Is Slack revolutionary?

No, says Betteridge’s Law. But there are some who will argue it is. For example, Ben Thompson recently wrote “Zoom is in some respects a more impressive business, but its use-case was a pre-existing one. Slack, on the other hand, introduced an entirely new way to work”.

I don’t see that Slack introduced an entirely new way to work. What it did was take existing ways to work and make them suck less. When I joined a former employer, they were using consumer Skype for instant messaging and calls. It worked fairly well from the telephony side, but as a team IM client it was…bad. Channels weren’t discoverable, there were no integrations, and search (if it even existed, I don’t remember now) was useless.

When we switched to Slack, it was so much better than the way we had been working. But none of the concepts were new, they were just better executed. Many tools have attempted to address the use cases that Slack handles well. They just didn’t succeed in the same way. Does that make Slack revolutionary? Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but I could see an argument that Slack had a revolutionary impact without being revolutionary itself.

The resurgence of the web forum

I saw an interesting thread on Twitter recently. The Ghost community shut down their Slack instance in favor of a forum. Yes, those mainstays of mid-aughts online socialization seem to be making a comeback. And I get it. As much as I appreciate Slack for work chat, it’s kind of a pain to use socially when you have a lot of groups.

I’ve written before about the downsides of Slack for communities. But in that, I was thinking more of the individual perspective. John’s thread brings the group perspective to mind.

As communities grow, it’s harder for people to feel a sense of belonging. Slack’s fast pace and emphasis on the moment make it hard to step away. Indeed, in a large community using the free version, you lose history pretty quickly. This is true of other group instant messaging, too, of course. But there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of thousand-person chat rooms (or dozen-person group texts). Many-to-many communication gets noisy quickly.

If a community’s messages are largely of the question-and-answer variety, forums make a lot of sense. Keeping the answers near the questions makes it easier for future visitors. Both the questions and answers become easier to find. Of course fora have their own issues. You have to remember to go to the website and check for new messages (or else get a barrage of emails that you’ll ignore anyway). But it goes to show that technology is cyclical. And even good products can fade as the newness wears off.

The tradeoffs of Slack for community projects

When my employer adopted Slack, we saw benefit immediately. Conversations are searchable, file sharing is easy, and oh how I ? /giphy. It’s a great tool, but I don’t like it for open communities.

Slack was designed to be a company’s internal communication system. For that purpose, it’s great. It was not designed to be an open platform. For example, it is basically impossible for users to manage harassment.

Most people have one employer at a time. That’s not the case for hobby and interest communities. I have five unrelated rooms on Freenode IRC that I’m regularly in. For the most part, I manage that in one place. But each Slack instance I’m in might as well be a separate universe.

That’s not to say Slack is all bad. It is much easier to learn and use than most IRC clients. This is a significant benefit to non-technical communities. Creative Commons, for example, saw a large uptick in community participation after moving to Slack. Slack allows for a richness of community culture to develop in ways that text-only formats don’t.

But for me, particularly with open source communities, the less-than-public nature of Slack teams is a negative. People can’t join the communities they don’t know about. And if they can’t lurk quietly (by reading transcripts or joining the server anonymously), will they feel safe jumping in? There are lock-in considerations as well (my free software readers have probably been waiting for me to get to this point) that I think I’ll address in a later post.

Each community has to decide what is best for them. Like any other technology, Slack has pros and cons. The important thing is to weigh them before making a decision.

Slack and abuse

Recently, Sara Mauskopf asked how to block a user on Slack, the popular chat platform. Slack’s social media team replied: 

The response is not helpful. As Mauskopf pointed out, Slack is used in many environments. Communities have adopted Slack as an easy, cross-platform communication tool. Some may have governing bodies, and they should all have a code of conduct, but there’s often only an informal power structure. This means that abusers can go unchecked (and there’s no guarantee that a corporate HR department would be quick to act).

Slack’s self-reported diversity numbers are not as bad as many tech companies. Nonetheless, this strikes me as a failure to empathize with people who face abuse online. I don’t understand how a communication platform in 2016 can not have some kind of block feature. Even Twitter, which has a pretty lousy track record of dealing with abuse, has the ability to block users.

I can understand how some organizations might not want to allow users to block others, but that’s not a good reason to forego the feature entirely. Giving site administrators the option to allow blocking would be a big improvement. Until then, it’s hard to suggest Slack to open communities.

A changelog for the company?

"How to achieve Inbox Zero after the holidays" by CommitStrip. Used with permission.

“How to achieve Inbox Zero after the holidays” by CommitStrip. Used with permission.

A few weeks ago, Mathias Meyer shared an article that suggested a “Do Not Disturb” feature for Slack. At my job, Slack has become our main internal collaboration tool. It hasn’t quite killed email, but it’s pretty rare for members of the engineering team to send internal emails these days. It’s a great tool, but it can be hard to keep up with if you’re away for an extended period of time. This is particularly true when important messages get lost among jokes and gifs.

After being out of the office all of last week, I came back to several hundred emails and thousands of Slack messages. There was no way I could get through all of them, so I declared Slack bankruptcy (and deleted the emails that were for tickets someone else handled). I just have to trust that if there was anything important, my colleagues would fill me in. But is there a better way?

When I worked at McDonald’s, we had a management log book. It was a simple three-ring binder with hand-written notes. Mostly it was used by the store manager to communicate important information to shift managers and supervisors, but any of us could leave notes for things everyone on the management team needed to know. At the beginning of each shift, managers and supervisors were expected to read new entries and initial them.

I would go off to college for a semester and when I came back during breaks, the last few months of log entries were easy to catch up on. Obviously, they didn’t contain all of the changes, but at least I knew what the major changes were. It helped me come up to speed quickly, which was especially important when trying to lead teenage fast food workers.

I am a major proponent of work-life balance, both for myself, and for my team. It benefits neither the employee nor the employer to have people working all of the time. But it’s hard to fully disconnect when there’s a fear of missing out on important information. Perhaps a company changelog is in order?

This could capture important announcements, product decisions, unexpected lessons, and other things you really want team members to know. This allows people to declare bankruptcy when needed without missing key information. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, a shared text file (in reverse chronological order) can be sufficient. Whatever works for your team.