<<< the inevitability factor


iPad ad >>>

Slacking off

Tuesday,  05/07/24  09:20 AM

Way back in the dawn of time - early 2003! - after I had just started blogging, I wrote a post called The Tyranny of Email.  In those early days of the blogosphere it achieved virality*, and was Slashdotted etc.  The central theme was that doing engineering requires concentration, and that it is important to set aside biggish blocks of uninterrupted time in order to be productive.  This is as true today as it was then, and likely always will be.

* as in "popular", not as in truly viral

In that post I enumerated some possible sources of interruption: meetings, colleagues, phone calls (remember them?), text messages, pages (OMG, remember them?), and of course emails.  I briefly mentioned IM as a text message analogue; back then, we had ICQ, AIM, MSN Messenger, and a host of others.  The observation about email was that it was fundamentally a queued communication channel; unlike, say, phone calls, it isn't necessary for the sender and receiver to be paying attention at the same time.  So it is okay to ignore it for a while, work (/concentrate), then stop working and check it.  And in fact not only okay, but highly preferred.

So fast forward to 2024; we have a lot of interesting tools now, and one of them is Slack.  If you've been living in the hills for a while, you might not know; Slack is a sort of unholy combination of email and messaging.  I'm not a fan, and I'll tell you why, but it is a fact that most tech businesses today use Slack (or Teams or some other Slack-like tool) and so you will be using it also.

A brief digression before I get to my actual point: why don't I like Slack?  Let me count the ways. 

  1. It combines email (longer queued communication) with messaging (shorter direct interrupts) and so it's hard to ignore for a while.  It enforces the tyranny. 
  2. Communication is grouped into channels with a specific distribution; if you want to add someone to a conversation, you have to add them to the channel and they can see everything in it; conversely, to remove someone from a conversation you have to start a new channel.
  3. Slack has "replies", which are direct responses that don't go to everyone in a channel, unless they do; these are displayed separately from other posts in a channel.
  4. If you want to see all your communication with someone, you have to look through a bunch of channels.  And replies.
  5. Content posted into Slack is difficult to find later, so it doesn't make a good repository.  Also many organizations "age off" old Slack posts so you lose history.
  6. While most people in an organization will have access to their Slack, most people outside will not, so you still end up using email and text messaging.  If you email a customer CC:ing colleagues, you'll have communication with those colleagues in email as well as in Slack, and they won't be together.
  7. If you work with several organizations, each of which have separate Slacks, you will end up checking several Slacks for messages, as well as still checking your email, so now you have a bunch of places to check instead of one.
  8. In fact, you have to switch to each Slack, check all the channels, check all the DMs, and check all the replies.  Blech.
  9. Slack presents alerts like text messaging; when you get an alert, you don't know if it's immediate ("the meeting was moved to 10:30") or a picture of someone's cat in #random.
  10. Worst of all, people on Slack expect you to reply quickly to their message-like direct messages, but looking for them requires you to filch through all the email-like channels.  It's a huge time sink.

I think people like Slack because it feels like they're getting stuff done when actually they're only reading posts.  "I cleared all my Slack! so I can have lunch now", yay.  But no, sorry, you're not getting stuff done, you're distracting yourself from real work by doing the fake work of fielding inbound messages from your colleagues.  </rant>

Okay, glad I got that off my chest, let me now get the point.  (Wait, did I have one? ... one of the worst things about Slack is that you go in there to do something, get distracted by something else, and forget why you were even there at all ...)  Oh yeah.  Picking a category.

Slack channels are either groupings of people (me, Sally, Rashil, Min Ho) or subjects (#eng-team, #marketing).  Say I have something to say.  I now have to decide where to say it.  This is an interesting concept, I must coerce my thing-to-say into the places-to-say-things.  Picking a category is difficult, what if I have a diversity of things-to-say?  Do I spread them around into different channels with the same people?  Or put them in one place even though that creates a mismatch?  For example, what if I want to share a link about another organization with Sally, Rashil, and Min Ho, and it pertains to #eng-team and #marketing?  (As well, will I make the same decision as someone else with a similar choice, or will the info end up splattered all over?)

This same difficulty comes up with email, but on the receiving side (which folder should I move this into) instead of on the sending side (which channel should I post this into).  I solve this by unasking the question; I never categorize email, I just read it and delete it, save all my deleted emails, and then use search to find stuff.  But that's my decision, which I can implement as the receiver.  Others who receive the same email might do a different thing, and store emails into folders, or even copy emails to store them into multiple folders.  Categorzing on the sending side is different, I must decide, and having done it everyone else has to abide by my decision.  (You can re-post a received post into another channel, but then that affects everyone in that channel; it's not really an analogue to folders.) 

Any friction on communication is bad, and having to chose among channels is friction.  Fortunately blog posting is not like that, I can randomly rove all over, pick any subject I want, and click Post...