Slack vs. Email

I first heard the phrase “The medium is the message” in the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Postman invokes the phrase to underlie a similar argument of his own. To quote from Wikipedia:

The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that “form excludes the content”, that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas.

While Amusing Ourselves to Death is about television as a medium, Twitter immediately came to mind. The social media network is famous for its character limit account, and given that it has had filled the default information gap for news, sports, culture, and internet commentary, that character limit has had an oversized influence on how people communicate and share their thoughts online.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that this applies to company communication protocols as well. A simple model is one with two types of companies: those that primarily use Slack (“Slack” can be a stand-in for any internal instant messaging product) and those that primarily use email. I believe that which communication protocol is or becomes primary will eventually set the culture around communication. As communication is so central to our work, it will then set the culture around how work gets done.

I will take a very simplified perspective on this, but I think it’s directionally true. There’s not necessarily a flow, but below you can find a bunch of separate points on email vs. Slack.

Email encourages thoughtful communication. The medium has a digital analog to the practice of letter writing. A response is not immediately expected (I do know some people who use email as a way to IM. One indicator is that if someone is writing emails with only subjects and no body, your emailing habits place you firmly in the Slack bucket), so one can take their time in gathering information, thinking through the message, and providing as complete of a response as possible. Email does not have the pesky feature of “someone is typing”, which means that if you start to reply and realize that you don’t feel comfortable enough to do so, if you’re not in the mood, if you need to go track down some more information, or any number of perfectly acceptable other reasons why you can’t respond immediately, you don’t have the other side of the conversation looking over your shoulder and judging whether or not you’re really working based on how quickly you respond. Email allows for better referencing later, with a rich search and thoughtful, measured responses (though, Slack does have a nice search feature).

Email is kinder to schedules. There is no immediate pressure to respond, and one can respond to emails on their own time, when they prefer. It increases perceived agency for team members.

Always Slacking means that everything is an emergency. Because the expectation around Slacking is that a response should be fairly instantaneous, one needs to fight against social norms to disable notifications. Since disabled notifications mean that any Slack, whether a true emergency or an employee asking for some information they could easily obtain elsewhere, focus is broken, context is switched, and the interruption happens all the same. That makes it hard to distinguish between real emergencies and pedestrian notifications, so when a real emergency happens that requires an immediate response there may be a Boy Who Cried Wolf situation.

Similar to the above point, because the respond time is slower, the communication needs to be more efficient in terms of impact per word. The raw throughput of characters will probably be lower for emails, but the ideas, impact, and influence communicated will be much higher because there is the latency. This means people asking questions or making proposals will need to think more deeply about and be more precise in their message, as there is not room for speedy follow ups. Email sets constraints in a way that is good for our thinking and communicating.

The expectation of an immediate respond actually impacts the way we think. Decisions are made in seconds and in unrefined, ambiguous language. This can happen in private or restricted channels, where there’s no an easy way to share (forwarding in Email land is one way to share small discussions with a larger group) with those outside of those channels. It can feel like things are happening slower, but in reality all the churn is making overall programs move slower. Immediate issues are giving the biggest priority because the medium does not allow for careful thinking - an answer must be given immediately!

This is a small UI complaint, but in a situation with multiple notifications in Slack, my brain tries to deal with them as quickly as possibly. This is probably learned behavior from a decade of phone app notifications. That means that I don’t give messages enough time and thought. That red outlined number means I need to go, go, go, and deal with these things as quickly as I can. Often the last writer wins, in that the last message I look at I will spend the appropriate amount of time on because there are no more pesky notifications or alerts. Email inboxes tend to use the entire screen to view an email (at least, gmail does). Sure, there is the inbox count to the left, but it is bolded and styled in the same greyscale manner as everything else in the UI. There is no red button screaming “look at me!”

Slack is a distraction machine. As software engineers, distractions can be disastrous; the flow of programming requires us to build up fickle abstract models on our head, carefully keeping track of various pieces along the way that could be blown over by a weak gust of wind. When that knock-knock-knock sound of a Slack notification comes in, it is almost as if someone has karate-chopped the bottom row of our house or cards. All that comes down, and we must context switch. We respond to the Slack and go back to our work, but have lost our place: it is like we have removed our bookmark from War and Peace and dropped it on the floor, and now we need to find our place again. A single simple Slack message may cause a half-hour of lost productivity.

Because Slack is so easy and the responses are expected to be so immediate, it lowers the friction for leveraging peers for easy-to-obtain knowledge. If it’ll take 3 minutes to look something up, but Jake knows it off the top of his head and he should respond within a minute (and it takes less effort to just ask Jake), it becomes very easy to just shoot a message over to Jake rather than tracking down the information. The thing is, Jake is now interrupted, and getting this information has now required two people’s attention. When you add this up over hours and days and messages and messages, there is a lot of distraction. Because emailing has some expected latency, it encourages people in situations like the above to RTFM (apologies for the language), or go look up the information themselves.

I’m sure you couldn’t tell, but I’m all for email. I think it provides for thoughtful responses, respects people’s time both from a responding standpoint and a limit-distractions-at-work standpoint. The problem is, the action of one person at a sufficiently large company will not change the culture. In fact, it might be nearly impossible to change the culture once it’s set. Even if you primarily send emails but work at a Slack-based company, people have not been primed to use email as a means of communication. People may not respond, or others may not be okay with the email latency, or a million other reasons. It is hard to combat the Mother Culture of communication protocol. And sometimes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.