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Channels Are Free

There’s a lot of Slacking on the planet right now. The essential practices of shelter-in-place are forcing us to rethink how we get work done especially when that work is dependent on a vast amount of interconnected humans. Pre-Pandemic, one of my opening pitches to current and future customers as the VP of Engineering for Slack1 was, “How often do you get a chance to reimagine how you work?”

Our work habits are precious. We’ve developed these habits over the years to bring calm predictability to the work chaos. They are personal, they are dependable, they are habits. These habits mustn’t change while everything around us – because of the industry we work in – continually changes. Turns out, it’s that nutritious chaos often results in evolutions to products and services that could improve our habits. Still, our resolute focus on our hard-earned habits to encourage productivity can blind us to these improvements.

As we collectively learn what it means to work from home, I’ve been giving a lot of advice regarding my Slack habits, and I want to focus on what I consider to be the most important advice: Channels are free.

Channel Guidelines

Before I explain why channels are free, I want to walk through my guidelines and decisions regarding how and when I create a channel.

Default to public. There are a great many justifiable reasons to make a channel private. There are a large amount of unjustifiable political and power trippy reasons to keep your channel private. Information wants to be free. You never know what value is created by a random piece of useful information landing in the brain of a person unknown to you.

Ask yourself as you stare at that PRIVATE or PUBLIC switch in channel creation. Why is my instinct to make this public? Is it company confidential information? PRIVATE. Are we going to discuss personnel topics? PRIVATE. Those are obvious ones, but after that, there is a lot of a grey area. There are corporate human habits here that run deep. This is my project. Or my idea. And I want only known people to see it. I get it, but what’s the risk of letting that idea be shared with others. Ideas get better with eyeballs.

A channel name should make sense to a random someone who is looking for it. #hgt-sla-qa? It’s a QA something. You’re not just making the channel readable to future members, but making it memorable to current members. This is related to…

A channel name should aspire to channel naming conventions, but not be beholden to them. The consistency police will have an issue with this guideline. If there are clear channel naming guidelines, I would greatly encourage you to follow said guidelines. Your channel will be easier to find and grok. However, the idea that the folks who set-up your Slack channel naming guidelines thought of every channel use case is flawed. There are emergent guidelines that are going to help channel name legibility and discoverability. Here are two I’ve been riffing on:

  • #tmp-channel-name – indicate to everyone this channel is going away when it’s purpose is served.
  • #priv-channel-channel – An obvious reminder to channel denizens that this channel is private for a reason and to keep that in mind.

My default attitude when creating a channel is consistency. Still, I also believe that part of the joy of moving over to Slack is reimagining better ways for the team to communicate and collaborate. Channel names effectively curate the content within a Slack workspace. They need to be useful, and channel naming conventions most certainly help, but they aren’t the complete answer.

Group DM or Channel? This feels more like a personal preference, but I almost always default to a channel versus a group DM. The primary reason is the recurring them in this piece: discoverability. It’s a genuinely short-lived topic-less conversation (It never is – why’d the channel get created? That’s the topic), then perhaps a group DM is the answer. Still, the moment that short-lived topic-less conversation goes on for three hours without resolution, I convert it to a channel with a proper name.

Should I Create a Channel?

For the new Slack user, a lot is going on. Workspaces, users, channels, emoji, threads, along with a slew of names and conventions to learn. After a few weeks of learning the ropes, there’s a moment when a new user will ask themselves, “Well, I have this thing I want to get done. It involves several people. It’s not just a conversation; it’s a project. Should I create a channel?”

Yes. Create a channel. Do it now. Don’t worry about the name. Don’t worry about inviting the right people. Just create the channel. Stop thinking. Click on the “+” and create that channel.

Done? Great. I want you to think about what you’ve just done. You’ve created a small virtual long-lasting focused place on the Internet for work to get done. It’s likely not the actual work but is the conversation, debate, and fact-finding that can improve the eventual quality of the work.

That’s the most important lesson I want to convey. There is very little negative consequence to the act of creating a channel2 and a channel created is a meeting that no longer needs to occur. It’s a mail that doesn’t need to be sent. It’s a mailing list – never created.

Don’t think. Just create the channel.

  1. I don’t work there anymore. 
  2. Ok, not totally free. Channel proliferation is a by-product of channels-are-free stylings, but guess what: channel deletion is free, too! 

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