Updating Gogol for the Age of Google

This is a website for a book about a website. To clarify: this website is where I blog about a book-in-progress called Dead SULs, which is about a website you may have heard of once or twice,  Facebook.

Facebook friend addedThe idea for this novel first occurred to me when I read that brands and celebrities looking for a quick way to up their friend or follower counts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks often buy all that adoration. In fact there’s a whole backchannel trade in online user profiles.

So this creepy practice made me think of a book from my freshman-year Russian Lit seminar, the class where a group of us had a competition to see who could read the least but talk the most. (A monumental waste of tuition money, I know.)

Dead Souls original title page

The original title page for Dead Souls, 1842

Anyhoo Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol’s “epic poem in prose,” is a wicked satire of Russia’s social system ca. 1842, when the novel was first published.  (And you can read it – for free! – thanks to Project Gutenberg.)

[Spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know what Dead Souls is about, skip ahead to the next paragraph.] Gogol’s plot involves a mysterious stranger traveling  the Russian countryside trying to buy “souls” – dead serfs – from wealthy landowners. See in mid-19th century Russia the state considered peasants,  indentured servants who worked the land, as property. So even after  serfs died  landed proprietors still had to pay taxes on them, at least until the next official census count. Gogol’s main character offers to take these so-called “dead souls” off of their owner’s hands because he has a whole scheme in mind; basically he’s a swindler, a proto-Bernie Madoff, and he plans to take out a huge loan against all the souls so he can retire to the countryside and not have to work another day in his life. Cool concept, right? WTF w/ the historical practice of slavery, right?

So in my adaptation of Gogol’s genius book, the main character is a tech company founder, and he’s trying to buy up dead SULs – Suspended User Lists – from Facebook. He’s making the rounds of the startup scene trying to convince other CEOs to participate in this basically illegal practice of selling people’s FB accounts so that… well you’ll have to keep reading to find out!

This is my first time both writing a novel and blogging about it. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but as designer Bruce Mau once wrote of the avant-garde composer John Cage, “not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.” So here we are, then, at the beginning.

I hope this experiment is fun for all of us!


  • Very excited for this, Kirstin. 2011 is the year of stretching. Congrats as you begin!

  • kirstinbutler wrote:

    Kristen you’re my first official comment! Thanks for breaking in the blog, and the support is so appreciated :)

  • Hi Kristen,
    I am co-founder of Limited Language.org, a web-platform for generating discussion and writing about visual and sonic communication.

    Would you like to write a short blog for http://www.limitedlanguage.org on the potential of Facebook/crowdsourcing/this project for future writing?

    Limited Language is interested in the way that processes from within visual culture – a culture of recycling, ‘mash-ups’, collaborative and hybrid media practices – can inform writing on design. Also, how one can engage with digital technology as a creative catalyst.

    Obviously our own interests coincide with these last…

    We look forward to hearing from you,
    Best regards,
    Colin Davies and Monika Parrinder

  • kirstin butler wrote:

    Hi Monika and Colin,

    I’m working my way through your site now and am totally intrigued & fascinated. Of course I’d love to contribute something–I’ll send you an email so we can discuss further. Many thanks for reaching out!


  • Awesome project Kirstin!

    Dead Souls is a Russian masterpiece, and your mash-up idea definitely has a lot of upside. Good luck!


  • kirstin butler wrote:

    Thanks Eugene! Gogol’s definitely a master, so I’ve given myself something big to live up to. Hope I can do him justice.

  • Congrats, Kirstin This is truly an amazing effort. The fact that it is a contemporary ‘remix’ of sorts of a classic from Gogol makes it interesting. And with a name like ‘Chilbert’, I cannot help but draw comparison to everyone’s favorite ‘Dilbert’. And ‘Rohit’ suddenly reminds of ‘Asok’. I cannot wait to read the next excerpt of ‘Dead SULS’. All the best!

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    You, Subbu, are incredibly prescient–just last week I wrote a Dilbert joke into one of the forthcoming excerpts! Thanks very much for your words of encouragement, and great to meet you :)

  • Alexandra Dean wrote:

    It is gratifying to finally find out what Dead Souls was about. Now I know my comments about train metaphors were truly inane. Have to say, your version sounds a lot more fun. Can’t wait for the next excerpt.

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Alex I think it’s great you’ve finally outed yourself as part of the triad of non-readers in that long-ago class. Now we just need our other partner in crime to reveal himself…

    Judging from the faux underlines in my used copy of Dead Souls, I talked a lot about carriage rides during the discussion. Possibly I was trying to build off of your train motif – or I just looked at the cover illustration. Dead Souls book cover

    It’s heartening to know that we were way off together, though.

  • Really seems brilliant. Love the approach. Looking forward to it!!!

    Would be glad to cover what you are doing on my blog if you are interested. Glad to discuss the possible intersection of what I blog about to what you are doing.

    In any event, really cool – much success!!!

    Social Steve

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Hi Steve, that sounds great! Thank you for the kind words, and I’ll follow up w/ you via your blog :)

  • Tele David Ogundeko wrote:

    Now this is absolutely, and wonderfully brilliant! can’t wait till its done

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Thank you so much–I can’t wait till it’s done either!

  • Utterly thrilled by the concept of this book! Found a link to you through brainpickings, and glad I clicked through, Kirstin:-)

    Also great to see the way you’re promoting it! Following you on twitter now:-)

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Thanks Kristin! Between the other Kristen who occasionally comments here, you, and me I forsee zany first-name antics ensuing.

    Glad you found the site. I’m likewise intrigued by the work you, Ev, and Venessa are working on. Looking forward to continuing the conversation :)

  • […] his her first blog post and the post explaining the […]

  • This looks amazing. So excited!

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Thanks Julian! Appreciate the encouragement :)

  • Wow! I knew you were special. Congratulations on your writing project. We’ll be patiently waiting on your novel.

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Thanks so much Francisco–I’ve been a little remiss about posting on the site lately, but it’s all for the long-term good. Your patience is much appreciated! I only wish I could extend myself the same…

  • WOW! Kirstin, you know me from a certain online forum (*ahem*), and I just ran across your name over at Brain Pickings, wondering, “Could this be the Kirstin Butler? The one I know?”

    And here you are! Writing your own novel…and a really good one, by the excerpts I just read! I’m bookmarking this–can’t wait to read the finished product. Well done, you! :o)

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Hihi Michelle!

    Thank you for the encouragement. I’m rewriting the whole thing right now so it’s a little strange to look back at the excerpts. I think the actual book will be very different, but hopefully entertaining. So good to hear from you!

  • Or as Eleanor Roosevelt remarked, “If we wait till we’re ready, we’ll never get started.”

  • Therese Sellers wrote:

    Hi Kirstin,
    I’m excited about your book and impressed it has a website. I will look for blogs about your road trip.

  • Hi Kristin,
    The idea seems totally cool…I think it will also look good as a movie…Also I used to work for an organisation in India…where they would buy facebook likes …surprisingly most of them were from people in Russia…also I kept wondering about the accounts/blogs that people create and forget their passwords…and never log in ever again…what happens to those accounts…e.g. ORKUT…

    any how…keep us posted…eager to read the book…

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Hey Waadee, Thanks for the comment! It’s kind of shocking how big the “gray market” is for all of this stuff. And yes there must be tons of accounts moldering away on other social networks too; in fact in my most recent draft the main character is putting together a kind of über-network of the dead from a whole range of sites like Orkut, Sina Weibo etc. It just seemed more interesting to open the scope wider than Facebook alone.

    I’m really glad you stopped by and commented. Also your site/work is very cool!

  • Hi Kirstin,

    What a pleasant surprise :)

    We’d like to talk to you about your project. How do we do that?

    Please lmk.



  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Ooh wow, it looks like you all are doing some amazing work–I love book trailers! Will follow up via email :)

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