In the time it took me to type this sentence about Slack, I received more than a dozen messages in a private Slack group and more posts than I can count in several team channels. I typed many words in response to those messages — some of them even borderline good words — but came no closer to completing my job for the day: writing this article about Slack.
If you don’t know what Slack is, chances are you don’t work in media or tech. Congratulations, you have probably made better life choices than I have. Most of the time, Slack is described blandly as a workplace communication tool. But that barely scratches the surface of its impact on teams, internet culture and, most importantly of all, my own damn life.
Slack is many things: an engine for collaboration and a distraction machine; a community-builder for an office and a facsimile of high school cliques; a service to streamline work and to blur the lines of your work/life balance. It is the bane of my existence and also, at times, the only salve for a stressful day.
Think of AOL Instant Messenger, but for people with jobs. Better yet, think of coworking space provider WeWork, with its promise of delivering office culture as a service. Slack does that too, but online rather than in a physical space. At a time when more people are working jobs behind screens, sometimes remotely in distributed workplaces, Slack is the new office watercooler. It is the work environment you have when you’re stuck at your desk for hours and can’t hover by the glorious office plant wall or the craft beer taps in the kitchen. (For the record: Our office has neither.)
Slack is where you welcome new employees with a procession of GIFs. It’s where companies divide themselves between channels devoted to cats and channels devoted to dogs. It’s where you find endless combinations of group chats to gossip and backchannel your own team, and then backchannel your backchannels. It’s where a company can bond with a party parrot emoji for every occasion: a coffee parrot and a beer parrot, a sad parrot and a fiesta parrot, a chill parrot and an exploding parrot.
And if Slack has its way, its service could soon shape your office culture, too.
The company is making its Wall Street debut on Thursday, six years after it launched and quickly became a fixture for teams at companies like IBM, Lyft and, disclosure, CNN. In a public filing, Slack said more than 10 million people were using it daily in the first three months of 2019.
“Our users, whether on a free or paid subscription plan, are highly engaged,” the company wrote in the filing. “During the week ended January 31, 2019, more than 1 billion messages were sent in Slack.” On a typical workday, Slack said users at the companies who pay for the service “averaged nine hours connected to Slack through at least one device and spent more than 90 minutes actively using Slack.”
One billion messages in a week. Nine hours connected to the app. Ninety minutes of active use. These are impressive figures for a newly public company looking to show investors how sticky and central its platform can be for businesses. But these numbers also highlight Slack’s potential to be an inferno for anyone who prizes their time, focus, privacy and some semblance of an anxiety-free life inside and outside the office.
To be clear, I am old enough to remember the dread of a boss calling my desk phone and asking me to come to her office. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the madness of meaningless emails. I’ve been told to communicate with colleagues through AIM and Gchat. But Slack is somehow more all-consuming because, well, it’s more fun and GIF-filled and deceptively non-threatening.
“It’s expected that there will be more of an immediate answer because you are expected to be on Slack all the time,” said Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies technology use in the workplace and has too many Slack groups of her own. “With emails, people can turn it off. They can batch their emails where they just look at it two or three times a day. Because of the social component with Slack, it’s harder to do that.”
At any given moment, day or night, when I open the Slack app I am almost guaranteed to see little red dots next to the names of various channels and users telling me how many unread mentions and messages are waiting for me. Entire conversations may have unfolded in the time it took me to grab a cup of water — faster than I ever remember email exchanges metastasizing. Some of these may be about the Bachelor; some may determine the future of my employment.
The casual nature of Slack makes employees comfortable sharing sentences in writing, on a company account, that they would never say on a company email account. The casual nature of Slack masks the fact that you can effectively tell which employees are online — and presumed to be working — and which are not based on whether there is a green dot next to their name. The casual nature of Slack makes it easier for colleagues and managers to send you messages after work hours — it’s only a Slack message, after all, and look, this message has a partying parrot eating popcorn.
And Slack is only becoming a bigger part of my life. First, it helped turn colleagues into friends. Now my actual friends — sorry, colleagues! — are using Slack to plan bachelor parties and weekend outings and create a centralized place for sharing Simpsons references. My wife Slacks me dachshund GIFs and baby pictures. And one day, when she’s old enough, our baby will probably create a Slack to organize operations for her first lemonade stand — or whatever Slack-like service has overtaken Slack to make us feel more connected under the guise of being more productive.