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Most white collar workplaces are quieter than they’ve ever been. And yet, workers have never been more susceptible to getting fired because of loose lips. The Great Silencing—from email to instant messaging to text messages—has only grown stronger in recent years with the introduction of internal corporate messaging. Yes, offices have used memos and sticky notes for decades, and humans have been writing letters for centuries. But the idea of “chatting” with coworkers all day via direct messages as a means of both business and pleasure is a new, potentially risky way of life.
There’s a good chance your office mandates the use of one such service (Skype, HipChat, Yammer). There’s an even better chance that you use GChat with select colleagues, friends, and family members. If you work in media or tech, you’ve probably come across Slack, the cool kid at the chatty table. Slack announced Friday morning that it has raised $120 million in new funding, and that it is now valued at $1.12 billion.
Slack is a slick version of the AIM service you used 15 years ago. It combines both one-to-one instant messages and the open chat rooms you remember from Web 1.0. The topics in a team’s open room can range from a rundown of that day’s tasks, to a bevy of Simpsons jokes and semi-ironic GIFs. (Esquire uses HipChat, one of Slack’s biggest competitors). What sets Slack apart is its grace in sending files and allowing users to only tune in to what subjects matter to them. For instance, if you are responsible for covering all porcupine-related issues in your office, you will receive an alert anytime someone on your team mentions the word “porcupine,” so long as they use a hashtag, a-la Twitter. There’s a free version and a snazzy paid version of the service. (Slack claims eBay currently has five paid teams and Adobe has nine.) And that’s pretty much it: one-one-one messages, group messages, file sharing, hashtags. A collection of things that previously existed elsewhere, conveniently integrated into one application. A billion dollar idea.
As reported by Fortune, Slack claims to have over 30,000 unique teams using the service sending over 200 million monthly messages. It started as an “idea” in February 2013, reached beta six months later, then launched publicly in February 2014. Eight months after that, Slack’s investors include Andressen Horowitz and Google Ventures. “We just hired our first marketing person, but he doesn’t begin until next week,” Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield told Fortune.
There are many positive sides to using Slack or its competing services (we’ll just keep saying Slack here for reader ease). First and foremost, Slack drastically cuts down on the number of emails in a given day. Why wait for someone to respond to your “wanna grab lunch?” email when you could simply Slack them the same question? If your job involves breaking news, your team’s central Slack room is an ideal place to share links and spitball ideas for coverage. If your team is scattered across different time zones, Slack is not only the fastest way to stay in touch, but the easiest way for bosses to keep tabs on remote workers. How do you know if Bert is working or watching The Price Is Right? Well, is he active or idle on Slack?
And that’s where things get sticky.
Text-first chat became this popular because it acts as a conduit, relieving the anxiety associated with public speaking or phone calls. Most people hate the sound of their own voice, and most prefer to write their thoughts out in full before hitting send. But as text-first communication becomes evermore an extension of our brains, and as messages grow shorter and more informal (particularly in corporate settings), it’s easy to forget that there’s an instant transcription waiting for everyone, from colleagues to bosses to the dreaded HR, to see. Twenty years ago, if you made an off-color joke in the hallway, you were at the mercy of those particular coworkers who heard it. If what you said was truly wrong and offensive, you would be rightfully reported to HR. But if you said something that was not categorically wrong, the comment would probably disappear into thin air and be ignored for everyone’s sake.
With Slack, all of your IMs, photos, GIFs, or links are out there, staring everyone in face. The offensive stuff is still offensive, but the borderline material is just out there, hanging, ripe for analyzation and revisits and flagging and saving for longterm case-building. Is Bert a bad guy? No, but he makes some questionable jokes on Slack. Here, look at all these over the past six months. Slack and its competitors do offer a “delete” capability, though its unclear how permanently “deleted” these items may be. Furthermore, even if they are erased from the visible Slack app, most sophisticated companies can and do scrape employees’ computers and digital histories.
Beyond the risks of losing your job over an instantaneous poor decision that lives in a permanent archive, Slack creates a middle school cafeteria mentality in its ability for workers to toggle between the main room and direct chats. I am as guilty as anyone of peppering in non sequiturs, semi-applicable Simpsons references, and bad jokes to Esquire’s all-day chat room. And sure, there’s a good chance that two team members are saying “shut up John” in a private chat after yet another Homer GIF comes through. Rest assured, we are a friendly office. I have now worked at two separate companies that use (cough, mandate) all-day chat, and I can honestly say that Esquire is a welcoming, hilarious, highbrow, lowbrow, intensely smart place to spend one’s (digital) day. It’s not a negative place, and you don’t feel like anyone is out to get you.
But what happens when, instead of copy/pasting a link to Milhouse in high-water pants, I accidentally copy/paste an expletive-laden YouTube video that a non-work friend sent me over GChat? What happens when mistakes occur in a setting wherein they can’t ever truly be forgotten?
And what happens when our minds are conditioned—or our employers instruct us—to use services that not only encourage, but necessitate fast action and re-action?