First of all – I don’t hate everything about Slack. In fact – in a lot of ways Slack is really excellent.
Slack is the first instant messaging software that actually works the way you’d expect an instant messaging client to work. Having used different instant messaging tools for the last 15 years – Slack takes the cake in a lot of ways.
Here’s what Slack does well:
- Every message is archived and searchable (and the archive is reliable, a huge problem with other messaging clients)
- Support across desktop, mobile, tablet, etc. in a seamless, intuitive way
- Quick and easy file transfers
- Lots of emoji’s and other fun goodies (like a nifty tool that lets you set reminders)
As an IM tool – Slack is actually very good: far and away the best choice for person-to-person communication.
Now – here’s what I don’t like.
Slack’s aspiration and mission as a company isn’t just to be an instant messaging client – they actually proclaim that they’re making teams more productive by reducing the amount of email that team members send to each other.
In short: “Less email. More productive.”
The theory is that employees will send shorter, quicker messages to each other, spend less time on email and therefore be more productive. The primary product feature that supports this theory is the “Slack channel”. Channels are basically chat rooms that can be made public or private. You can create a Slack channel very easily and invite whomever you want. A self-actualized Slack user may participate in anywhere from a handful and a few dozen Slack channels at any given time. The channels are arrayed along the left rail of messenger UI, just like contacts, and alert you whenever new messages are received.
At first, Slack channels seem awesome. Again – they work just as you’d expect and solve many of the bugs that legacy messenger clients suffered in the past. However soon, after using the tool for several months, you find that the number of channels that get created continues to expand endlessly. Each team has a channel, each project has a channel, major clients have dedicated channels, sometimes folks make channels to facilitate communication across teams, amongst sub-teams, etc. – soon you’re looking at 38 channels all lighting up like a Christmas tree whenever new messages are sent.
Sure- Slack may be replacing emails that would otherwise be sent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the reduction of email is resulting in more efficient messaging.
Let’s look closer at the Slack channel as replacement for email.
Emails, by nature, are ephemeral. They are purpose-created to go to specific participants and dissolve naturally if no one replies or continues the thread. Further, it’s easy (and often appreciated) to remove people from an email chain and continue the chain with a subset of the group.
Slack channels, by nature, are permanent and persistent. They are created once (with very little effort) and live on forever. All messages in the channel are broadcast to every member of the team and every team member has to read every message in the channel in order to decipher if there has been any relevant information shared. For most channel participants this will mean lots of noise, very little signal. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that some people spend as much, if not more time than they spent on email, sifting through slack channels trying to figure out what’s going on.
Trying to have a side-bar conversation inside a slack channel about a specific topic? Or worse – two different groups inside the same channel having two different discussions? You’re largely out of luck. Unlike email – there is no threading inside Slack channels which means that each member of the channel will have to read each and every message in chronological order and try to piece together what’s going on.
One of your team members having a little fun and posting some pictures in the channel? Two team members having a good spirited argument that rabbit-holes into irrelevance? Great – now the entire channel has to read through every irrelevant message in order to figure out if they missed anything important and track when the relevant conversation will begin again.
In the world of email, far and away the messages that everyone hates the most are those giant “reply-all” email chains that ricochet around the company with everyone adding their two cents on an irrelevant topic. In some ways, a slack channel is exactly that – a giant reply-all chain that can easily get out of control.
Net-net: I’m all for using slack as an instant messaging client (and one that works really well!) – I just don’t think it will be replacing email anytime soon as the most effective group messaging solution.