Disclaimer: I own slack stock.

Slack, by not taking responsibility for being a feed, is doubling down on being a spam channel.

This has worked out so far because at work, you can be punished for missing communications. In other words, realtime spammy channels win against async signal-y channels when decision-makers prioritize responsiveness over all other factors.

Putting ‘unmissable stuff’ (as defined by your boss) onto a spam channel makes spam unmissable too.

Social media has embraced the feed model but isn’t as spammy as Slack because you’re allowed to miss things. Also, social media is optional and people still use it, which probably means that it delivers a bunch of user value. There are counter-arguments to this: (1) that it’s not optional because of what you miss by being off it. (2) it’s addictive, an argument lampooned by this offline friend addiction article.

Slack adoption can be modeled as addiction too: it hijacks an organization’s manager-weighted reward system. I get feedback that ‘Slack is safe if your team is disciplined’. Okay, so is heroin.

My point: Slack looks and feels like social media without providing most of the user value. There’s a hole in the market for tools that separate reachability and social information features at work.

Social media is relevant and missable

Social media content is not just personalized but actually personal in that it comes from people you know, which in turn means mostly relevant.

Relevance is increased by your ability to curate your connectivity. Slack’s version of curated connectivity is that someone adds me to a channel and it sends a group message when I leave the channel so I am motivated by shame to mute instead, which means I’m stuck with the channel in my channel navbar.

Social media is also missable, in that nobody knocks at your door or fires you if you ignore it for 8 hours or even 8 days. It can be dosed. Balancing this missability is stickiness, i.e. popular information stays around or returns or gets written about a different way later.

Social media is a form of ‘personal distribution’ that lets me inform others and stay informed, whether it’s about the birth of a new baby or someone launched a company or published a paper, or just read something interesting.

It lets me ask questions and ask for other kinds of help. It lets me respond & react to things, so I can do informal polling / mobbing which can eventually lead to IRL action.

It lets me increase my Dunbar’s number (number of people you can ‘know at once’) in low-touch ways.

Spam is irrelevant and hard to ignore

For me, neverending family group texts that begin with someone finding a photo in an old album and notify randomly at night are pure spam. If muting these makes me a psychopath, so be it. Texting is for timely & emergency communication (I tell everyone) (and am universally ignored). We live in a society.

My point is that the definition of spam is different for everyone.

What would a Slack spam filter look like? People are already ‘in network’ if they’re reaching out to you. I get relatively few inheritance scams on slack compared to, say, my gmail spam folder.

But Slack, by virtue of loud alerting, creates a new category of spam: ‘not urgent’ (vs normal spam which is ‘not at all relevant’). Messages, forcible addition of person to channel, @user, @here, channels, and users all have potential spam weights. ‘Your @s are never urgent so the system isn’t notifying people’ would be useful feedback, but Slack will never add it. Don’t cry wolf.

‘This would be valuable at the end of the day but is coming in the middle of a conversation’ is a spam category. Either because I’m busy in a private channel, or I’m having a slow convo in a public channel and the interrupter doesn’t have the tact to scroll up. It’s like how as a child at family dinner I waited for someone to pause for breath then interjected my thing.

We dis FB for engagement at the cost of user welfare. For Slack, disengagement from other communication channels is the winning formula. The pure-spam pipe paradoxically reduces the relevance of the part-spam pipe (email) we had before. Spam ruins your appetite for slow, nutritious information.

Slack thinks their main features are notifications and @ing. I think it’s granular control of subscriptions (what I hear) and interruptibility (when I hear it). But we’re agreed that emoji replies are cool.

If it doesn’t spark joy get rid of it

I think at least some of Slack’s penetration is because it feels like social media. By doubling down on actual social media features they could create actual user value, instead of the junkie short-term high their product provides at present.

We’re in the information economy now. Especially at large companies, you need to be informed and convinced about things all the time so you can work within the company’s strategy(ies). And you need to find collaborators, and meet new people over time. But you also need to hunker down and do your own work, vs engaging in non-stop costly communication.

Non-missable spam channels obstruct all this.

You also need to like what you’re doing. The reason I write so much about Slack is that it makes me hate my job(s) and it makes me bad at them.

Let’s move ‘staying informed and connected’ to a platform that doesn’t ruin our days, move reachability to a platform more like pagerduty that has urgency, escalation and backpressure, and give up the idea that a spam pipe achieves any real goals.