It’s altogether possible that among some of the workers, friends and people with otherwise undefined relationships that make up its eight million daily users, the chat software Slack has delivered on its stated purpose of making work "simpler, more pleasant and more productive". In my personal experience it has sometimes accomplished one or another of these goals, though rarely at the same time.
What Slack does do extremely reliably is provide a chatroom in which you may or may not be required to participate as part of your job. In that sense it’s like its forebears Hipchat (which will shut down on February 15), Campfire (now defunct, unless you already used the program) and IRC (which is a protocol and predates all the others, but now’s not the time to get into that).
But due to a mixture of timing, some good design, ease of use on a smartphone, and the whims of extremely wealthy people, Slack (the company) is said to be worth over a billion dollars and is growing. That means millions of its aforementioned users have to figure out how to behave in their newish, probably work-based chatroom home.
The trouble with offering rules of etiquette for Slack is that the rules that apply will vary a lot from situation to situation. How you ought to behave in your work Slack is different from how you ought to behave in your shooting-the-breeze-with-friends Slack. And the way you should talk in your company Slack will vary depending on where you work.
That said, like the rest of the internet, the way Slack functions in general creates a few rules which really should be followed in order for you to coexist harmoniously with your coworkers, or whomever the hell you’re talking with.
1. Imagine whatever you say being read out loud in public
Admittedly, this doesn’t only apply to Slack. It’s also worth applying this rule to email, or basically anything you say online. But it especially applies to Slack. (It may help to think of it as the "What if this were read in open court?" rule.)
Chatrooms are informal, and that informality encourages shooting the breeze in a way that isn’t always appropriate or safe when you’re using a program that may at some point in the future allow your boss(es) or the wider world to read what you’re saying, even in your direct messages.
Once again, depending on where you work or who you’re talking to, what’s OK may vary. But unless you control the data retention settings (which you almost certainly don’t), conduct yourself with a lot of caution.
You could end up the victim of mistaken privacy settings: As New York Magazine’s Molly Fischer described last year, sometimes people will get caught talking crap just because they thought they were in a private channel and were actually in a public channel.
Even if talking crap is the norm at your company, it’s never a bad idea to proceed with caution — better to be the more restrained person in the room than the person playing it too fast and loose.
2. Be careful with @channel and @here
Slack has two functions, @channel and @here, which allow you to send a notification to everyone in a given channel/room and everyone using that channel on their desktop, respectively.
These are extremely useful if you need to quickly inform everybody about something such as a fire drill, free food, or some sort of breaking news pertinent to everyone’s life. They’re extremely annoying when they’re used to ask if anyone has a spare pen.
The potential for abuse and errant notifications when using @channel and @here is such that when you use the former, Slack will double check that you want to do so, telling you how many people you’ll be sending notifications to and how many different timezones those people are distributed across.
3. Respect people’s 'status'
It isn’t too far off the mark to say that Slack is essentially an AIM chatroom that adults are made to participate in as part of work, and in keeping with that role, it allows users to set their “status” to indicate they are in a meeting, or on holiday, or out sick.
Respect those statuses. If it isn’t urgent, and someone’s busy, maybe just chill out and wait until they’re back at work before bombarding them with messages. Get a glass of water, take a walk, do some other work - there are plenty of things to do with your time other than sending someone who is otherwise occupied a series of messages.
It may also be helpful to apply this rule to after-hours messaging, in the French style.
Once again, this is extremely situation dependent: Maybe it’s OK to message someone who’s unavailable as long as you mention it isn’t urgent, but they might get a notification or two.
4. Organisation is key
This one’s pretty simple. Naming conventions may vary from place to place (or as a way for overzealous new bosses to assert their presence), but there are decent odds that at some point you will be in at least a couple of similarly named channels.
To avoid mistakes, and the potential embarrassment of putting something meant for a private channel in a public channel, use starring, muting and the other customisation options built into the software to group your channels and messages by type, importance, or whatever helps you avoid screwing up.
4. If you’re at work, you should probably use an avatar that makes you recognisable
There’s some wiggle room on this, though some companies enforce it as an official policy. Slack has become the de facto method for communication in a lot of the workplaces that use it, and with that comes the fact that people will know you by the avatar you use. If that’s your face, it will help coworkers recognise you, but if it’s a 19th century illustration of a monkey (an avatar I used for several months once), it will not.
While on the topic of recognisability, be careful about being too talkative (or seeming too talkative, at least) when you’re supposed to be working. If you have some sort of deadline or your boss knows you’re supposed to be taking care of a specific task, spending a lot of time in a public channel talking about lunch could cause you trouble. At the very least, take that to the secret channel you use to complain about said boss.
5. Be careful with /giphy
Slack has a very popular plugin that allows users to post a GIF by typing /giphy [search term]. The plugin finds a GIF on the GIPHY service that’s tagged with the term you search for, and puts it up.
This is cool, but you don’t get to review what GIF it posts. That means you can get some pretty suggestive GIFs, or at least GIFS with some sort of unintended meaning, since the GIFs the integration provides are G-rated by default. So, y’know, be judicious with that command.
This can be changed to allow you to review the GIF before posting, but that option isn’t turned on by default.
6. Be welcoming
One of the side-effects of Slack becoming a de facto mode of communication in offices is that it can make new hires feel alienated.
Your Slack is probably replete with private channels that you and your work friends use to gossip, or post dumb crap, or share pet photos, or all of the above. That’s fine (though remember rule number one), but if you’re laughing across the office at some meme or private joke in one of those Slack channels, the new person probably feels confused, and maybe left out.
That doesn’t mean you have to invite them to all of your cool secret channel, but try talking to them, or saying hello, or sharing some sorta lunch advice. Maybe even invite them to some of your cool secret channels. Do it because it’s a nice thing to do for another person.
7. Mistakes will happen
Etiquette is customary, and Slack etiquette is no exception. Unless where you work or the group of friends you hang out with on Slack have enforced rules, most of the above (and any other rules you may have) are malleable. You will probably screw up and break the informal rules at some point, as will others.
If these are big, really bad breaches that makes others feel unsafe or really unwelcome, that’s a big deal that might require action. If someone posts too many benign GIFs, that isn’t such a big deal. When it comes to the latter case, be judicious with how you react, and remember that everybody makes mistakes. When in doubt, a judicious, speedy and earnest apology never hurt anyone.
8. Think about who needs to be in your Slack
The reality is that almost all of the time, Slack is a form of work. It can be a fun part of work, or a relatively benign part, but unless the Slack you’re in is just you and your friends, it’s still part of employment. If you’re a full-time employee, that probably means you’re going to have to be in the company Slack, but not everybody has to be there.
If you’re someone working with freelancers, or other contractors, consider whether or not they really need the extra task of keeping up with another messaging service. If they’re involved with day-to-day operations, maybe that’s the case, but if you talk to ‘em once a week, maybe spare them the trouble.