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Why You Hate Slack

Are you feeling overwhelmed by Slack? Do you spend your work day constantly distracted by a barrage of notifications? Do you work in a fog that makes you fear some important piece of information has faded out of focus and is lost in the feed?

Well, you're most likely suffering from Slack fatigue. And you're not alone - according to this New Yorker article, employees are interrupted by Slack notifications once every five minutes. No wonder we fell like we can't get work done at work.

Slack, when left unmanaged, can be a huge deterrent to our team's overall efficiency. However, the pain Slack presents is not new. It is merely the symptom of poor communications practices that have plagued knowledge workers for decades.

In fact, we've seen Slack fatigue before - it was just called...

Email overload.

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, email was the hot new medium for transferring information. It was designed to be a replacement for much slower and more ephemeral technologies like fax machines, voicemails, and sticky notes. But email made asynchronous, subject based messaging almost too fast, easy and cheap.

By the late 2000s, people were overwhelmed with email. And with the first Blackberries and early smart phones coming onto the scene, this never-ceasing swath of messages became inescapable. By 2010, it was reported that 38% of knowledge workers were experiencing some kind of "email overload".

Joanne Cantor - previously the director at the Center for Communication Research at University of Wisconsin–Madison - said of email at that time:

All of this new technology, which gives us wonderful advantages...comes with real challenges...When you're constantly being interrupted, your brain is not operating at its full capacity.

This is exactly the same sentiment people are espousing about Slack today. Slack was designed to solve problems of email, but seems to have actually made them worse. For centuries, we've been obsessed with the speed that information can travel. But it feels like Osmo Wiio - a prolific 20th century economist and communications philosopher - was right when he said,

The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.

Marshall McLuhann's theory, "The medium is the message", asks us to examine how the ways we transfer information change our society and even rewire the ways that we think.

So, with that in mind, let's think critically for a second about how our organizations change when...

The medium is the (instant) message.

Real-time, always-on communications tools are great for fostering social cultures and creating a sense of belonging - even across great distances. There is no way I'd be as in-touch with my friends without group-chat apps like Messenger.

However, when used as our primary means of sending and storing knowledge, these tools create dramatically negative consequences to our organizational communication.

For example, tools like Slack force us to be...

Constrained by conversation.

Let's think about how the design of the message composer in an app like Slack changes the ways we share information:

Screen Shot 2022-09-12 at 1.32.13 PM.png

Notice how the text box is small and displays space for only a single line of text. This encourages us to send short, one line messages to the coconspirators in our channels.

Now, I appreciate striving to be succinct and brief. But I'd argue that it's nearly impossible to craft a message about a complex issue that provides clarity and context in 100 characters. This perceived constraint combined with how easy it is to click "Send" creates an optimization for speed and speed alone.

In Slack, sharing is fast, but the medium makes what is shared shallow and short-sighted. And if we think of our organizations constitutively - as a product of what and how we communicate - that means we're fostering organizations that operate one line at a time.

And although those lines are "in order"...

In order becomes disorder in time.

Imagine if your local library organized books solely by the date they were published. It would be extremely difficult for you to find all of the books related to a single subject. And even if you could search books by subject, it would still take you a long time to comb through the shelves and sift through all the books about "dinosaurs".

Well, now imagine that the library also removed the bindings off of the books and stacked the individual pages together on the shelves - leaving you with no way of visualizing where one book began and the other ended. And now, your search query returns all of the pages in the entire library that contain the word "dinosaurs".

That's what Slack is like. It is the worst library in the world.

The medium is organized around what's current. Channels are containers for conversations, and each channel is a linear series of messages with the latest 5-7 displayed on screen. It's impossible to discern where one conversation begins and another ends.

The content of each individual message is also almost always disconnected from its context. This makes search completely unreliable. There is no confidence that all of the messages relevant to the query are returned - only that the messages containing the query are.

Information that isn't clarified and documented outside of a message is then more than likely lost. If we have no single source of truth, we're operating without a shared reality. This is a frequent cause of team misalignment, knowledge silos, slow onboarding, and a dependence on individual memory over institutional memory.

I will say, the problem of knowledge management is far worse with email due to the fact that emails are an "Invite to inform" system instead of an "Informed by default" system like Slack.

However, the sheer amount of information we are informed about by default within the medium of instant messaging does present further challenges. With Slack we're...

Always on and always behind.

Instant messaging demands that our attention be on the instant. The tat-tat-tat across our screens screams, "Look at this right now!". A lot has been written about the mental fatigue this constant state of distraction creates. However, the ASAP culture that follows these behaviors presents equally deceptive dangers.

Patrick Lencioni - the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - said, "If everything is important, than nothing is". And yet, no matter the urgency of their content, all messages in this medium come in with the same level of priority. And each one of them demands immediate resolution; because if it ends up being pushed off screen, it is more than likely forgotten, lost or never read at all.

Rather than questioning the validity of its design, we adapt our behavior to meet the medium. We keep our chats always on in the background. As a new message comes in, we treat them like an instant priority and send quick, off-the-cuff replies rather than slowing down and taking the time to strategize. We make sometimes careless decisions just so that we can get back to the task at hand.

Now, of course, we could opt-out and turn it off. But then, we might miss out on something that's actually of importance or risk not having a say. Slack is - after all - "where work happens".

Screen Shot 2022-09-15 at 9.29.32 AM.png

Communications technologies like Slack encourage us to always think fast. But Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow talks about how working this way almost ensures that we make completely avoidable errors that might be detrimental to us, our organizations, and our customers.

We can't run our organizations or live our lives always on edge. We need time to breathe, think deeply, take stock of all the information at our disposal, and then come to a fully informed decision. This quote by Kahneman says it all:

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.

I know this section has probably felt like me just complaining about Slack, but that is not the point. This all just to say that for great organizational communication...

The solution isn't speed.

I think this line from Cal Newport's article Slack Is The Right Tool For The Wrong Way To Work sums up the problems with synchronous messaging tools like Slack really well:

The future of office work won’t be found in continuing to reduce the friction involved in messaging but, instead, in figuring out how to avoid the need to send so many messages in the first place.

Communication is more than conversation.

Fostering great organizational communication is about knowledge management more than message management. You won't see a huge benefit from merely changing the schema of your Slack channels. However, what will take your team's communication to the next level is a cultural focus on writing.

There are tons of tools and techniques that I'll be sharing in the future on building a writing culture - so be sure to follow me on Twitter to see when those come out. For now, I'll leave you with 3 quick recommendations.

Write a memo - then a message.

If you're trying to share some piece of information - be it a problem, a decision, or an idea - consider writing your thoughts in a document before sending out a message. Writing things down forces you to clarify your thinking and provide context to your audience in ways that messaging doesn't.

Write-ups and memos are complete, self-contained stories that better communicate your ideas while also serving as a documented source of information for future use. To see an example of how a single written document can have multiple uses, see my article about Rubber Ducking Docs.

Think in threads.

Contextless chatter in channels causes ideas to slip through the cracks. Threaded, forum based discussion is a battle tested way of quelling this chaos. Instead of each message being disconnected from its context, each one contributes to the conversation while maintaining cohesion.

To really feel the full power of forums, I recommend using a dedicated discussion board tool like Discourse, Twist, or Threads. Creating, connecting, and curating conversations is just so much easier in tools like these.

Slack does support threaded messaging. However, they live subservient to the messaging model, and the visual indication for a thread is just a small line of text bellow the initial message. So, it's not the most useful implementation of threaded discussion.

Get on the same page.

Start working collaboratively with your team on building better processes for knowledge management. This could include starting a team wiki with a tool like Slab or Notion or using any collaborative documentation tool to create a single source of truth for a team project.

Megan Yen, the VP of Business and Revenue at Ramp is hyper vigilant about ensuring teams consistently collaborate on documenting their work in the team's knowledge base. One rule Ramp has that I find fascinating is that ideas are not discussed until they are written down. They believe that writing is, "a good forcing function for people to think critically about...what they're trying to convey".

A final quote I love from Megan that I read in this recent article about Ramp's writing culture is this:

Without documentation, knowledge sharing would be...like a game of telephone...In a startup, if you don't write things down, you won't remember.

Writing helps your team move farther faster by forcing you to take the time to ensure you aren't just working in circles. If people can read it, there's no need to repeat it.

When to use instant messaging.

There are clearly benefits to chat apps like Slack. In a remote work environment, having a tool that makes teams feel an instant connection to each other throughout the day is essential. Being able to build social bonds, share pictures of pets and feel a sense of togetherness is invaluable.

I want to be clear that this article is not to say that instant messaging apps have no place in the workplace. My only point is that we should examine how the mediums we use to share information affect the ways we run our businesses.

And there's a reason I silence my group-chats with friends while I'm writing articles like these 😉.

Write to me!

I love discussing ideas related to knowledge management and organizational communication. So, if you have thoughts on this article or any of the topics I mentioned, please DM me on Twitter.

Drew Lyton
Drew Lyton
Friday, September 16, 2022

I'm a software engineer, ex-founder and writer who cares deeply about creating a better relationship between technology and society. I'm currently writing a book about early stage entrepreneurship.


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