A modest proposal for Slack Overload

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

How do you keep up with these Slack communities that are out there?

For many of us, opening Slack creates an overwhelming feeling of “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out). When all of the channels light up with notifications, you collapse the channel view, mute the channel, or just close Slack altogether. But wait! You’re missing out!

You could read everything. That’s not very effective, especially if you belong to multiple communities that post a lot.

What are some potential solutions to keep in touch with a community and avoid information overload? Closing Slack is one option and leaves you out of the loop. Setting up notifications to message you on certain topics is a blunt force instrument. Customizing the settings on each Slack community you join is too much work.

Why is Slack difficult to use? Here are a few reasons.

  • It all looks like a text “waterfall”. When you log in to a Slack community with lots of members, you often see many messages and need to choose whether to skip reading or “backscroll” and read them all.
  • What are people talking about? Because there’s no topic clustering, it’s hard to determine the larger themes in a group of messages. 
  • Channels have no inherent context. There may be a channel topic but people tend to talk about anything. The topic doesn’t limit the messaging or provide suggested guardrails.
  • Search is, at best, minimal. Good luck searching that message you remembered from a few days ago. If you limit your search to a particular channel, you will also limit your ability to search for it elsewhere.
  • All Slack instances look the same. The good news is that if you’ve used Slack before, you know how to use Slack. The bad news is that you might not remember which instance you’re using. The only clear differentiator by default is the logo, the url, and the channel names. This can get even more confusing if you know people in multiple slack communities and communicate with them in more than one place.

The cognitive overflow of using multiple channels and messaging services is real. So what could we do to make communities like Slack easier to use?

Solutions to this problem would increase the signal for interesting messages but boosting them somehow in your feed. It would also be great if Slack made it easier to find relevant information and related topics to your posts.

Slack has the API to make this happen. What could we address with a bot that aggregated information to help message overload?

Here are a few suggestions to make community involvement more effective in a noisy Slack community. These solutions could be addressed with an aggregator bot in Slack – I’m not as familiar with technology in other community services like WhatsApp or Microsoft Teams, but don’t think they are quite as open as Slack’s API.

I’d like to solve these problems that occur in busy communities:

  • What were the active conversations I missed? A feature might review conversations and Identify the “most active conversations” in a time period from the channels where you are a member, linking you the top 3 in the last 24 hours or a larger time frame if the community is quiet.
  • What did these conversations reference? Identifying the relevant topics from active conversations would be very useful. Also, it would neat to have a topic map of all of the public channel conversations in a community. Think of what Roam Research is doing to identify entities in individual documents and you’ll have an idea of what you could do to auto-tag conversations or channels with topics.
  • Is the conversation changing over time, and how are the relevant topics changing? If you tracked the most active topics in conversations and channels over time you’ll have a map of topic change in a channel and start to see the things that matter to a community
  • How do I find a complicated answer without using exact text, like “when was the last time we talked about pricing” – mapping topics will help search by adding context to the conversation
  • Is there a way to flag information for curation in real time? If you have a simple bot that is a member of of a public channel, you could use emoji signalling to mark “this post is great” or “this post is making me angry” or simply analyze the map of reactions that happen to a post
  • Can I make search work better? Because search is fragmented, use the user’s credentials to search multiple channels and return by active conversation or by topic map
  • What happened this week? Because all instances look the same, make it memorable. Send an opt-in daily or weekly digest with a way to the day’s or week’s news. If you gave admins the ability to add content to the summary before it’s sent, this would give you another place to curate news.

Slack isn’t the only place where this happens, and it is one of the most accessible to automate. 

Here are a few teams working on this problem today (August 2020)

  • Get Lowdown is building daily digests of Slack;
  • Obsidian is creating a local graph database for notetaking and building a plug-in architecture for other apps as well;
  • Roam Research is creating auto-linking discovery and entity matching based on your notetaking; 
  • Scorebot is a Slackbot that measures and tallys emoji reactions to posts using a point total 

Pattern Minded

My happy place is an art studio where all of the items have their own section.

I love to draw. Ever since I can remember I’ve created doodles, pictures, paintings, and other kinds of art. And it generally comes naturally to me – the kind of skill that other people call “artistic” and that I call “just drawing” – until it doesn’t.

I’m not sure what this gap feels like to people who don’t draw, so I’ll try to describe it in terms most people find easy to understand: imposter syndrome. When I don’t “feel” like drawing, I come up with every excuse to avoid that practice. I stay away from art materials and all of those wonderful colors. I stop drawing because there’s no chance of messing up.

That’s really not fun. Sometimes it has lasted for years. I am not sure of the first time I had this feeling but I would guess it happened when I enrolled in a Ph.D program in History instead of renting an Art Studio and drawing for a living. Maybe not drawing was a good thing, though.

If I hadn’t taken a break from drawing I would have spent much less time with computers. I might have missed out on learning to program. I might also have not engaged with new technologies like mobile and social and local commerce.

I am drawing again.

 It doesn’t take much to get started again on drawing. Just a little bit of time.
The hack that got me going again? Repetition. Small pictures. Doodling. Pretending “this drawing doesn’t matter.” Because the real benefit to creating and writing about it is a pattern itself – the self-reinforcing loop that happens when you make stuff, and look back later to see whether it’s good – and its absence is an anti-pattern.

So if you see me stop drawing, ask me to draw you something. Give me a commission. It doesn’t need to be paid, and it can be just enough to give me an idea. Making art pays off for me in many more areas of my life than the artwork I create. That process of making is a pattern that leads me to a place where I build amazing things. 

We Need to Teach Digital Citizenship

(photo "IACP austin 2011: cooking with UT elementary kids at whole foods" by Sarah Gilbert)
(photo “IACP austin 2011: cooking with UT elementary kids at whole foods” by Sarah Gilbert)

How can we establish a local and national effort to better prepare young people to participate online? They need to learn how to identify and use tools; understand and model behavior that won’t embarrass their parents or themselves unless they want to do so; and connect with others and contribute in a positive way online and offline.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” -Abraham Maslow

It’s easy to get attached to the first tool you pick up. It’s also easy to use that tool in situations where it doesn’t function as well. We need to teach young people that when engaging with other people, there are many ways to influence others. You can use your writing and snappy wit to shine on social media. You can wow a friend with a heartfelt thank you note. And you can impress a colleague by putting your phone away, making eye contact and having a great conversation. Digital citizens know when to use the right online and offline tools to make a great impression.

Would you like your words repeated by others?

The best tools are not very useful when you use them poorly. We need to persuade and teach our digital citizens to understand and model the right behaviors online. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean encouraging them to be robotic or boring or perfect. It means helping them to understand the impact of their behavior so that they won’t embarrass their parents and themselves (unless they want to).

How would you behave if internet actions were more like being at a dinner party?

We also need to encourage our digital citizens to meet online and engage offline. Connecting with others is much more powerful in person and turns your interactions into meaningful lifelong relationships. You can connect with more than 150 people online, and you can’t really know them unless you talk to them, meet them face to favs, and connect to them on a human level.

Where do we go from here?

Becoming a digital citizen doesn’t mean giving up the tools and joys and horrors of social media. It means engaging with the world as a person and not as a persona. It means taking the time to go visit a friend instead of just clicking “like”. And it means making the effort to be fully engaged as a human with your surroundings while understanding the worldwide reach instant publishing can grant to spread your words and thoughts around the world in an instant.

Please contribute to the discussion by adding your thoughts below – what is the one thing you would teach a teenager about interacting on the Internet and understanding your impact on people?

This year, I learned to write

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/

This year I learned how to be a writer. The easy part was deciding to start. The hard part was continuing to write. I don’t mean that any individual piece of writing was hard to start, or hard to finish. The hard part was realizing and understanding how much work there is to producing a great piece of writing, and knowing that much of the time, I wasn’t going to get there.

Unless I did get there. Much like the practice of drawing, writing only looks easy when you turn your head back at the body of work and say “that was good” or “that wasn’t so good”, and you have to do the work of writing to arrive at words that people want to read. This year I learned that whether you’re having a good day or a bad day doesn’t make the writing easier – it just makes it writing.

I thought I was doing a good job at writing before this year. Words, words, and more words have always been easy for me to produce. But not always words that conveyed meaning. When I left my last job I added “Writer” to my list of occupations – and started paying more attention to the craft of putting the words together efficiently, expertly, and beautifully.

Great writers (Orwell, Lamott, and White among them) sometimes explode off of the page and often state with absolute clarity facts and feelings. They bring intensity, passion, and verve to their craft, and it’s a joy to see it happen.

For next year, I want to apply this practice to other things that I do so that I take less for granted. When I talk to customers, I want the writing that I do to be as meaningful as the best essay I wrote last year. When I write emails, I want to make sure that the meaning is emerging in the smallest number of words that make sense. When I engage with my family and friends, I want to make those words matter even more than they do today. I’m certain I’ll often get my words wrong, confuse people when I think I’m being clear, and say different things than I intend. And I know I’ll be working at the practice of making them better.

Is Blogging Still Useful?


photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariareyesmcdavis/

“What’s a Web Log”?
Once upon a time there was a Blog (web log). It was a place where you would go to read pithy insights, long form articles, and think pieces by people whose writing you respected. Over time this term was replaced and superceded by the simpler “blog”, which came to mean lots of things from “share a photo”, “create a domain name just to make a point”, and still “share interesting writing so that other people who care might have a good place to read it”.

Anachronisms happen fast.
The concept of blogging now seems quaint, like the rotary dial, a long-playing record, or a black and white tv did when I was a teen growing up in the early days of the Internet and computers. “Blogging” meaning “writing with the express purpose of placing your work in one place and finding an audience so that you can compete with other established publishers” now seems to be an outdated concept. The Blog is Dead.

The Conversation is Alive.
Yet there is this curious thing that’s happened to “blogging” or the activity we used to call blogging. Everyone who writes has turned into a syndication network of sorts, sharing almost everything almost all of the time. When was the last time you met someone who writes for a living and then learned that you could find their writing only in one place? In the same way that long form writing became “share photos in one place” and “share articles in another place” and “share random 140 character blasts” in a third, blogging no longer really exists.

There’s a paradox here. We’re both here having this conversation. It looks a little bit like a blog – having medium form content shared on a specific subdomain – and also has social features that allow you to upvote it (please do), share it, and comment about it. The blog has evolved from being an essay with comments to an almost constant conversation. To me this is a good change because it feels more like talking to other people.

What’s the use in blogging?
You might then ask, why write? There are lots of reasons to write every day (Dear Founders, Startups are Easier if You Write Every Day) and the most salient ones include:

  1. Get better at explaining your ideas to others – if you can’t form a few sentences that make sense to other people, you won’t be able to explain these same ideas in person.
  2. Explore a long-form idea over a series of posts. In the same way that you have a conversation with people over an extended length of time, your thoughts on a topic may change. Write about it – the results may surprise you.
  3. You never know who you will meet. Amazing people will find you because they read what you write. The possibilities are endless.

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