Slack me maybe

I’ve used Slack a little bit over a span of a few weeks. That’s enough for me to know a few things about it I like and don’t, which may help you decide if you want to try it or help you think about how you might use it.

Here’s where I’d describe Slack, but I’m too lazy. Go watch the video. If you’re too lazy to do that, then think of Slack as a kind of substitute for email.

That makes this question the best place to start: What’s wrong with email?

Nothing or everything, depending on your preferences and how you use it. I like email. A lot. But there are several ways it doesn’t play nice with how I (and maybe you) think or live:

  1. Most emails are too long for several reasons. There’s no binding constraint on length. Contrast that to Twitter’s 140 characters per tweet. By email, it’s convention to write more than a few sentences,* perhaps for legacy reasons. (Back in the day, email came to be seen as a replacement to letters and memos.) People don’t self-impose the hard discipline of brevity.*
  2. Email demands a lot of mental overhead: opening messages, confronting different fonts, parsing who is saying what or finding the updates in a long thread, visually jumping over signature info you don’t need—these small cognitive taxes add up.
  3. Filing, tagging, de-attaching are all annoying, time consuming chores, as is finding old emails and their attachments. You know what I mean.
  4. We use email as a to do list, which makes a mess of our inboxes.
  5. Reply all.

For all that, I’m not abandoning email, in part because most of the world runs on it and very little of the world is on Slack (network externalities). I have to use email a lot anyway. But I also like it. It’s easy to create, on the fly, a custom conversation, dedicated to a new topic and including just the people I want included. In this sense, it’s as private as I want it to be (ignoring NSA/hacking/forwarding issues). I’m not broadcasting my thoughts to more people than I care to, and hearing back from people I don’t wan’t to hear from. (See Twitter.)

Google has a nice fix for the to do problem (number 4). It has a nice fix for the “get me out of this reply all madness” problem (number 5). In many ways, email is not bad, which is not to say it’s perfect.

That’s where Slack comes in. It addresses reasonably well at least problems 1-3. It offers Twitter-like efficient scanability, though without Twitter’s length constraint. The norm (such as I’ve seen it) is to write tersely. You don’t have to open each message. There are handles and no signatures making it quick and easy to see who wrote what. Various files and links relevant to a thread are all collected in one place and in the cloud. (You can, in fact, get that last benefit and largely integrated with email using Basecamp, or something like it.)

Slack is fine, so long as you keep up with it. I don’t. It can be too social when I don’t want it to be, like Twitter. To consume the wisdom of your network on Twitter (or the Slack equivalent: invitees to a particular channel) you also have to weed through (or enjoy!) its other content. That’s not good or bad. It just is. I share both health policy and photos from my commute on Twitter, for example. Social media is social to a greater extent than email. If you’re like me, sometimes you’re into it. Sometimes you’re not.

Here’s where I’d lower the hammer on Slack, identifying its fatal flaw, or where I’d deliver the triumphant “the solution to all your communication problems has arrived” BS. That’s not how it is. Slack is good the way Twitter is good, the way email is good, the way blogs are good, the way Facebook is good, the way phone calls are good, the way meeting someone in person is good. It’s an incomplete goodness along with some stuff that doesn’t always work for you.

So, Slack? Maybe.

* What’s wrong with people!? Concision. Word. (Your mileage may vary.)


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