A few days ago, Dave Winer asked the question to those who follow him on Twitter and Facebook, “Why do people like Slack?” Because Dave rarely asks questions for which I have an answer (I know nothing about “nodes”), I thought I’d jump on this one, as Hammock Inc. has been using Slack since last year.
So I started to answer with a comment on Facebook, but within a sentence I knew this would grow into a post.
First, some context
Dave is one of the 12 people who read this blog. He knows (except when I’m talking about some nuanced rivalry in Southeastern Conference Sports) enough about the context of my blogging (and more) to fill in the blanks of my posts. He knows, for instance, that I write as a passionate user of certain types of software, not as a software developer. He also knows that my passion (and profession) leads me to seek understanding of the “why’s” of a certain technology, even if I don’t always care to devote time to the “how it works.” (Come to think of it, Dave knows my entire family and even my dog, Kate. )
Second, What is Slack?
Before answering Dave, let me try answering the question a few of the 11 remaining readers who have made it this far may be wondering: What is Slack? Here’s how Mike Issac of the NYTimes.com attempted to explain it last October. (Note, when anything starts out, “the idea is simple,” it typically means, “the execution is impossible.”)
The idea is simple: Corporate teams work much better if they can easily collaborate from their computers, whether they’re in the same building, or on different continents. At its core, it springs from applications like Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, an early web tool that is a chat room at its most basic…But the real value is in the way Slack works with so many other online services. It connects to other software services like Dropbox, an online file storage service; Github, a database code management service; and ZenDesk, an online customer service platform. And everything entered into Slack — chats, Twitter messages, customer service tickets — is archived and searchable by any employee in an organization that uses the service.
I’ll give him an “A” for effort. (I’m grading him high because I’m not going to do much better.)
As I view it, Slack is a drop-dead simple tool for those who are collaborating on a project and need to collectively “narrate their work.” (Note to those who aren’t Dave: “Narrating your work” is a term Tim O’Reilly credits Dave with coining).
One of the “aha” moments of being a new user of Slack is the realization that a lot of that “narration” can be automated. (Issac, like Slack, uses the term “connects to other services,” to describe this automation, but that’s far too pedestrian a term to capture its magic.) Let’s say, a developer checks in some code on GitHub or a writer checks off a “to-do” on Basecamp. Via the magical connection, Slack immediately adds what has happened to the Slack timeline-like stream associated with the project. These updates seem like tweets, but they are organized into threads related to topics or projects. Pretty soon, you begin to realize that these streams of updates are being organized in ways that can keep you from having to use IM or email. Magically, you have created something akin to a hub — a place you can return to and find a link to a message or version of a story or some factoid related to the project–no matter what service they were created in or where you placed a file.
(Here is a list of all the services that can automatically update Slack.)
Why do I Like Slack?
Okay, back to the original question.
First off: It is clear to me that as a collaborative work tool, email is a failure. Perhaps two people can work together using email, but the ability to scale a workflow using email has a low ceiling.
Project management software like Basecamp can help organize the process and flow of a collaborative project and even increase the scalability of using project-related email if everyone follows the rules and makes sure all email is cc’d to the project on Basecamp (or others software). But any project management software is only as good as the person on the team who DOESN’T follow those rules. (Another post for another day.)
Slack can serve as a means to automate a significant percentage of the check-in and “narration” process. And when updates need to be narrated manually, it makes doing so as easy as using Instant Messaging or Twitter–or IRC.
Bottomline: It replaces all of the project-related IM with something that can organize all of that chatter into archives that can live with the project. And, it kills lots of the process-oriented email.
However, the Fine Print
I feel the need to not sound like a fan-boy, so here goes.
The Freemium Version: Hammock benefits from the freemium version of Slack because everyone who uses it has the same domain name on their email address. Creating projects that have people with more than one email domain name requires a paid version. Also, the free version supports a maximum of five integrations (automated updates) with other services. And it does NOT provide the means to integrate email into the stream meaning that email that’s sent to a client isn’t a part of the Slack thread. (We solve this with Basecamp.) So, if you wanted to use Slack for a group that did not share the same email address, you would have to use a paid version. I think that’s fair, by the way. You just need to understand it.
Change is difficult: Even when something comes along, like the internet, say, some people will hate it because they love whatever it replaces. Some people love sending email to ten people and then everyone answering back to everyone, so that that first email has now generated 100 emails (or so). Even if they know that Slack will make it impossible to ever lose another document by saying, “What server is that document on — I must not have received an email?, they might like having that such an excuse.
Redundancy is confusing: On a collaborative project, there are times when you want to share something little, perhaps a screen grab, without going through the process of uploading photos to project folder. You soon discover that Slack is a great way (much better than IM) of sharing any type of file. And soon, users can get confused and start thinking that Slack isn’t merely a means to communicate, but is a place to “store” stuff. (Basecamp can present the same challenge to users.) This isn’t actually a problem with the software platforms as much as it is a problem with the amount of training provided to those using it.