What’s my most used app on my iPhone? Slack. On my iPad? Slack. On my Mac? Slack. Yet this isn’t an article about how good Slack is, or how revolutionary it is. Because for as good as Slack is, there are some really rough spots.
No, This is an article about the fact that a large part of my world exists only in Slack. If you stop and think about this for a moment — wow.
My entire office and most of the work I do is in Slack. I also have a large group of friends from around the world, whom I only communicate with in Slack. I have an entire professional network of people I hardly know (like any good professional network) which is only in Slack. I have Slacks with people I am working on hobby projects with and on and on.
The only people not in Slack, who I interact regularly with are a couple close friends and my family. I do question why we don’t have a Slack together for those groups, but I try to leave it be. I’m not sure I want my Mom DMing me
/giphy shit all day long.
And forget about Slack for a moment. And just think about how much communication in general has changed over the past seven years. From emails and phone calls, to adding in text messages, to Twitter and Facebook, to bazillions of messaging apps, to apps now which bring groups of any size together in a way where you can have topical, public-private, and private-private conversations amongst each other.
All of this is in text. (And gifs.)
I no longer even distinguish a face to face conversation with someone, from a DM string. I just say “I talked to Mary” and leave it at that. Because it doesn’t matter how or where I talked to her. It doesn’t matter where she lives or what timezone she is in.
It was still a conversation, just as meaningful as any other. Psychologically, I don’t distinguish these conversations as lesser than a phone call, or video chat, or in person chat.
In fact, most of the DM style conversations I have are richer in depth and meaning than face to face conversations. So there truly is no reason to distinguish them, unless to clarify that it wasn’t some shitty verbal conversation.
And I’ve been trying to assess why this is. How is it that in just 5 years time I went from thinking that text messages would die out, to preferring talking to people in glorified text messages?
I think there are three reasons why this is:
- Clarity of thought
- Ubiquitousness of tools
- Respect for other peoples busyness
I’ll dive into each of those points in a moment, but first I want to talk about instant message services like AOL Instant Messenger. Joking, I really want to talk about ICQ.
ICQ had a fantastic option whereby you could send your text as you typed it and the person received a real time stream of your text. Appearing on their screen. As you wrote it.
In practice this was fucking horrible. No one wants to see the many typos, and no one wants all their typos seen like that. But it was amazing for the fact you could see the other person was actively engaged with you. They were really there. And this was important at the time. AIM and things like iMessage and Slack later, adapted this but used typing indicators instead of a live text stream. This lets you know the person is there and typing, but they had yet to send the message.
I prefer to think of these as thought indicators.
I think these thought indicators are what sold many of us on text based messaging. I can send a message in Slack, wait a few seconds and know whether I should stay put and expect a response or not. That’s how a conversation always starts.
I don’t tap Jim on the shoulder and go “Heck of a new iPad, huh?” and then immediately run over to Sheila and ask her about her TPS reports. No, I engage Jim and wait to see if he is open to a conversation. And typing indicators allow me to do that same thing on DMs.
With that small mental hurdle solved, people seemed to pick up on the technology faster. And it began to stick for three reasons.
Clarity of Thought
A really popular thing to say in tech oriented businesses, is that you should try to hire a person who is a better writer. With the implication being the better writer has more clear thinking, because writing requires you to be clear. Good writing is often hard, not because of the prose, but because of the ability needed for clarity of thought.
I’ve begun to think of it more along the lines of knowing you actually have something to say. Sometimes we just end up talking to someone so that we can talk to someone — and we may think we have something to say, only to realize 30 minutes into a conversation that we really have nothing at all to say. No answers. No questions. Just words.
When we write, we are forced to be more clear than when we speak. There are no non-verbal cues. There is no intonation. There only exists the words you write. Because of this you have to make the words you write clear. You have to make sure they make sense not only in the moment, but later on when someone stumbles across your words hours or days later.
Writing makes it hard to bullshit someone since people can reread what you write as much as they want and determine what you are actually trying to say. And if you are saying nothing, it will become obvious to everyone that you are indeed saying nothing at all.
As a kid we are often told: think before you speak.
As adults we generally suck at thinking first when we are talking. But when we are writing, even in chats and text messages, it turns out that we are pretty good at thinking before we type. No one wants something stupid to be forever memorialized in screenshots of text messages.
Chat works for people because chat is way more clear — even if we don’t want to admit this to ourselves.
Ubiquitousness of tools
Until recently, most chat systems had a barrier to entry which was high enough that not everyone would enter. AIM required signing up for AIM and getting screen names. IRC was even more convoluted. Text messages required you had a cell phone with text messaging, which wasn’t all that common until very recently in history.
And then of course there is discovery. How did you share your AIM name, or your ICQ number, or any of that? Tools today leverage the two forms of identity which we cling to the most, and share widely: cell phone numbers and email addresses.
If you know one of those for someone you can probably find them on any service they have signed up to use. And if you sign up to use just about any service, the only barrier you normally need is one of those two things.
And if you think about it, this is probably one of the things which has always held Twitter back: it requires the dreaded username. Facebook doesn’t. No one likes picking usernames, especially if the one they use is already taken — thus the barrier to entry for that person becomes even higher and this is why Twitter remains much smaller than a network like Facebook.
But even with Facebook out of the picture, there is no shortage of apps which can be used for chatting with nothing more than a cell phone number. Or an email address. And everyone we know who is already using those services will know when you join, and thus you will be immediately welcomed by friends.
And everyone has these things. Everyone has multiple of these. They are everywhere. They are easy. And because of that we use the piss out of them.
Text messaging was slow to start because not everyone had a phone which was easy to text message on. In today’s world it’s increasingly likely that everyone you communicate with has a smartphone and therefore you can point them to any one of the hundreds of communication apps out there.
Respect for Busyness
What’s the minimum length for a phone call to get one piece of information? 15 minutes? What about a meeting? 30 minutes? There’s no wrong answer there, but I would argue 15 minutes and 30 minutes is pretty close for most people.
You have to greet each other. You have to engage in a couple minutes of small talk. Maybe that spirals for a bit. Maybe it gets more awkward. You have to wait for the other person to find that email, or that file, or that webpage. You have to wait for them to mentally switch gears. You have to keep their focus.
They have to do the same for you.
But it all starts with an interruption to someone.
In a pure text based chat none of this happens — each party instead ends up respecting how busy the other person might be. Messages become asynchronous. They become shorter and more direct.
They take less time.
You are no longer waiting on someone. There is a record of your request and you know the other person will see it and get to it just as soon as they can. So you don’t have to wait on Mary, and she doesn’t have to wait on you. Instead you can drop something in a chat, go do your other work and come back later to see the answer.
People notice this. They realize they can have “meetings” with 4 different people at the same time and end up taking less time then they would spend in one physical meeting.
This matters to everyone.
Where are you, is no longer a verbal description, but a dot on the map which moves with the person. What was gross revenue, is no longer a number you forget and was likely inaccurately told to you after you listen to the other person opening excel for 5 minutes — instead it’s a PDF you can review at anytime. More precision, less time.
When I say text based communication is respectful of there peoples time, I mean it respects everyones time in a way in which we all notice. It’s the promise of email, without all the other shitty things email brought with it. Namely, non-important communication.
It Is a Text World
We may or may not be transcending the basic text message, but when teams who sit in the same office — at desks next to each other — started adopting tools like Slack it became the clearest sign possible what our preference is. We are not anti-social, we just don’t see the need to for wasting time on unclear communication avenues where you cannot easily share work.
When files existed as paper inside a paper folder, it made sense to walk to someone and talk to them face to face. To point and show them the file. It no longer makes sense to do that, and if that alone is not great, we are only just now starting to tap the potential of this realization.
Slack is the world I spend most of my day in, and it is far better than any office building could possibly be. And Slack is only the tip of this iceberg.