a garden in riotous bloom
Beautiful. Damn hard. Increasingly useful.
earlier sprouts 
30 May 2016 20:58 - "Thanks Slackbot"
rosefox: A half-completed game where one organizes jumbled dots. (order)
[twitter.com profile] jsuttonmorse asked me whether I knew of or had written a post on using Slack for households. I don't know of one, so I decided to write one.

For those not familiar with Slack, it's a chat room app, as distinct from a one-on-one chat app. It runs basically like IRC, if you're old enough to remember IRC. :) The fundamentals are:

* multiple users
* timestamped chat in text and emoji
* topic-based conversations in individual chat rooms called channels
* personal conversations by direct message (DM), one-on-one or in groups
* importing and integration of images, documents, links, etc.
* searchable archives
* hierarchy of owners, admins, and users, plus a programmable autoresponder called Slackbot
* can be used on the web, in a desktop app, or in a phone app, with various types of notifications
* reasonably full-featured for free, accessible pricing for additional features

Slack is pitched as a platform for business collaboration. I've never used it that way. But I'm currently part of five different active Slacks and one that's gone dormant. The active ones are the Subtle House household Slack, two social Slacks, and two project Slacks. The inactive one was an attempt to be a combined project and social Slack and it never really got off the ground for reasons I'll get into below.

Household use

Before we used Slack for the household, we used IRC. We also spent a lot of time in individual IM conversations. We had a household intranet. Slack has completely replaced IRC and IM for us (I took Adium out of my dock the other day, officially ending an era of one-on-one chat that goes back to the mid-90s when I had an AIM handle and a seven-digit ICQ account number). It doesn't replace the intranet, but it's not meant to. The intranet is for static storage of things like recipes, our giant running to-do list (we haven't yet found a to-do app that we all like), and information for houseguests and cat-sitters. Slack is for dynamic interaction.

Every Slack has a #general channel for general discussions. We basically live there. It's like being in our digital living room. We talk about how great the baby is, remind one another about events and tasks (Slack has a handy /remind command that lets you remind yourself or someone else about things once or on a regular basis), joke around, discuss dinner plans, share cat pictures, say "can someone bring more formula to the baby's room before Kit consumes my entire hand", and so on.

Probably our most common use of #general is just to check in about where we are and where we're going: "I'm stopping at the supermarket, anyone need anything?" "Leaving my mom's place now and it's late enough that I'll take a taxi home." We said "Heading home" so often that we set up a bunch of humorous Slackbot autoresponses for it. ("Sam can't wait to see you!" "I'm stuck at the office, but go ahead and have dinner without me." "I guess I won't change the locks, despite that terrible joke you made earlier.") The timestamps are really handy for checking back on when someone left work and calculating when they're likely to get home.

Channels are where you put anything that might temporarily but aggressively take over the conversation in #general. We have 18 additional channels in our household Slack. Most of them are shopping lists. I realize there are a billion shopping list apps and many of them even integrate with Slack. But since we're already hanging out in Slack all the time, the easiest way for us to compile a grocery list is to have a Slack channel called #grocery_requests or #pharmacy_requests or #freshdirect_requests and throw things in it as we think of them. Since it runs smoothly on our phones, whoever's at the store or the pharmacy can easily check the list. Slack is big on emoji, so we use the ✔︎ emoji to indicate that we've bought whatever was on the list. This is a pretty typical screenshot from #pharmacy_requests, though we try to keep the goofing around to a minimum in shopping list channels.

We've also used channels for symptom tracking, discussing food where a person who's got an upset stomach doesn't have to see it, and posting random funny links.

We do use one-on-one DMs, sparingly. I'd say our DMs are about 20% things that we just don't want to bother the third person about because they won't be interested and 80% giving each other a heads-up about something involving the third person: they're feeling sad today and could use extra hugs, I just had an argument with them about [topic], they shyly mentioned wanting [thing] and maybe we should conspire to get it for them.

Slack fit very easily into our household because all these lines of communication were already in place. It's comfortable. We like it a whole lot.

Social use

Several months ago, a friend invited us to hang out in her social Slack. For her privacy, I'll call it Vorpal. It actually started out as a project Slack for a project that went on hiatus, at which point she opened it up to people who weren't involved in the project. If the Subtle House Slack is the three of us hanging out in our living room, Vorpal is our friend inviting a bunch of her friends over to hang out in her living room.

Channels in Vorpal are much more topic-based. There's a general #theater channel, and also #sleepnomore and #starwarsTFA. We've gotten some great parenting advice and community from the #babby channel. These channels tend to see intermittent bursts of conversation: someone will post an interesting link, other channel members will discuss it, and then the channel goes quiet until the next link comes along. Vorpal is specifically intended to be a haven from Twitter conversations about the latest outrage, so there's no #currentevents, and the conversations have a nice timeless feel that makes it easy for people in distant time zones to chime in hours or even days after a message is posted.

After Kit was born, X took 10 weeks of leave, which meant they were home alone with the baby a lot. Eventually even the most notorious introvert starts to miss people. They suggested that we start our own social Slack. So we created Subtle Friends and invited a bunch of people to come hang out there, which they mostly did (some pleaded an overdose of social media). The channels there include #iso_advice and #iso_sympathy, a trick I stole from the Friends of Captain Awkward forum. We do have a #current_events channel but I have notifications from it muted. Instead of Slack's traditional #random channel, we have #funny_links and #awesomesauce. It's been absolutely lovely, especially for reconnecting with friends we knew in California or on LJ who haven't shifted over to Twitter, and for introducing our friends from different groups to one another.

One thing social Slacks don't appear to be very good at is anything realtime-based. We're all using Slack in a few minutes here or there, reading the scroll and adding a comment or an emoji response if we have time. It's not like the heady days of IRC when I could barely keep up with the scroll. I suppose it could be, if we brought in enough people, but honestly I'm very happy with the pace of it. It suits our lives now.

In the social Slacks, we use DMs the way we'd use any chat client, with the bonus that it's very easy to make groups. So if two of our friends were thinking of coming over this weekend, we might make a DM group of me, J, X, and those two friends to discuss our weekend plans.

Project use

This is closest to Slack's intended business use, and lots of very long thoughtful pieces have been written about that, so I'll just skim the basics. Here's the key: Slack works fine for a project if everyone is willing to use it on a consistent, sufficiently frequent basis for the duration of the project.

For two of the project Slacks I've been part of, there was an initial burst of enthusiasm that tapered off pretty rapidly. In one case (24MAG, later 24CC), the project simply isn't around anymore, and there wasn't enough of a sense of community to keep us all hanging out together, so the Slack is defunct. In the other case (Genius.com editors working on annotating the Hamilton lyrics), the project is ongoing but past its most intense period, so we no longer need to use Slack to coordinate it; we primarily use it for socializing in a very low-key intermittent way and sharing lots of links about Hamilton-related stuff.

The third project Slack I'm in (a convention committee) is for an annual project that has regular bursts of activity on a repeating schedule. This is our first year using it and it's not yet clear to me that it will work well, but that's mostly because a lot of the people on the team just aren't using it. With more Slack-minded team members or a stronger push from the team leader, I think it would be very well suited to what we're doing. I wish I'd had it when I was Readercon program chair! I could see it working well for both individual committees and concoms as a whole.

I haven't used Slack for RPGs, but a friend of mine does and says it's great: a channel for in-character, a channel for out-of-character, DMs for sharing info with only the players who are supposed to have it.

Slack failure modes

Your Slack won't work if people don't use it.

Your Slack won't work if people don't know what they're supposed to do with it.

Your Slack won't work if people turn off notifications altogether; some degree of prompting is necessary to keep them coming back and conversating. I have phone notifications on for DMs and mentions of my name, and if I have the app open on my laptop then I get desktop notifications for all conversations in #general channels, which seems to work pretty well for me.

Your Slack won't work if you want to do realtime things with it but people aren't using it intensively, or aren't all using it at the same time.

Your household Slack won't work if some of your household members use it all the time and others barely use it at all.

Your household Slack probably won't work if it's the sort of household where people mostly don't talk to each other (though it might be a useful way of sharing factual information among people who wouldn't naturally happen to be in conversation).

Your social Slack won't work if you don't have enough people. There are 30 in Vorpal and 25 in Subtle Friends; that seems to be a good number. Basically, you want enough people there that at any given time, if one person wants to have a conversation of some kind, at least one other person is likely to be around and able to chat at least a bit.

Your project Slack won't work if your project ends or goes into maintenance mode. It will either become a social Slack or become defunct. If you want to keep the same group of people around for future projects, you'll need to encourage enough community for the Slack to oscillate between social and project, or email everyone periodically to say "Project time! Come resurrect the Slack!".

Slack success modes

Your Slack will work if everyone is disciplined about keeping the various channels on-topic and uncluttered (with the help of channels like #random that are specifically dumping grounds for off-topic things and clutter).

Your social or project Slack will work if the people in charge (the hosts of the social group, the directors of the project) spend a fair amount of time in Slack, lead by demonstration, and effectively nudge other users who are breaking the rules or not participating.

Your household Slack will work if your household is comfortable with online communication and generally a collaborative sort of place.

Your social Slack will work if all those people could be in a party in your living room and get along well, even if you had to leave for 20 minutes to get more chips from the store.

Your project Slack will work if the project is intensely collaborative and benefits from lots of discussion, and if all your team members are spending enough time on Slack and using it in more or less the same way. It helps a lot if everyone on the team is pretty informal about hierarchy, comfortable asking others for help and able to provide useful help when asked, and fine with tasks being assigned and swapped around in an ad hoc way.

And most importantly: Your Slack will work if everyone enjoys using it and finds it valuable.
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