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Mossberg: How to make Slack better

The workplace chat service is simultaneously loved and hated.


Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.

Not long ago, discussions of the modern workplace were colored by complaints about the tyranny of email. Employees, especially in office jobs, felt compelled to constantly monitor their work email accounts, even at nights and on weekends. Giant email chains were used to clumsily discuss vital work issues. Workers got roped into things they didn’t need to care about via reply-all or company-wide emails.

Then along came Slack, a new approach to internal communications based on the idea of the chat room. Slack spread through businesses like wildfire, initially in the tech and media sectors, but now much more widely. At its public launch in February of 2014, it had 17,000 users. As of April 1, 2016, that number had rocketed to 2.7 million daily active users. Though it has plenty of competitors, Slack claims to be the "fastest growing business application in history."

Slack users I know, including me, love many things about the service. As the company likes to brag, it’s fast, it’s transparent, it’s great for brainstorming.

But these users also have gripes. Many complain, for instance, that it can take over your life. And many have ideas for how to make it better. So here are a few ways to improve Slack, garnered from my own experience and from that of some of my colleagues at Vox Media, publisher of this website, which runs on Slack.

Some background

For those still outside the cult of Slack, it’s a service — available as a desktop app, mobile app or website — which is essentially a series of public chat rooms, called channels, on topics relevant to a company or to teams within a company. Companies or teams can also set up private, invitation-only channels or conduct private, one-to-one or group messaging sessions.

Slack also lets you upload and store files. And it allows integration with popular outside services, like Google Drive, Skype, Trello and hundreds more. It’s sort of like a combination of Facebook, Twitter, iMessage and Dropbox, but just for you and your co-workers.

For instance, at any given moment, a Slack user might be engaging in her company’s HR channel, her department’s channel for a particular project, a two-person chat with a colleague and a group chat with a small team working together on something.

Vox Media relies on Slack for all of its websites, including the Verge and Re/code, and for all of its other departments. I use it many times a day, and there are lots of things about Slack I love. It’s immediate, fluid, open and — at least in our case — seems to have a channel for everything, from a channel for planning tech reviews on the Verge to a channel for recommending places to eat around our office in D.C.

These qualities don’t attract just me. Nearly every Slack user I’ve talked to about the service cites these as positives.

Resistance is futile

But users, including me, also have some serious gripes about Slack, primarily around a supreme irony: While it has replaced the tyranny of email for many, it has unleashed a chaotic tyranny of its own. Posts and their responses pour in so fast that even being away from Slack for a couple of hours can leave you feeling hopelessly behind. You’re constantly tempted to converse on Slack instead of thinking or planning or doing other work. And for new employees, just untangling the cacophony of voices on Slack can be confusing and disheartening.

Another irony: Because of the sea of talk and the fact that everything in a standard channel is open to all, more and more people are resorting to private, closed discussions, even while using Slack. The company says that in its early days, about 70 percent of its usage was in public channels. Now, 70 percent is in direct-messaging sessions or private channels.

And the company knows this is a problem. In an interview for this column, Slack’s smart and genial CEO, Stewart Butterfield, conceded that "we’ve created a new problem, because people feel overloaded."

He adds: "We are conscious that we need a lot more nuance and ways to restrict the fire hose, to give people more control over how the information flows so they can restrict it to what they need. … We need better ways for people to catch up."

Improvement #1: Threading

Almost every single colleague with whom I spoke put threading of Slack posts at or near the top of their lists of desired features. Why? Well, today, a Slack interchange is kind of like conversing in an AOL chat room from the 1990s. You’ll be discussing topic A with a person or a few people, when somebody else suddenly introduces a totally unrelated topic B, and a third introduces topic C. Attention keeps shifting among them, and none comes to a logical resolution as quickly as it might.

With threading, just like threading in email, it would be easier to follow a conversation around a particular topic, to add to it, and to close it out and move on — even if somebody were diverted momentarily to topic C.

Again, the company knows people want threading and is planning to add it to Slack — hopefully, it says, in the next quarter. Butterfield says Slack has been using threading internally for months now, adopting and discarding beta versions in search of a solution that will cut down the chaos without overly impeding the fast, free flow of discussion.

Improvement #2: Better search and discovery

Slack has a search function, but it’s not great and it’s not complete. Again and again, people mentioned that they couldn’t find a conversation from months ago. I have the same problem. Also, search doesn’t cover the vast number of direct-messaging conversations.

Butterfield repeatedly acknowledged that search in Slack could be better (though he did point out that there’s a keyboard command, Cmd/Ctrl-Shift-K, that will expose all your direct message conversations). He said that the company recently opened an office to work on advanced search and artificial intelligence functions. Meanwhile, he said, Slack is hoping to offer up Google-like search suggestions that might be relevant to users.

An opposite problem: Some people worry that Slack’s archives in the cloud, including private messages, aren’t fully end-to-end encrypted in a way that even Slack can’t decrypt. The company says administrators at client companies can set policies on how long such messages are retained.

Improvement #3: Stop bothering me

Slack notifies you when certain words are typed by anyone, such as your name, or "highlight" terms of your own choice. But such notifications can interrupt other work or family activities. People want more control over these interruptions.

Slack does let you snooze or disable notifications of posts directly involving you for various time periods. And you can set your status to "away." But that’s not nearly nuanced enough for many people who are trying to fight off the torrent of posts. People even change their names to indicate that they’re out of the office, because Slack lacks this basic function so familiar from email.

Among the suggestions I received were that users be able to shut off just certain channels, or set "channel office hours" or, for large channels, disable the two Slack functions that notify everyone (or nearly everyone) who belongs to the channel to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to a post.

Is it really better than email?

Notice that all of these ideas boil down to tools that would organize and limit the very thing that sets Slack apart: An open, free-form method of communication superior to slow, formal, clunky email.

That problem is even worse at some companies that use multiple, entirely separate Slacks. One company Butterfield cited to me had 50 Slacks. So Slack is working on a new "enterprise" version that would allow some degree of cross-posting and cross-messaging among these islands.

Not only has Slack not replaced email, email is still used internally, and certainly to communicate externally, at least at my company, from making company-wide announcements to discussing projects. People also still use services like Facebook Messenger or Apple’s iMessage or GroupMe. Butterfield concedes that he himself still spends a lot of his time on email.

So, how is Slack better than email, I asked him? After all, it still exhibits the same fear of missing out and threat to work / life balance that people complained about with email. It has certainly cut down on email, but it hasn’t eliminated it. He said, "Every successive technology has that same adjustment period," citing similar gripes that the BlackBerry would ruin work and family life.

The problem, he contends, is a kind of "cognitive diabetes" that goes well beyond Slack to many Internet-based services. Just as diabetics can get swamped with too much glucose for lack of natural insulin, he suggests, users of digital services can get swamped with too much data for lack of a natural way to process it.

Maybe. But, as cool and modern and genuinely useful as Slack is, if we have digital diabetes, Slack needs to come up with some digital insulin. Soon.

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