Who has the right to control your attention? I ask because a friend pointed me to this Bloomberg article claiming that we will soon tire of the trendy group chat applications (namely Slack) and find them just as burdensome as email. I couldn’t disagree more. That opening question is what sets Slack and similar apps apart from email and ultimately makes them so valuable.
Many of the most successful technologies of the early 21st century have been about wresting control of our attention from the mass media broadcasters of the 20th century and returning that control to individuals. DVRs then YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, Pandora and Spotify, indeed the web itself and the rising use of ad blockers all empower users with fine-grain control of how their limited attention gets spent.
But one-to-one communication tools haven’t seen the same advancement. We make allowances for phone calls and emails because this type of communication requires that we give control of our attention to others. When the interruptions from these tools are few and far between, it’s easy enough to handle the distraction and return to the original task.
Unfortunately, many have taken advantage of this situation to outright steal our attention. Telemarketing and spam infuriate us because they interrupt us, yes, but also because we have such impotent mechanisms for protecting ourselves from them. We’ve applied fix after fix to make sure we only give our attention to those who actually deserve it. But caller ID, do-not-call lists, custom ringtones, visual voicemail, spam filters, message priority, mailbox rules, and VIP lists are just bandaids that don’t address the core issue: these tools were built without any real protection from attention theft. Telemarketing and spam are the most egregious examples, but we encounter varying degrees of this type distraction all the time. Whether it’s the over-sharing grandmother or the company-wide birthday emails, lengthy voicemails or reply-all storms, despite our best efforts we can’t eliminate these low quality messages because there might be something important mixed in with the mess.
This is the power of Slack: it’s a communication tool that puts control squarely in the hands of message recipients. Don’t want to be interrupted for all-hands announcements? Mute the #general channel. Don’t want to be bothered by cat videos? Don’t subscribe to the #cat-videos channel. Want to be notified every time someone mentions pandas? Add panda to your Highlight Words. Slack gives every user the tools they need to protect their attention from those who would steal it for unimportant gifs, redundant announcements, and yesterday’s news. The burden is placed on message senders to appropriately categorize their messages and the transparency of Slack channels makes it easy to see who isn’t following the rules. Is Slack perfect? No. It’s a new enough tool that there are many rough edges and unanswered questions about etiquette. One of those questions: is it appropriate to invite people to a channel without their consent? And Slack’s relatively new group messaging feature (private messages between up to 8 people) strikes me as a regression that allows message senders to bypass channels and notification settings all too easily.
Despite some shortcomings, Slack is an excellent step forward and has many other awesome features (emoji reactions are a favorite of mine). The fact that Slack protects the scarce resource that is my attention is what makes me an avid user of the product and a huge fan. Thanks for your attention.