The people v. Slack

Have we reached peak chat? Has the desire for sharing, connections and groupthink overcome our ability to actually execute actions that render value? Has collaboration lost its purposeful footing and become an end in itself with Slack?

Perhaps not. But Slack is also not the revolutionary one-size-fits-all model for efficiency and innovation. Complex ideas and strategic planning still require direct, fully considered person-to-person communication. Cogent conversation still demands logical threads of communication. Organizations require tools that can solidify insights while promoting alignment and cooperation.

Slack is not the tool for those jobs.

Cacophony of the multitudes

Imagine being in a room full of voices that will not be silenced that are talking over each other about no specific topic in particular. Everyone is broadcasting to everyone else, but no one knows if they are being heard. More people enter the room. The din gets exponentially worse, and the worse it gets, everyone has to yell harder still. There is no volume control, and worse yet, no one controls the volume. You can’t leave the room, for fear of missing out on an important tidbit.

Power to the people

The dream is a safe place for everyone to groupthink and share and hold hands and feel good. The reality is that larger teams are actually less collaborative. It’s unwieldy, this throw-it-all-in-there-and-hope-everyone-reads-it approach to solving problems and cultivating innovation. With no direction beyond a pithy channel description and countless participants, dropping by whenever, it quickly devolves into the worst meeting ever. Except no one is actually paying attention and it doesn’t matter anyway because for the last ten minutes it’s just been UX Ben sharing pictures of cats with comb-overs.

Anything before the most recent pageful doesn’t get read, making it difficult to collaborate on specific topics or ideas. The results of a discussion must be in the flow of conversation, there is nowhere else to hang it. Purpose and intent get lost quickly with no way to extract the meat of a conversation and present it for feeding into future discussion.

Slack won’t kill email

Email is primarily person to person communication. It’s open, which means that anyone with your email address can send you a note. It can be long and detailed; it can be intimate, conversational or formal. The store-and-forward culture of email promotes considered responses, without the pressure to type before you can think. The subject header lends itself to organization by topic. You get to folder these threads to your personal liking, or not.

Slack is all the niggles of email without the nuance. It’s a (mostly) closed and uncontrolled group chat comprised of one-liners and random imagery. It’s less thoughtful discussion, with folders (channels) you didn’t create, with people you may not want to talk to right then. You are subjected to the pressure of blurting something out for the sake of immediacy without thinking about it first. Everyone’s unconsidered remarks are one giant undifferentiated linear pile-up.

One size fits all

Human attention spans can’t scale hugely, so the Slack chat explosion is not helping anyone cope. We can’t actually handle the noise created by channels that multiply exponentially with organizational size. Channels proliferate and alerts overwhelm to the point of forcing you to just give up and skim. That means less engagement and attention dilution. Individuals can’t limit what kind of chats they get bothered by included in. It’s all or nothing. Group chats are, by nature, interruption driven. They don’t promote or nurture focus.

But it’s all right here!

Maybe, but it’s a lot of work to get to it. To search with any sort of efficiency in Slack, one must know exactly what they’re looking for and then sift through the many results one by one. It’s like reading Proust or Joyce, if they were sardonic 21st century valley wannabes. It’s difficult to navigate a linear temporal flow without useful waypoints that mark what conversations are about, and without any type of grouping or threading.

Everything in one place

One-stop shopping for inspiration, collaboration and organization? Nope. The lack of ability to squelch volumes and summarize render it non-human scale. Group chat format is just not appropriate for many topics and tasks. The only summary information available just adds to the stress with unread alerts. It lacks the ability to curate, to absorb and really roll something around in your head. The immediacy of chat does not lend itself well to complex ideas and problem-solving. You either live in the moment to absorb some passing nugget, or not at all.

Convergence of opinion

Organizations mature by building an attitude about their world with consensus opinions and insights that they try to build and share internally. Effective organizations try to get that attitude ingrained within the entire team so that everyone has a shared vision and mental map of where they are and where they need to go. Cultivating such a state of mind requires tools that can capture insight and present it in a way that is easy to curate, disseminate and absorb. This then spurs aligned action that supports and drives business. Slack is not an effective tool to create, maintain or consume such a converged state. What is needed is the capability to scale down data-at-large to human scale, instead of mindlessly scaling it up.

Gurusamy Sarathy

Gurusamy Sarathy is CTO at Klue. He has an eclectic background in building design, scripting languages, anti-spam, and network security threats. He’s also a bit of a celebrity, known for building email tech that saved 100M users from 1T spam. His latest obsession is figuring out how to make internet scale data useful at human scale.

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