After writing a series of posts on various email clients, it should be clear that I’m still an email user. But I am doing my best to move as much communication from email to Slack as possible. I like to have as few “systems of record” and “official communication channels” as possible, and when I can, I’m making Slack my preferred one. Why do I want to do this? How is Slack better than email? There are actually a few fundamental differences; it’s not just the same distraction in a new place.
The way I see it, Slack approaches communication from a completely different perspective than email. In the world of email, work was defined as documents and files, and there was communication “about” the work. Slack makes communication central, defining work as communication, and there are files and documents “about” the communication.
In other words, the communication and the work is the anchor of the design. Not the documents and files.
Think about how you do things with email. Say you’re working on a spreadsheet, and imagine for a second you’re in pre-Google-Docs days. How do you “collaborate,” or work together with, someone else on that spreadsheet? You email it to them. The communication (the email) is just a means of getting the document from one place to another. I lived this myself not so long ago, when Sharepoint and shared folders and email were the way to work. Millions of people have learned to work that way and find it hard to unlearn.
In Slack, the communication is central, and the documents are organized around the communication. Communication is the hub, everything else is spokes. It’s completely inside-out versus the email-centric culture, where email was organized around the documents and people. This is a much better model for knowledge work. It places the work, and the knowledge, and the collaboration, foremost in the tooling. The documents are just an outcome, as they should be.
There are other “project management” tools, too, like Trello, Asana, and so on. But they’re also work-centric, with a central design of project-as-hub, people-as-spokes, communication organized around the work. Slack is the reverse and it’s very powerful.
In a way, it’s similar to the design of the Go programming language, which has a “channel” design concept. In Go, you share memory by communicating (through channels); in most programming languages like C you communicate by sharing memory, which has a much higher cognitive burden. Go’s design leads to simpler, more powerful, more comprehensible programs that are a better fit for human cognitive processes. At the risk of overloading the metaphor, Slack also shares work by communicating, rather than communicating by sharing work.
Not Just Old Chat in a New Skin
Slack is different from chat, too. At first I didn’t understand how or why. We used HipChat first, and then Slack launched and people said it was better, and I saw no reason to switch. One chat app is as good as another, I thought. I’d been using IRC-like chat for decades and saw nothing new.
When HipChat announced they were shutting down and we migrated to Slack, I found out what I’d been missing. HipChat was a modern take on IRC, but just like IRC, it’s just an instantaneous way to be distracted in realtime by lots of people. Slack actually integrates the work and the artifacts of work deeply into the fabric of the tooling in a way that’s difficult to explain, but easy to grasp once you experience it.
Slack Is Topic-Centric
Before Slack, I used Google Groups extensively. I really try to avoid 1:1 or N:M communication threads that don’t exist outside of their recipients. If an important exchange is happening, ask yourself, would this be lost to history if all of these email accounts were deleted? If the answer is yes, it should be moved into a group that has an independent existence, outside of the people participating. Google Groups used to serve that function for me; the archives made it possible for people to find and use conversations that pre- and post-date their participation, decoupling the conversation from the participants. It’s a good thing, but Google Groups are clunky to use, whereas Slack channels are lightweight enough to be created and archived as rapidly as needed. And Google Groups are burdensome to join and leave, but Slack channels make that a breeze. It turns out that Slack is what I always wanted email groups to be.
Slack is possible to misuse, just like any powerful tool. There are complaints about “I used to have one inbox, now I have 100 to check.” In my experience no tool can make communication easy at scale because communication is hard, but a lot of those problems can probably be made worse by mistaken organizational principles, such as organizing Slack around teams instead of topics. It’s not always a mistake, but “a channel is a topic” is probably the right model 95% of the time.
You can also create “direct message” chats between two or more people. These have all the same problems of 1:1 or N:M emails, and I avoid them. They also have annoying technical consequences—direct messages circumvent my notification settings. Things aren’t always perfect, but with patient education, you and your colleagues can develop a Slack-friendly, respectful communication culture.
Email’s Technical Baggage
Email also has technical limitations. Many an email user or vendor has tried to overcome these, but it’s impossible; it’s just architected that way. Witness the perennial problems with things like “I replied to the whole group but I meant to reply only to you,” or that big thread with lots of recipients you can’t get out of. Those are design flaws you can’t fix with email.
In email, there’s really only one concept: a message. Everything you might want to do with communication has to be retrofitted into a message somehow. Slack doesn’t have that limitation, so for example there are “reactions,” aptly named. No need to send a message to indicate your viewpoint on a message.
Spark tries to reimagine email, as others have done at times too, but I’m not sure it’ll work. Slack has a chance to have a fresh start. And by inventing communication in a way that I think is fundamentally better, there’s a chance to fix many past mistakes. I haven’t gotten Slack-spam yet, but I get email-spam constantly.
And I’m excited for Slack’s future, because Slack’s potential is enormous. When I look at the products I use most, they’re all communication tools. I use 6-10 different communication tools every day even though I try to limit them. Most people probably use many, many more.
Communication is most of my work (again, because I work in the knowledge economy). I basically switch between communication tools and occasionally into a note-taking or document-creating app. Slack is the first major improvement in communication tools I’ve seen in my life. And I’m really glad I finally got to know and appreciate Slack.