Slack doesn't kill email
it's just text in a different box

Sign saying Every Employee Must Clock In And Out

This is a little rant about communication, heavily disguised as a rant about Slack. But it’s not really a rant about Slack.

First, some numbers:

Right now, I am a member of 7 different Slack teams. I’ve got outstanding invites to 2 more teams that I’ve not responded to.

The team I spend most time in has just 10 channels. The others have 121, 44, 10, 4, 3 and 2 channels. A total of 194 channels.

Of course I don’t keep track of all of them, and subscribe to only a fraction - 27 channels across all 7 teams. And I only keep a close eye on 16 of those.

But: that’s 16 channels that I feel compelled to read. Even if I’ve not been mentioned, even if none of my highlight words have cropped up anywhere. It’s quite likely that something could be said in one of those channels that I will find interesting or useful - but equally likely that I won’t be mentioned by name when that happens, because why on earth would anyone do that?

This is no less overwhelming than email

Everybody goes on about how Slack frees us from the tedium of email, and I can see how that works in some circumstances. Since the small team I work closely with started using Slack, the amount of email we send has greatly reduced, and that’s a good thing.

But my experience of multiple Slack teams and channels is that it’s no less overwhelming than an inbox full of email. The two experiences - one of opening email and seeing a list of messages, and the other of opening Slack and seeing a list of unread channels - are exactly the same.

What’s more, the old criticism of email – that it’s a todo list other people have control of – still applies inside Slack. People are still sending me things to do inside it. They’re just typing those messages into a different box.

Yes, I can simply click “Mark as read” in each channel and move on, but I could do the same with my inbox too. In both cases, you don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve actually done the work and read the words.

Maybe I’m the problem. Maybe I’m weird because I still feel this compulsion to read channels. Maybe most people don’t worry about this stuff, and depend on people summoning them to channels with deliberate @-mentions when needed. I don’t know.

I’m not saying that I hate Slack. (I like it, it’s useful.)

I’m not saying that we should all jump back to using email for everything.

But I am saying that Slack (or any other chat-based interface) can be just as much work as email ever was, and consequently doesn’t feel as liberating as some people would argue it is.

I don’t have any answers, and I’m not going to stop using Slack or email. Both are useful. I just wanted make the point: for me, using Slack might have fractionally lessened the amount of email I have to read, but it hasn’t lessened the amount of text-on-screens that I have to read. If anything, that’s increased. So it doesn’t feel like a problem has been solved - it’s just moved to a different app.

Filed under: computers
(20th November 2015)