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An open letter to Stewart Butterfield: Why Slack will never replace email

Dvir Ben-Aroya
Jun 13, 2019 · 6 min read

Hello Mr Butterfield,

I’m Dvir Ben Aroya, an entrepreneur who has spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve workplace communications, and now focus on Spike — the first conversational email for teams.

I saw your Investor Day presentation. Entrepreneur to entrepreneur, while I admire your personal success with Slack, I have some thoughts on your product and the future of work to share with you.

I love what Slack has accomplished and think its success revealed a true need in the world — better work communication. However, I must say:

Your goal of replacing email with Slack is in complete conflict with the efficient flow of communication that gets real work done.

As-is, Slack’s addictive qualities are making it become the Facebook of work communication — and before it causes more damage to workers’ productivity and well-being, we have to limit its reach.

I hope we can have an honest conversation about work communication and come to a mutual agreement on how to take better care of users’ focus, while making superior work products.

Here, I’ll dive into the differences between chat and email and how one cannot replace the other.

Focus is at the center of productivity

Productivity is best achieved through focus and flow, and anything that takes you away from your focus goes against productivity.

So, Slack — which is built as an internal, real-time, “always on,” multi-channel system with notifications — is distracting by design.

Slack risks recreating the same busy, addictive aspect for work that Facebook’s newsfeed and notification system did for social media.

“Continuous partial attention” is not only terrible for focus, but is putting workers’ mental well-being at stake.

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Reader’s response to Slack’s claim to replace email, on Quartz.

A call for better boundaries

Slack, and all instant collaboration tools, need better boundaries before they make us sick.

Don’t take my word for it — look at trends like digital minimalism, and viral articles on burnout from the pressure that tech places on us to optimize everything. Terms like “cognitive fitness” and “workism” are coming into the zeitgeist, because they’re a real problem for people.

All of them have something in common: the “always on” expectation has become problematic, and will be the next big thing about technology to be confronted.

“With you in my life, I’ve received exponentially more messages than I ever have before. And while it’s been awesome to have such a connection with you, it has been absolutely brutal on my productivity…I’m finding that “always on” tendency to be a self-perpetuating feedback loop: the more everyone’s hanging out, the more conversations take place. The more conversations, the more everyone’s expected to participate. Lather, rinse, repeat.”

— Samuel Hulick for UserOnboard

Email’s secret weapons: asynchronicity and openness

On the other hand, email is built with an implicit rule that you do not have to get back to people immediately — what we call “asynchronicity,” — which is the opposite of the “always-on,” expectancy of chat.

Plus, it’s built on open, federated protocols, meaning that anyone can set up a server and store their data wherever they like. This is a technical way of saying I can email your Yahoo email address from my Gmail, and vice versa, unlike other closed messaging systems, where I cannot send you a WhatsApp message from my Messenger, for example.

Think about that — I can email anyone in the world with an email address, literally anyone, as long as they have an email address. That freedom is often overlooked.

However, this was also weaponized by marketers in inboxes — and something we must control for moving forward.

The question is, how can we take the best of asynchronous *and* instant, internal *and* external communication needs?

The benefits of chat

In the right context, chat can be awesome. Meetings called to solve one small issue that could have been resolved with a ping are a waste of everyone’s time and resources.

And channels have been revolutionary in providing one workspace to easily collaborate and find the information you need.

But we can’t get away from its one unavoidable flaw: it sucks your attention dry.

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Remember Facebook? Product-centered instead of human-centered

What we need is a communication platform that is human-centered — designed with human focus in mind, rather than product engagement. As long as Slack takes pride in growing the average number of messages on its platform, its interest isn’t aligned to the well-being of its users.

Any time you create a tool, you must assume it can also be used as a weapon — whether it’s a knife, or social software. While Slack won’t be swaying us with politically charged ads anytime soon, its notification systems are known to decrease concentration and cognitive ability.

All it takes is a quick Google search of “Slack problems” to see Slack breakup letters and articles along the lines of “unhealthy Slack obsessions.”

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Reader’s response to Slack’s claim to replace email, on Quartz.

The best of both worlds — but only the best

The answer is a product designed to take the best of each mode of communication and strip away the bad — from both email and Slack — making sure to bake in efficiency and respect for people’s time at a product level.

We believe we found the actual answer: channels within a cleaned up, modernized email inbox. The platform is based on email — so the environment is asynchronous by default, while also having shared workspaces for real-time channels, where you can collaborate with any email address holder in the world.

Channels in your inbox does not mean chat on top of your email. Gchat tried that, and learned by fire that adding more clutter to an inbox was asking for failure. This means designated workspaces for group collaboration that run off an email address.

It also means we strip away the bloat of old inboxes, and ensure ONLY priority enters. But really, only priority this time (I’m looking at you, Gmail). It means better message priority, and adding in some super valuable features of real-time software — like seeing when someone is typing, seeing when someone is online (or offline), and read receipts.

But it does NOT mean abolishing email, which you say you want to do with Slack.

Yet, Slack did acquire an email product last year. Seems there’s a bit of a break down in Slack’s promise to “replace email for teams” and this back-shuffle of “OK, we actually do need email, but we’re just going to put it inside channels. But don’t get rid of your inbox! You’ll still need that to correspond with anyone outside your company.”

Perhaps deep down you realized email’s inherent usefulness.

Responsible technology for a better future

I admire your lofty goals, but Slack can’t replace email. Email’s open-nature and inherent respect for flow are a superpower, and as time goes on, we will see those characteristics increasingly ingrained into our work software for true productivity.

Your brand and foothold in the market are impressive in their own right. But with great power comes great responsibility. You hold millions of users’ well-being in your hands, and unfortunately we only see Slack eating more of people’s attention as you scale.

Please — learn from the lessons of old inboxes and Facebook: the more bloat you have, the more addictive you become, the more people will rebel against your service. It is a moral imperative to take users’ well-being into mind. So I’d like to know — how will you address your users’ need for better focus?

Whatever you do, please don’t tell them chat alone is the answer to their communication problems.

Best of luck with your upcoming IPO. I’d love to show you what we’re building. Just shoot me an email (via Spike) —

Awaiting your response,

Dvir Ben Aroya

CEO & Co-Founder of Spike

If you agree that it’s time for technology to respect people’s focus. I’d like to hear from you.

Follow me on Twitter

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