Unintended Consequences of Group Chat

Aug 6, 2016

I’ve started to notice a side-effect of nearly instant communication within teams. This could be applied to any service. The results will be the same. But for this example, Slack is pretty much the default.

The Era of Email

The problem stems from how email works and how we have been trained to think about communication.

When I send an email to a colleague, I can’t see them online. I have no expectation of when they might read and respond. Typically, I expect 24 hours reasonable. When I send a message via email, I am okay with a response the following day.

Slack sets a different expectation. Especially direct messages. To me, a direct message communicates importance. When I receive a direct message from someone, I think this is important. It’s like setting a priority on an email. Thankfully no one does that anymore. It’s awful.

Email doesn’t really communicate importance. Well, besides the priority method. Not that we haven’t tried. Stars, priority inbox, filters, etc.. These are all methods to try and extract things that are important. I think they all fail. Turns out chat fails also.

Enter Group Chat

Here’s the kicker. In Slack, we can see who’s online. More importantly, we can see who’s not online. This is where it gets tricky. If I am typing a message to someone, and that message is important to me, and I see them come online as I am typing it, still online as I send it, and then they go offline without responding to my message. It leaves me to think that they chose to ignore me. That whatever I had to say is not important to them. Even though it was important enough that I felt I needed to send it to them directly.

Now that I know that they saw my message and chose to ignore it. Do I say why did you ignore my message? or maybe I say Did you see my message earlier?, knowing that I saw them come online and leave without acknowledgement. Maybe I just continue and say nothing knowing that I saw them ignore it. They don’t know I saw them ignore it, so it seems like a non-issue to them. A no harm no foul type of thing. This is what I do. Just let it go. But it does bother me.

If this scenario is email. The same person can ignore my email. I have no idea they chose to ignore it and I have less of an expectation of a response.

Maybe realtime communication is just as bad as obsessively checking our phones for updates. Checking in all the time to see if someone responded to me, to see if they are online yet, or just to see if I have missed something is unhealthy.

Maybe this type of chat does more harm that good? Maybe I don’t use it correctly? Maybe 37Signals is right about group chat, it really is an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.

And finally, maybe email still has it’s place for communication that is important and has no need to be in chat.