Tech Life A self-regulating community

Shaping Your Slack

I’m actively a part of five different Slack teams. The four teams other than Slack HQ1 fall into two distinct profiles:

Social: A couple of dozen of humans all hanging in a single channel. There may be other one-off channels created, but the vast majority of the message traffic lands in #general (or equivalent) or direct messages. Everyone knows each other and since there is usually a single channel, the conversation organically wanders painlessly.

Community: I’ll define a Community Slack as a team with hundreds to thousands of denizens. You think the size of the team is the primary difference, and you’d be partially right. However, it’s more relevant that the majority of the humans are strangers.

The community’s vast collection of humans means more channels. It’s not just that everyone speaking on #general would be intolerably noisy, channel proliferation is a function of the diverse interest of the humans. This is exacerbated by my policy on the Leadership Slack being “channels are free” which means anyone can create a channel and name it whatever they like.

Hundreds of strangers talking on a dizzying amount of channels. Not only is it an intimidating situation for newcomers, but it’s also a slippery slope for current residents. In small social Slacks, communication is familiar and quickly error-corrected because we share names, we know each other.

How do you build evolving and scalable understanding amongst strangers?

A Safe Place for Similar Interests

The productivity of the Leadership Slack Community continues to exceed my expectations. It was started as a low risk and low commitment experiment. It started a year ago as an experiment and now has over two thousand members with 400+ daily readers and 150 daily writers. Graphically that looks like this:


Administration of this Slack has continued to be minimal. This could be a function of the fact the chosen domain is leadership, but I also created the smaller Destiny Slack and administration cost there is also minimal.

At Leadership, we have gradually evolved a set informal conventions as the Slack has grown and I wanted to share them as I believe they are helping shape the Leadership Slack into a high bandwidth place to learn.

First, there are two built-in mentions that require judgment in larger channels: @here and @channel. @here will alert every active member of the channel to your message. Active doesn’t mean active on that channel, but any channel. @channel will broadcast the message to everyone on the channel regardless of the activity status.

While users and admins have control of how notifications work in Slack, the assumption is always everyone is going to get this notification. Usage of @here and @channel require per channel judgment. How many humans are here?, Why do I feel everyone needs this message?, and How important is what I’m writing?

We’ve also borrowed and evolved our own conventions:

  • raccoon is an emoji convention I picked up from Slack and talked about here. The raccoon is a pleasant and low friction way of saying to the channel, “This conversation is probably best had elsewhere.” raccoon is heavily used on the Leadership Slack to keep the channel conversations focused. More importantly, it’s a tool to prevent conflict. Tucked inside that cute little raccoon is all that any channel resident needs to confidently say, “Hey, can we move this interesting topic elsewhere?”

  • In the spirit of raccoon, we’re trying 🐬, as well. A 🐬 says, “Hey, I am leaving this channel and please don’t read anything into this departure. Peace.” The :dolphin: is intended to prevent misunderstanding around rage quitting a channel. If there is a rich conversation on a channel and a resident not interested in listening, they simply 🐬 and leave. We introduced this convention to the Slack team a few weeks ago, and I can’t yet say it’s as useful as :raccoon:, but we’re going to see if it sticks.

  • Using built-in functionality, Slackbot answers commons questions (RCA? Slackbot says, “Root cause analysis”) and also corrects terminology that we’ve determined aren’t inclusive in our group (You guys? Slack corrects, “I think you mean ‘y’all'”).

On top of these social conventions, the Community has also built a confusingly named tool called Destalinator that performs several daily actions:

  • Creating a new channel will cause the channel name and purpose to appear on #zmeta-new-channels.
  • If a message gets two 💾, the message will be broadcasted on our #zmeta-flagged channel for folks who want a curated digest of what’s interesting on the Slack.
  • Finally, Destalinator watches for channels which have become silent (or perhaps stale?) for 30 days and then Slackbot asks those quiet channels, “Hey, I’m going to archive this channel in 30 days. If you don’t want this to happen, say anything AT ALL, and we’ll reset the clock.” The Destalinator is a healthy channel reaping counter-measure to my liberating “channels are free” policy.

There are channels which debate these conventions, there are channels which guide the development of these tools, but there are no conventions that define a naming scheme for the channels. Maybe later?

Self-Sustaining Community

When I first created the Leadership Slack, I wanted a thriving and self-regulating community of leaders who were learning from each other. It took six months of small nudges and marketing activities to acquire an initial base of humans to build the team, but since then we’re consistently growing regarding the number of readers and writers.

Whether this success is a function of timing or community management, I don’t know. What I do know is that each of my active Slack teams whether they are social or community are an integral part of my day. I participate more each day.

Groups of strangers in the wide open spaces of the Internet have a crap track record when it comes to cultivating respect. It’s perhaps partially due to the powerful (and important) anonymity of the Internet, but also because it’s often too hard to have an effective and high bandwidth conversation regarding how a group’s communication style evolves. These small Slack conventions, these little tools on our Slack, help us to avoid misunderstanding so we can continue to focus on the task of learning.

  1. I work at Slack, but these are my words. 

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3 Responses

  1. Fascinating conventions. I would have never thought to use emoji in this way. Sadly the raccoon doesn’t ship with Slack by default. 🙂

  2. Mark Schultz 7 years ago

    Great direction and conventions. Something I think a lot of teams can benefit from.

    I’m curious if you have any thoughts or conventions on helping large community teams that don’t have funding to pay per user. I’m part of a community team right now that often suffers from running out of storage and a lack of history.