“I Slacked you” may still be a confusing phrase to some — but not for long, if Slack has anything to say about it. The fast-growing company began trading on the New York Stock Exchange last week with the ambition that its corporate chat platform will enter even more offices and lexicons.
The jury is out on whether Slack, reportedly use by 10 million-plus people, is a good thing for productivity and communication. With its instant messaging convenience, Slack is designed to keep your attention within its confines, which sometimes comes at the expense of actually getting any work done. You can share a Google Doc in it, sync your calendars and connect emails through it. But when Slack becomes the primary form of workplace communication, Slack output can become the metric of hustle and diligence.
“Its greatest strength: amazing ease-of-use, is also its weakness: making it far too easy for everyone to default to using Slack for communicating,” wrote software programmer Andrea Liu in a critique of Slack on Medium. She added: “Big or small, everything coming in through Slack shares the same compact shape, and worse, the same level of urgency.“
What’s become clear from my years of using Slack at work is that it is, first and foremost, a tool of corporate surveillance.
When I hear the Slack ping that announces a new message, I feel a Pavlovian pull to read it, right then, right away. There’s a red circle noting the number of new messages that nudges me to drop whatever I’m doing and click. That’s surely by design. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee turned industry critic, notes that red is a known trigger color.
These psychological pulls are not great for my productivity and peace of mind, but for me, that’s not the worst thing about Slack. What’s become clear from my years of using Slack at work is that it is, first and foremost, a tool of corporate surveillance. Slack stands for “Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge,” after all. Its positive use depends on how much you trust your employer not to read your messages, because yes, they have complete access.
And in offices where the assumption of positive intent has eroded and colleagues whisper furtively in the halls, that trust probably doesn’t extend very far. That is bad for morale and bad for the fundamental need for basic mutual respect and trust between employees and employers for any collaborative good to get done.
When you can send GIFs to your co-workers in a direct message, it can feel like a private chatroom for you to gossip and let off steam, but Slack ultimately belongs to your boss. The app is an extension of your boss’ technology. If you were using your boss’ laptop all day, would you trust them not to look at what you’re saying about them? It’s their computer, after all.
Here’s how to tell who can read your private DMs.
To find out who can read your direct messages, go to yourteamname.slack.com/account/team. From there, you can toggle to “Retention & Exports” to see your company’s data retention plan. If you switch to “Admins & Owners,” you can see the list of employees with designated access.
Both admins and owners can easily download public messages, deletion logs, archived public channels and links to files included in any public channel through what’s called a standard export. Only workplace owners, however, can apply to see private channels and direct messages “as needed and permitted by law” through a corporate export. They first have to apply to use this export tool, but once approved by Slack, they can schedule exports to see all private messages.
According to Slack, applications can be made related to workplace harassment investigations, compliance with archival requirements, lawsuits requiring disclosure and more.
It’s too easy to watch each other on Slack.
The publicly available knowledge Slack offers can also turn us all into snoops since employees can easily surveil each other. I was once in a turbulent office where colleagues disappeared from one day to the next; they were fired or laid off without formal notice. In the vacuum of official information, Slack became the definitive source on who had left or been fired.
There, like the funeral cannon in “The Hunger Games” that announced the identities of the fallen each night, we could tell who was fired by seeing if their Slack account was deactivated. The app provided a grim yet satisfying answer to our continuous questions of whether so-and-so was on vacation or actually gone for good.
At the time, seeing my colleagues’ deactivated status felt like an act of sousveillance, a way to turn the camera back and seize some sense of control in a situation of mass firings. But looking back, the ease with which I was able to look up my co-workers’ private job information through a public Slack detail contributed to my unease at the office. Turning the lens back on my co-workers reminded me of how quickly it could one day be my turn. I always felt like someone was watching and filing a report on me, probably because they easily could.
On Slack, you can also see who Slacks the most on your team by seeing who is the most active user. Click the arrow by your Slack organization’s name, then head to “Analytics.” From there, you can click “Members” and sort the messages posted to see who among you is Slacking the most.
One way to personally limit the public data other Slack users can see is to schedule your DMs to be deleted. To do this, click the gear icon in a direct message conversation, then click “Edit message retention.” From there, you can set Slack to delete messages and revisions after a set number of days.
But that’s just one small answer to the larger question of how much you should share of yourself on Slack. I use Slack regularly because my colleagues use it to communicate and I do not want to deviate outside the norm. And I laugh at the GIFs. I love following entertaining threads that do not directly include me. Like many workers who sometimes work from home or in remote locations, I am a social animal who needs some immediate way to connect with co-workers so I feel less alone at work.
But I won’t be sad when a new technology that privileges an employee’s privacy over their boss’ ability to surveil them comes along and I can leave Slack for good.
In the meantime, my advice remains that when you need to discuss sensitive information with a colleague, don’t Slack it — say, “Let’s take this offline.”