slackjawed

(or, do we really have to kill email to like chat?)

OK, let me start by saying I really like Slack. For our company, Slack enables a kind of camaraderie that is very difficult to obtain in a distributed team — especially a team that uses about 5 different operating systems from mobile to servers. The features are awesome, the app is designed very well, the experience is really what we wanted in a group messaging platform. And we use APIs and other hooks to make it work better, make our process better, and be more fun.

But fatigue is setting in. FOMO (fear of missing out) has started to make me feel the need to stay constantly plugged in or I might miss something. Information that people need flies by in a mixture of deeply technical content and playful chatter. Wondering where information lives is starting to nag at the back of my head. Is chat really supposed to be the solution for all kinds of communication?

I never believed synchronous messaging and chat would completely replace other forms of communication as many people are claiming. Especially ominous claims are being made about email. We've been around on this several times before and even though the user experience is very different this time (mobile is mature, cross platform has been done right, etc.) it still can't fix one problem.

Chat is synchronous.

All work is not synchronous.

It doesn't matter how clever your searching is, backscroll is still backscroll. If discussions are all day long in chat, when do we focus and work? If we focus and work and design and create, should we not have input in the discussion just because we were not available at the time?

Usually we are pretty good about important decisions and fall into a cadence where periodic meetings happen, even though they are still group voice or video chats. And we meet as often as we can for that face to face high bandwidth connection.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to us anymore that the kind of computer-mediated communication we choose influences the style and the tone of any communication. These results have been since the early 1980's from folks like Allen Newell, Lee Sproul, and Sarah Keisler. Their studies showed great things happening when we started to use email to break down time and distance along with not so great things. Communications were perceived as more aggressive than intended among other things. This effect is so pronounced that when working on the Eudora email client in the early 2000's we added some smarts to warn the user that their language might be perceived as aggressive.

Which brings us back to Slack and chat in general. Let’s think about what we use and how that will shape the conversation and the interaction, especially ones of high complexity. Folks like Jeff Bezos reportedly don’t allow discussions without an informed piece of prose so a reasoned argument can be made. While I’m not arguing for that or any other particular style I’m suggesting we consider the kind of process we want and use the right tool. It could be that we should use Slack, Twitter, Trello, Jira, Email, Medium, PowerPoint, YouTube or a scribble on a sticky note. We should use them all. And choose depending on what we are trying to do.

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