Slack Forgets How Bad We Are at Communicating

Why does everyone want to own messaging when people are so obviously bad at it?

Photo: Muhammed Abiodun/Unsplash

The key to a powerful messaging system is not just the tools to let you manage contacts and chat in a clear, concise way. We need flourishes like:

  • Emoji
  • Animoji
  • Preprogrammed responses
  • Reactions

And we apparently need to break down every wall both outside and within messaging systems so we can all communicate with everyone all the time.

Facebook, for example, has been doing it across all their homegrown and acquired apps, making one giant messaging subsystem across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.

Slack, one of the most important business messaging and process systems, decided last year that it would be cool if every single paying Slack customer could direct message any other customer on the vast system. With Slack Connect, an Instacart programmer could message the marketing lead at Robinhood, or someone in Dropbox human resources could touch base with an e-commerce expert at Shopify.

Humans prove time and again that they are terrible communicators, especially when they’re allowed to go off-topic.

In a way, this sounds wonderful: Disparate people sharing ideas and information, making connections that could help improve both companies and maybe make their day a little brighter.

The reality, though, is that humans prove time and again that they are terrible communicators, especially when they’re allowed to go off-topic. Contacting someone outside your company or industry is the definition of off-topic.

Slack put so much faith in this plan that it rolled Slack Connect out to paying and nonpaying (as a trial) customers.

Things went off the rails quickly, with some using Slack Connect’s customizable invite subject lines to send nasty messages. Slack is, obviously, already trying to mitigate some of the damage.

There’s never a good reason to open direct messages for random chat invites.

How, I wonder, did Slack see this playing out? As internet citizens, they’re surely aware of the dark history of direct messaging. Instagram DMs can be a horror show. Those on Twitter who leave their DMs open, especially women, are subject to incredible abuse (Twitter finally launched an abuse filter). Millions of people are fundamentally incapable of rational discourse, especially when they’re angry — and there are many angry people on the internet.

It’s time for tech companies to stop insisting that open communication is a good thing. Imagine if everyone knew your name and home address and started sending you mail. Okay, we still get a fair amount of junk mail, but our mailboxes are not full of hate mail.

The larger lesson is that communication is a choice. You talk to who you want to talk to and, if possible, ignore those you don’t. It’s a lesson Twitter took years to learn, only recently adding the agility to choose who can reply to a tweet.

There’s never a good reason to open direct messages for random chat invites. Slack is a business tool, but not a networking one. It isn’t LinkedIn, a platform fueled by random invites. I’m pretty much over all those “Invitations to connect,” too.

Beyond that, I think we’re learning that a fully connected world isn’t necessarily a good thing. Slack’s business customers have, in a way, already organically connected around a company or idea. If they want to make other connections, they can open a different app, probably a social media platform. There will never be one communication platform to rule them all, and, quite honestly, I don’t want one.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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