Sure, Slack is fun, but that’s not all that needs to be said

A screenshot from a Slack demo.

A screenshot from a Slack demo.

Do you Slack? I didn’t used to, but I do now. And I’m pretty sure I’m getting more done and having more fun because of it. I like Slack. (So does the Church of the SubGenius, but that’s different.) Slack is spreading. If you don’t know about Slack but you use computers and work with more than a handful of people, you probably should know about it.

For the uninitiated, Slack is a workplace communications tool. It’s like a cross between email and instant messaging, and it makes it easier for people to work together in multiple teams or on multiple projects. It also makes it easier for people to, yes, slack off. Email allows that, and so does instant messaging—and for that matter so does face-to-face conversation—but Slack improves on those, in ways that are a little hard to describe. To me, it resembles Google Wave, a collaborative email-like system (now run by Apache), but that’ll mean nothing to most people.

Slate published an article about Slack a couple of years ago. New York magazine covered it a few weeks ago. Curiously, though Slack is almost entirely a workplace tool, and both articles acknowledge that many readers aren’t yet using Slack in their jobs, neither goes into much detail on how it contributes to work, despite a good deal of broad discussion. It’s as if the allure of not working while using Slack has led both authors into not writing about Slack’s work uses while writing about Slack. The Slate piece at least gives you some screenshots to illustrate Slack’s potential for private and playful exchanges, but if you’ve ever exchanged texts, that part will be immediately familiar. However, both articles do a good job of illuminating the nonwork social dimensions of Slack: gossiping about coworkers, bitching about coworkers, flirting with coworkers, and a lot of totally non-coworker-related pursuits, such as raving about Hamilton. And the Slate article mentions some emerging nonbusiness-oriented uses—a whisky Slack, a techno Slack, etc.

Nor do these two articles go very far in assessing some of Slack’s other implications. Where does all the data go? Who owns it, who has access to it, how might it be used? Few of us thought about that with Facebook or Google early on; now we know better. What’s the potential for service outages and hacking? This is important if there’s any potential at all, and there is; to judge from a Reuters report I found in a quick search, the failure in late February of one part of Amazon Web Services affected file transfers for some Slack users.

Another major question: What difference does it make that Slack is so…likable? It’s another technology that’s good, and getting better, at capturing our attention—like Facebook and to a lesser degree Twitter, it’s addictive—and while this is undoubtedly good for the businesses concerned—your employer included—Slack’s growing role in the attention economy probably deserves to be examined. I’d love to know what a technology critic such as Evgeny Morozov—whose Twitter profile currently describes him as offering “cynicism as a service”—thinks about Slack. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to check—I haven’t exactly been too busy Slacking, but I’ve definitely been too busy.

The New York article does, though, discuss one aspect of the data issue, which might be called “persistence of Slack.” The writer puts it this way:

Slack can lull you into a sense of privacy that it would be unwise to trust. Office chats seem both intimate and disposable, but the half-grammatical missives you’ve long since forgotten can endure in the fossil record. When Hulk Hogan first took Gawker to court, editors found themselves confronted with jokes they’d made on Campfire in 2012.

How long Slack messages are preserved depends on the choices made by employers, but the essential fact is that they don’t disappear right away, any more than emails or text messages do. It’s odd that people don’t realize this. We’ve had many occasions to learn; news stories and court cases over the years have repeatedly relied on messages, even supposedly “deleted” emails, dredged up from some archive. (Snapchat teaches this by counterexample; its sole original distinction was that its messages did disappear, though you’d be smart not to count on that.) For some reason, many of us project the evanescence of our personal experience onto our present-day communications. People think an exchange on Slack—or via Facebook Messenger or any number of other services—is like a face-to-face conversation, dissolving into the air as it goes, but instead it’s like a letter; or we think it’s like a phone call, but instead it’s like an email: we mistake what lasts for what doesn’t. Why we take this “out of sight, out of mind” view would be worth exploring. I think it’s partly technological and partly cultural.

There’s a slight positive potential even to the persistence of Slack. If you say something to another person in some out-of-the-way place in the office and it’s taken the wrong way, neither of you has any evidence of how it went. If you say something via Slack and it blows up, there will most likely be a record, which may show you to have been something less than a total ass—unless you were.

The writer of the New York article ends with a “confession,” a set of more or less personal responses to the presence of Slack in the workplace. I’ll follow suit. One, Slack is not only enjoyable and challenging in ways that I like; it’s also immensely useful. It categorizes information, unlike email, which arrives in one big, undifferentiated stream. If I’ve been assigned to copyedit news stories, I can focus on the news channel without being distracted by anything else. If I have free time, I can check for work in the other channels. If I need to query an editor, I can do it with a direct message. If I want my team’s opinion, I can ask for it in our private channel. Work can be rewarding, and whatever helps me do it is a good thing.

Two, the New York article, despite its value as an examination of one corner of The Way We Work Now, displays a present-mindedness that’s a little surprising and a little dismaying. “Slack is a compulsion, a distraction. A burden,” say the New York article’s author. Haven’t we gone through this, over and over? The Internet is a time suck. Facebook is a time suck. Twitter is part of the filter bubble. Texting while driving is reckless. Emails can get you in trouble. Technology is wonderful, except when it’s terrible. Maybe we should broaden our perspective. For years, decades, centuries, probably for as long as we’ve had a civilization, there have been distractions to reckon with; it has always been important what we focus on, how we manage our attention, how we choose to spend our time, what we do and say around other people. This observation sounds like a truism, but as a professor of mine once said, the thing about truisms is that they’re true.


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