Yeah, that’s right: there’s finally something I feel so negatively about that I’m unsatisfied hating it all by myself; I want you to hate it, too. So let’s talk about why Slack is destroying your life, piece by piece, and why you should get rid of it immediately before its trail of destruction widens any further—in other words, while you still have time to stop the deluge of mindless addiction that it’s already staple-gunned to your life.

1. It encourages use for both time-sensitive and time-insensitive communication

A Long Thyme Agoe, in the Days Before Slack, I had three different ways of being contacted, and they served three very different purposes, with radically different interrupt priorities. I had emails, which could wait; I had phone calls, which couldn’t; and I had the company IRC server, which was usually where I went to waste time by sharing links to things that either made me get very angry or made me laugh hysterically.[1] In this system, the important, time-sensitive thing can interrupt me, and everything else can’t. That’s great for productivity and great for my sanity, and the people were happy and things were good.

Slack totally just trashed everything. It’s email and phone calls and cat pictures, all rolled into one. So sometimes Slack notifications are totally not time-sensitive (@here Hey I need coloring books for my niece, any suggestions? also she’s afraid of animals clowns food people and dinosaurs and also allergic to paper kthxbye!), and sometimes they require an immediate action (@here Dr. Poison just showed up and tl;dr maybe run for it idk?)—and until I’ve read the message, I have absolutely no idea whether it deserves my immediate attention. That order’s backwards and it makes me feel bad because it is bad.

This is actually a whole thing in psychology: if you give a mouse food every time they push a lever, they’ll eventually only push it when they’re hungry, but if you only give them food sometimes when they push a lever, then the “reward uncertainty” will actually cause them to push the lever more often.[2] And hey! Here we are, all checking Slack 23,598 times a minute for each notification, because who knows, maybe this one matters. It’s all the pain of Vegas with none of the reward and somehow we’re still hooked.

So unlike before, now I get interrupted constantly, and I have to break my flow to figure out whether getting interrupted was worthwhile, and for some reason this is supposed to enhance business productivity.

Right. Sure. You go on being you, Slack.

2. It cannot be sanely ignored

“Okay, pea-brain,” you mutter, “so just turn off Slack notifications when you need to focus for awhile, and catch up later.”

I once thought as you did, but part of the reason you end up addicted to Slack is that catching up on what you’ve missed feels very similar to when you were back in college and were a day before the final and suddenly realized that your plan of not highlighting the book or taking notes all semester may’ve been a Bad Idea™. About the only way Slack bothers grouping information is by room[3]—and as anyone who’s been trapped in a heavily-used Slack system can tell you, the room names and descriptions are at best weak guidelines, so you can’t even necessarily prioritize what to catch up on even at that gross level of granularity.[4] Nope: your only option is going to be to read the entire backlog, from start to finish, or else just accept that, at some distant point three months from now, you’re going to look like a complete idiot when you’re the only one didn’t know that all employee blood was now going to be collected for occult purposes.[5]

Granted, this isn’t Slack’s fault per se, at least insofar as every chat system has this problem, but Slack’s attempt to become your One True Source of Everything, from scheduling to reminders to SharePoint replacement to company directory, means that a huge amount of information that previously would’ve been in emails ends up in Slack, and only in Slack. And that’s a very deliberate decision by Slack to make themselves utterly indispensable, so I feel very comfy screaming at them until I go hoarse.

3. It cannot be sanely organized

Okay fine, so you read through the whole backlog from your vacation, which took you barely even 70 hours, and have extracted the six actual to-do items from it, one of which involves something about pentagrams and goats that you’ll decipher later. Great. Mazel tov. Phase one complete.

Now what? Slack has no meaningful way to organize those six messages. There aren’t folders. There isn’t a meaningful “do later” pile. (There’s /remind, to be fair, but, as noted previously, that just generates more notifications, which we’re trying to avoid. Theoretically.) So you’re left with…what, exactly? Right-clicking on each individual message at the end of the chain, copying the link, and pasting that into some external to-do app? Which, of course, when you click back on the link, will require you to re-read at least some amount of unstructured backlog, including a bunch of unrelated garbage about reconfiguring CARP on the edge servers and something about epoll and multithreading and a panda birth video that just happens to be there, just to remind yourself what everyone said?

Welcome to hell. Population: all Slack users.

4. It’s proprietary and encourages lock-in

In an ideal world, I could circumvent a lot of these issues in any number of ways. For example, I’m still active in open-source sometimes, and the open-source equivalent of Slack is (usually) still IRC. But IRC, being a well-documented[6] older system, has tons of different tools to extract data from it. If I want to be nerdy, I can yank individual messages from ERC straight into org mode, or write custom scripts for WeeChat, or use any of literally dozens of clients written in Ruby and Python and Io and Java and C# and thousands of other programming languages plus also JavaScript and do really bespoke things. And even if I don’t, the plethora of macOS and Windows clients means that an off-the-shelf or trivially customizable AppleScript or WSH solution is never far away.

But Slack is Slack, and Slack is Electron, and Electron is Chrome—Chrome surrounded by an unscriptable posterior that eats up 100 MB of RAM per channel, plus an extra 250 MB for each Giphy.[7] And while I can almost script my way out of this hell, I really can’t. Not as a mortal end-user, anyway. To the extent I can do anything, I need to write directly against the Slack API, rather than using something commonplace like XMPP or IRC, so goodbye portability. And even if I’m willing and able to write against the proprietary API, a lot of the more interesting things you can do require being an organization admin, and require being enabled globally for the entire instance. So goodbye, personalized custom integration points, and hello, one-size-fits-zero webhooks. This is my life now.

5. Its version of Markdown is just broken

I’m going to use up an entire heading purely to say that making *foo* be bold and _foo_ be italic is covered in Leviticus 64:128 and explicitly punishable by stoning until death.

6. It encourages use for both business and personal applications

All this would be merely infuriating and drive me into a blind murderous rage if it were just something I dealt with at work, but oh no, now the fun groups I interact with are turning to Slack! That’s right: the same application and environment that makes a full-blown Dementor-style kiss with my attention span for work can now corner me in a back-alley when I just want to shoot the breeze with friends.

I glance at the Slack icon. I have nine unread messages. Neat. Are they from work? I should probably actually go read those and see which ones require I do something. Are they all the ex-employees of that one company I used to work for? It’s probably a bunch of political screaming about stochastically sentient Cheetos that somehow won the presidency, and I’m honestly a bit tired of reading about that at this point.[8] But at any rate, I can’t know until I take my phone out and read the notification—and sometimes even then I can’t, since of course some of the people I talk to are on multiple Slack instances and have a habit of saying things like “@bmp did you look at this it’s really concerning?” which requires I actually load up the freaking client and find the instance and the message and finally learn to my utter horror that I shall never be given up, let down, or run around/deserted.

Give up and yield unto Cthulhu Slack, destroyer of focus

Stop using Slack. I hate it; you also should hate it. It’s distracting. It murders productivity. It destroys old tools. It exploits psychological needs in such a way that it kills your soul and hangs it up to dry over a lava pit, where the clothesline catches fire and your soul falls into the fire and somehow you’re not dead, just a zombie, forever, reading zombie notifications on your zombie iPhone and wondering whether “@here brains?” is a lunch invite or an insult until you read the backlog. Friends do not let friends use Slack. I have been utterly convincing and you should listen to me in my capacity as low-grade Internet celebrity and do what I say because mindlessly obeying authority is the right thing to do.

But realistically? We’re all still using Slack, because it’s there, and we have to, and it’s the best option according to our collective judgment, which I do have point out may empirically be lacking at this point. So if we are stuck in Slack, then maybe, just maybe, we could start trying to restore Slack to a place where it’s genuinely for ephemeral ideas. Where it’s indeed the place for ad hoc conversations, but not a canonical store for their conclusions and action items. Where I don’t have to read the backlog when I come back from vacation, because anything actionable will at worst have been duplicated as an email or a Trello card or what have you. Where I can disable Slack notifications because I can know, with certainty, that any activity can wait until I’m back at my computer and actually want to spend time chatting on Slack.

In the meantime I’ll be right back because either the data center just exploded or someone posted a picture of a goat fainting and The Notification God must be placated.

  1. This function is now provided by reddit. ↩︎

  2. Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 59. Yeah, I could’ve given you a scientific paper, but this book is way less boring and made me stupidly happy I’m not in the dating pool anymore. ↩︎

  3. Slack honestly is trying to address this with threads, but the problem, which anyone who tried using a system like Wave or Zulip or something similar could tell you, is that the origami crane of organizing information neatly by topic runs basically head-on to the rabid bull of real-time chat and then everything falls apart, so these don’t actually get used effectively in practice. Hell, whether a conversation uses a thread or not in Slack in the first place—and whether a threaded conversation stays that way in Slack (thanks, “Also send to #channel” checkbox! may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!)—seems sufficiently random that I’d be comfy using it as the main entropy source for a digital slot machine. ↩︎

  4. They’re trying really hard to address this recently with concepts such as “All Unreads” and (very recently) “Important Messages,” but while these certainly make catching up go faster, they don’t actually resolve the issue unless you really trust how Slack’s deciding what’s important. Based on my experience, we’re very much not there yet. ↩︎

  5. Didn’t you see it? It was in #kitten-pics. You were @here-messaged, so that’s on you. Now roll up your sleeve and welcome in the Lord of Darkness, His Holiness Spirit Agnew. ↩︎

  6. I mean…as far as that goes, anyway. ↩︎

  7. I genuinely have no idea if this scales by channels, but since I’m in ten channels and wasting 1.2 GB, I’d honestly prefer to assume it’s by channel, rather than the alternative that Slack needs a gig of RAM just to run. Which it probably does. But let’s assume. ↩︎

  8. Not because they’re wrong, mind. I just can only handle so much ranting about a human/toupée hybrid before I start to zone out. ↩︎