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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Slack Now Lets You DM Anyone. So Long, Work-Life Balance

Back in October 2020, Slack, which has made virtual chats with your coworkers so sticky that Salesforce has bid $27.7 billion to acquire it, announced a bold move. A new feature would soon let anyone from outside your company send you a Slack DM (that’s a direct message). The feature, called Slack Connect, has been slowly rolling out to some of Slack’s business clients over the past few months. Today, the DM eagle has landed.

The internet, and by the internet I mean Twitter, and by Twitter I mean Media Twitter, has strong feelings about this feature. Which is to say: They hate it. Or, at least, they hate the idea of it; not everyone has been able to use the feature yet. Those who have been able to try Slack Connect have already pointed out a significant security flaw. Slack is now scrambling to fix this, but in the interim it’s worth asking what utility Slack Connect actually offers.

In order to understand the knee-jerk reactions to cross-organizational DMs, one must first know a bit about how intra-office Slack works. Slack’s origin story is dog-eared at this point. It’s a failed gaming company that turned into a massively successful communications platform. To work in Slack is to navigate a virtual office with an infinite number of conference rooms, if those conference rooms hosted never-ending streams of chatter and were also named things like #catchat (a channel for sharing cat photos, obviously). Slack’s notification sound is so distinct that a human reenactment of it has more than 3 million views on TikTok.

That notification most often signals there’s a new DM—a direct message from your colleague, asking for an update on that report or telling you they’re signing off for the day. This is in almost all instances easier and faster than sending an email. During a time when many of us have been working from home, Slack's ease and speed have proven especially useful.

That latter scenario—using Slack to log off work for the day—is in itself a paradox. Slack is designed, literally, to keep you connected to work. And now this new opt-in feature, Slack Connect, allows people from other organizations using Slack to slide into your DMs. According to Ilan Frank, Slack’s vice president of product, Slack Connect was designed primarily to support different companies or organizations that are already collaborating on some kind of project. Keeping you always connected is a critical part of Slack’s growth strategy.

“When someone opens up their phone,” Frank told Protocol, “if they’re connecting with their friends, they click on Facebook or WhatsApp. If they’re connecting with someone they work with, regardless of where that person works, they should be clicking on Slack.” (Note the comparison to social media here.)

Slack users and pundits often refer to the application as an email killer, and a feature like Slack Connect seems like it would be yet another nail in the email coffin. It’s probably not. I say this not because email is good—I have more than 23,000 unread emails, and that is not a humblebrag, it is a cry for help—but because Slack chats and email still have such fundamental differences.

David Heinemeier Hansson, who created Ruby on Rails, cofounded the productivity software company Basecamp, and rarely misses an opportunity to extoll the benefits of Basecamp’s email product, rattled off a few of these differentiators to WIRED: “Chat is real-time, staccato thinking. Email is asynchronous, considered thinking. Email is a protocol. You don’t lose your contact book because you change systems. Everyone has email.”

Arguably the worst thing about something like Slack chat is that it’s “yet another platform,” Heinemeier Hansson says. “The last thing the world needs is yet another proprietary protocol that will lock in a social graph to a single company.”

The structure of email can support a more considerate experience (especially in a pandemic). But slacks or texts can be considered, too. So the more important question may be whether Slack Connect is good for chat, and what constitutes a good chat application in the year 2021. The first and perhaps most obvious characteristic of a good chat app is an airtight approach to privacy and security. Slack doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption; organizations currently can’t be verified as official businesses on the platform, which seems more important now that people from other orgs can send messages; and, well, there’s the initial snafu of allowing people to send potentially harmful message attachments in DM requests. Also, sorry folks: Employers can read your Slack DMs, despite how private they may seem.

The next consideration is what kind of communication the chat actually enables. Slack’s cascade of real-time updates, its threading features, its programmable bots, and even the smorgasbord of emoji and GIFs are as much a part of the app’s appeal as they are potential distractions. Microsoft’s Office apps are vegetables; Slack is candy. But candy, of course, isn’t necessarily good for you. Anne Helen Peterson, a former media studies researcher who now writes a Substack newsletter on internet culture, has noted in the past that Slack has become a way to LARP our jobs—that’s live-action role play—and is one of many work apps that contributes to “slippage” between our work lives and personal lives.

“Everyone can access you all the time now,” she says. “Someone I don’t know will write to me, and I will deliberately not respond to them for whatever reason, and then they’ll try my other accounts. So what happens when Slack opens up this other arena where this could happen?” Peterson also says that Slack Connect could be problematic for freelance workers or contractors, who may be given temporary access to corporate Slack accounts but don’t necessarily have corporate emails. When they’re off the clock, they should be off; but getting pinged with cross-organizational slacks isn’t “off the clock.”

It must be acknowledged that the frenetic pace at which we message each other, at work or in life, is partly on us—the people who use the apps. “The idea of boundaries is bullshit. We break them for ourselves, and other people break them for us,” Peterson says. Colleagues may be getting better about not emailing late at night, but that won’t necessarily stop them from sending a “quick slack,” even if you’ve set your status to “inactive” or “away.” Computer science professor and author Cal Newport could crow about digital minimalism and a world without email until email actually does go away, and we’d probably still find a way to distract one another.

But putting the work of establishing work-life balance on the individual is also a failing prospect, Peterson says. Companies need to establish guardrails, to protect workers from an onslaught of messages and cognitive clutter, and tech companies need to carefully consider (or reconsider) new communication tools. “If they’re opening up the capacity for other people to reach you, people are going to take it. And then it becomes the task of the individual to try to protect themselves,” Peterson says.

Slack Connect may be a vital tool for some people whose work is focused on external communications. It’s probably good for sales teams, which makes sense for a company that’s being acquired by another company with “Sales” in its name. It might even benefit Slack power users—those who use lots of app integrations and are regularly sharing Google Docs or hosting Zooms with people outside of their organization.

In other words, Slack Connect is probably great for enabling more work. That part seems clear. It’s more work. And if you missed the memo on that, don’t worry; I’ll send it through another channel.

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