him to help him manage it.
PJ: Wait, that means he accidentally hired a middle manager.
KAREN: Oh yeah.
PJ: Like he thought he was a teenager shirking, but he's like “I don’t wanna do this." He gave the job to somebody else and checked out. He just became a vacant CEO.
KAREN: Oh, absolutely. He has a secretary within like two days who's like, "Please send all messages to me instead of directly to Thomas."
THOMAS: That was kind of the golden age of Stackswell and Co.
KAREN: Thomas had created an entire world, run completely by teenagers. Totally uncontaminated by adults.
ALEX: After the break, the grownups show up and do what grownups always do. They ruin everything.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. Before the break, seventeen-year-old Thomas and his teenage friends were surprisingly invested in roleplaying that they worked at a fake company called Stackswell and Co. Karen Duffin picks the story up here.
KAREN: So a few weeks into his job running this fake company, Thomas does what CEOs do.
THOMAS: I went to Vietnam for like a couple weeks.
KAREN: He takes this vacation and checks out of Stackswell entirely.
THOMAS: I hadn’t been home for two weeks. I get home, sit at the computer, turn it on, open Facebook, look at my hundred thousand notifications whatever.
KAREN: And sees that Stackswell, his fake office run by teenagers has exploded. Tons of new users.
THOMAS: And it was like a thousand or something. Like it had just shot up so quick and I was like what? I had just no concept of why that had happened.
KAREN: There are people from the United Arab Emirates. France. Canada. The United States. Actual office workers.
DAVID JONES: My name is David Jones. D-A-V-I-D, common spelling of Jones: J-O-N-E-S.
KAREN: David works at a cable news company.
VICTORIA: My name is Victoria. I live in Toronto, Ontario. My day job is I’m a project manager in renewable energy.
KAREN: They love Stackswell.
DAVID JONES: It’s cute you know it’s non-offensive. You go there you get a little chuckle.
VICTORIA: You know, if you see something ridiculous at work and you see something even more ridiculous there, you just kind of smile, it makes life hilarious.
KAREN: And with new employees came new jokes. But these were jokes that broke Thomas’s rules, they didn’t sound like normal boring office emails. These ones were hammy, over the top. And the one that really got to Thomas was this joke about iguanas. It went something like this, a bunch of iguanas get shipped to the mailroom and nobody picks them up, so they escape and they start running wild in the office.
THOMAS: I wanted to punch myself in the head out of anger, like arrrghhh.
KAREN: And then people start making variations on the iguana joke, like the sexual harassment policies for iguanas, or iguanas are stealing my cigarettes.
THOMAS: There's this specific one dude. Like he did it in the whole email format. He was like, uh our reptilian overlords have requested your meeting on next Sunday morning at like three AM ha ha ha ha. Like, What the fuck? That's not funny. Like where's the humor in that. Your boss is a lizard? Like is that what's funny? Is it the fact that he called you in for a meeting at a dumb hour? Is it the fact that lizards can't use the phone? Like what's funny about that?
ALEX: It's like someone decided to make fun of an office and office humor took over this joke about the office.
KAREN: Yeah, there's a lot of dad humor. But not everyone hated the dad humor.
DAVID FREW: I don’t mind Dad humor. Dad jokes can be hilarious when they're done right.
KAREN: That’s David Frew. Thomas’s nemesis. In real life, he’s an insurance lawyer in Sydney and he loves his job.
DAVID: I love my office actually.
KAREN: Oh what?
DAVID: Mine's probably the most personalized office on my floor.
KAREN: When David says he loves his office, he doesn’t mean just his job or the people. I mean he loves his office. The way a sailor loves the sea.
DAVID: There’s obviously glass doors and glass windows, because everything is transparent, et cetera. And on the glass front of my office is a number of pictures from my travels around Europe and Japan. I haven't put up Indonesia or China there yet. And then once you go inside its a little bit messy although I'm sure my personal assistant has cleaned it since I left. I've got two screens on my desk which makes life easier. And I've got a statue of lady justice which I bought for myself in the Louvre in 2013. I've got a plaque my friend got me for my twenty-first birthday which is a quote from Frank Herbert which says, “Law is the Ultimate Science.” I've got a collection of chocolates...
KAREN: David is proudly, unabashedly, a Total Grown Up. And he says that even back when he was Thomas’s age, he dreamed of the day he would work in an office.
DAVID: I always wanted to be a grown up. I never really enjoyed the idea of being in school, I mean there's a lot of free time, but it didn’t feel like you were actually accomplishing anything.
KAREN: But what did you do for fun when you were seventeen?
DAVID: Oh actually that’s probably a story I can tell you.
KAREN: Alright, go.
DAVID: So year eleven formal, I didn’t have a girlfriend at that point in time so I was just like, I might as well have fun. And so to the formal I wore Eighteenth Century formal gear, being a full dinner suit, plus cape, top hat, cane, cravat, the whole works. And obviously it was a bit of a hit with the ladies, lots of photos of that night. And of course next year everybody copied me. So you know...
KAREN: And David was thrilled when his buddy told him about this group where you could role play office life.
DAVID: He thought it would appeal to my sense of humor, and was correct in that assumption.
KAREN: But David’s kind of humor of course did not appeal to Thomas.
THOMAS: I was genuinely angry, it just like made me furious that these people had taken what was like originally a meta-humor kind of thing and just turned it into like casual, idiotic jokes.
PJ: He made like a punk rock album and they're using it to sell candy bars, like I totally understand why he's pissed off. It's like the point of his joke was, your life sucks and it's fake, and they quietly co-opted it to make the point of his joke like, what if iguanas worked at your office? Which is a different joke.
KAREN: Yeah. They made elevator music out of his punk rock.
PJ: That's exactly it.
KAREN: Yeah. And Thomas was so mad. Actually, let me actually pull up what he says. "Anyone who posts about iguanas is banned." You know, you can kind of hear people looking around and being like, "Is he serious?" And someone replies, "Well, I welcome them," and Thomas replies, "Well, that's nice seeing that you're fired." And he bans him. So this is the first firing. And then someone replies, "You're a dick." And then he fires them.
THOMAS: Like you’re banned, you’re banned, you’re banned. Swinging the banhammer.
KAREN: And then someone else says, "Iguanas forever!" and he gets fired. And then someone comes on and totally defends him. He's like, "I welcome this decision and new management direction. Having never worked in an office environment before, I joined this group with the expectation of genuine generic, office roleplay. But I've been severely underwhelmed with my experience."
PJ: How did Thomas respond to that guy?
KAREN: Oh, someone says, “Iguana know what's going on here.” That dude gets fired.
PJ: That guy should be fired.
KAREN: Yeah. And Thomas basically decides that they all should be fired.
THOMAS: I like flipped out and wrote this big thing, "You guys are the worst. None of you are funny at all. You've destroyed the integrity of Stackswell and Co. I'm deleting this group if no one gives me a fucking reason to keep it."
KAREN: So, the day Thomas threatens to shut Stackswell & Co. down, David Frew...
DAVID: I'm on the way back from the beach, reading my phone and I see a litany of posts by Oscar.
KAREN: That’s Thomas’ last name, Thomas Oscar.
DAVID: And so I sort of looked at it and I’m like, okay, I'm sure that this group, it doesn’t deserve to be shut down because someone has an issue with iguanas.
KAREN: So he proposed a buyout. He messaged Thomas.
THOMAS: And I was like, alright how much? and he was like, twenty dollars, and I talked him up, I was like, no twenty five.
DAVID: And I said to him, well look, I’ll pay twenty five and draw up the contract. But I was convinced my position was secure enough without having to do so.
THOMAS: When he was like, I'll draw a contract up. I was like, What? Don't do that. Like, just be chill man, just be chill.
KAREN: David PayPal’ed Thomas the money and Thomas handed him admin rights. And then, David ushered in this new era of Stackswell and Co. with a post that embraced dad humor. It was basically like “I'm creating a steering committee to launch this new company. And for now we have boat steering wheels and we have rudders. This post would’ve made Thomas and his friends so mad, but they never heard it. Because David's second act as CEO was The Purge.
THOMAS: He blocked me! He blocked me from it and I was very cut about it. I was like, why?
KAREN: David fired the teenagers.
THOMAS: If you’re listening, David Frew, you’re a dickhead. Like I hate you. It's just so wrong. It's so wrong. Did he say why he did it to you? Did he tell you?
KAREN: Yeah, here's why. He said that you started a rival group. And that you were trying to recruit people to it.
THOMAS: Oh yeah, I did actually. I forgot about that. It got like ten members though. I don’t think it actually caught.
KAREN: Thomas rival group didn’t catch on. But David was nice about it. He still lists Thomas on the Stackswell page as its visionary founder.
KAREN: In real life, there are places where kids are allowed to be kids and grown-ups pretty much leave them alone. I mean, grown-ups don’t actually show up at actual high school dances and start grinding with everybody. And Thomas wishes that the internet were more like that. He doesn’t like it when grown ups try to act like kids.
THOMAS: I think old people should be allowed on the internet for looking at, you know, business stuff? Or for sending actual emails to their real bosses. Or to find recipes.
KAREN: By “old people” Thomas means anyone over twenty five. So, by his definition, I’m an old person. The grim specter of what’s to come.
THOMAS: Yeah, like so how old did you say you were? Like in your thirties?
KAREN: Yeah, yeah, I am.
THOMAS: So do you have a live-in boyfriend?
THOMAS: Alright. Okay, just quickly. When you go out to like a Thai restaurant what dish do you order? And how spicy do you get it? I'm going to guess you order the mild pad Thai and you know a glass of house wine.
THOMAS: Let me guess, you listen to, I'm going to say definitely Mumford and Sons.
KAREN: He’s right. I’ve seen them in concert. Twice. But Thomas says that’s okay, it's inevitable. Lameness comes for all of us.
THOMAS: Yeah I mean I've kind of like resigned myself to it. I think.
THOMAS: I just can't see, I just cannot picture myself at thirty two enjoying my life. I think that's it. That's the end. Game over.
KAREN: Thomas graduates from high school this December, and becomes an official adult. He hopes to go to the University of Newcastle. But for now, he’s just enjoying his last few months of being a kid, hanging out at the thrift store, making Facebook groups, playing with his band, The Neglections.
ALEX: Oh my god. I had a band that sounded exactly like this when I was in high school. We were called Blue Onion, and this song is called “Lame Parties." I thought I was a real punk rock kid. Fuck you. I seriously, like I was like so disdainful of my parents, and I thought I would grow up and I thought I would reject almost all of society. And I thought that like, when the revolution came, I wouldn't be one of the stodgy stuff shirts up against the wall. But I know that I will be.
KAREN: Why did you change? Why didn't you stick to your punk rock? Questionably punk rock.
ALEX: I got less selfish i think. There's something very selfish about that mentality, you know what I mean, all you think about is your own authenticity, and like how cool you are and how you are perceived by people.
PJ: Do you guys feel weird about the fact that he's a teenager who's saying adult life is very terrible and his view of adult life is pretty accurate?
KAREN: Like is that depressing?
PJ: Yeah, I mean sort of. You know, except that, for society to work a lot of people have to have jobs that they don't like, they don't hate, they just go to. And like Thomas is at an age where it makes sense for him to rage against that and be like no, not me, and it shouldn't be anybody and it sucks, but for the rest of us, you kind of have to make peace with it and I think their point to him is sort of like, "It's not as bad as you think it is, it's kind of funny actually." And his point to them is like, "No, it's terrible, and you guys are so brainwashed by this that you can't even admit that it's terrible anymore."
KAREN: Thomas promised that he’ll let me know in a few years if he’s been brainwashed like the rest of us grown ups.
KAREN: So, will you call me when you turn twenty eight and tell me if you made it out?
THOMAS: I sure will. On my twenty-eighth birthday I will wake up next to my live-in girlfriend, like congealed pad thai on my bloody dresser and I'll think of you and I'll say, "this is where my life is."
KAREN: Alright. Well, let’s circle back.
THOMAS: Yeah circle back to me, like I feel like this conversation we really synergized well.
KAREN: I feel like that we're going to be able to optimize this story because of the great work that we have been able to collaborate on together.
THOMAS: Alright yes I definitely agree with that.
KAREN: Ok, go team.
THOMAS: I'll shoot you an email with the deets later.
KAREN: Ok, please do. Alright, thanks Thomas. Have a good one. Bye.
THOMAS: Thank you Karen, bye.
ALEX: That was reporter Karen Duffin. Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Production assistance from Sylvie Douglis. Special thanks to Emma Jacob and Emily Kennedy. Matt Lieber is that rock quarry you've been swimming at for years and still no one else seems to know about it. Our theme music is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at iTunes.com/replyall. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.