Slack Is a Hell of Our Own Making

Photo: Gary S. Chapman/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, Vox Media announced that it had acquired New York Magazine and its associated brands. This includes Intelligencer, the website you are reading right now. In an all-hands meeting at New York’s Canal Street office at noon yesterday, Vox head honcho Jim Bankoff and New York Media CEO Pam Wasserstein addressed the tension floating throughout the company. There will not be any layoffs, they stressed. It’s, supposedly, business as usual. Still, uncertainty lingered in the air.

Of the many known unknowns, a few centered around Slack, the workplace communication software popular in media circles. Anxiety regarding Slack yesterday was exacerbated by rumors and murmurs. In the afternoon, a similar all-hands meeting occurred at Vox’s headquarters in the Financial District, and a harrowing detail of the acquisition emerged. The gossip, as conveyed in a group chat of NYMag employees, was: “They told Vox we’re all gonna be on one Slack.” Absolutely devastating.

Slack, if you are unfamiliar, is a chat-room service aimed at enterprise customers, a communication system that facilitates real-time communication without having to actually, you know, speak to anyone or write a complete email. It is particularly popular among start-ups, tech-savvy companies, and digital-media newsrooms. For companies with a lot of remote workers, Slack is the newsroom — the vast majority of meaningful interactions I’ve had with my editor for this piece, for instance, occurred on Slack.

Slack serves many functions, large and small. You can be summoned to HR over Slack, you can share news or workshop ideas, or you can gossip and banter. There are public, official rooms for certain divisions, and private equivalents for select members. Low-ranking employees might have a channel separate from management. Maybe there’s a channel just for sharing pet pics, or one for alerting the office to leftovers and snacks that are up for grabs. BuzzFeed (in)famously had a Slack channel dedicated to freaking out about the musical Hamilton.

You might often see transcripts of Slack conversations posted on Twitter by media employees hoping to convey how cool and hip their work culture is. “We’re colleagues, but we can also laugh as friends!” The Slack screenshot is shorthand: We can be serious and also fun; aren’t you jealous you don’t work with us?

Just as companies develop their own idiosyncratic office culture, which is shaped by official policies and unofficial norms, every company also has its own Slack culture. In contrast to New York magazine, Vox Media has a policy that employees must use photos of their actual faces as their avatars. One NYMag staffer described the policy as “cop culture.”

Other New York employees vowed to resist. “I refuse to change my profile pic from a Jigglypuff,” Jackson McHenry told me. “I will remain Beanie Feldstein,” Madison Malone Kircher pledged. I, since 2015, have never had an avatar in New York’s Slack and, frankly, it would be weird if I did it now.

Because it is enterprise software, and mergers and acquisitions happen in business, Slack has a built-in functionality for merging two separate accounts, slamming two discrete worlds together with the click of a button. Imagine if Coca-Cola and Pepsi each made all of their internal discussions accessible to the other’s workforce at once. This is what Bankoff reportedly told his employees would happen eventually with Vox and New York, though he apparently gave no timetable or technical specifics on how the two would glom together. Survivors of other merger processes have described it as a stressful one.

A lesser known fact about Slack is that its name is, according to the company’s founder Stewart Butterfield, an acronym. It stands for “Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge.” Not menacing at all.

The software lives up to its name. If you’re a certain type of masochist, you can drop into your new employer’s Slack and search your name (from NYMag’s Slack chat on August 19, 2014: “who’s brian feldman”). In 2016, my colleague Max Read had his innocuous Slack joke about Hulk Hogan read out in court during the lawsuit that eventually bankrupted Gawker Media. The communication logs were included in the discovery process, a good demonstration of why lawyers would always rather talk on the phone.

Writing for New York’s nascent tech vertical at the time, Read assessed, “There’s a bible’s worth of casual (or joking) shit-talking I’ve done in Gawker’s chat archives, some of which would make me very uncomfortable (if not unemployable) if it got out — a wealth of gossip and prattle I should have just conducted in person.” Unfortunately, the lessons of Hogan were soon forgotten.

Shortly after word got out that Bankoff had pledged to merge Vox’s and New York’s Slack channels, the staff of New York’s defunct tech vertical, Select All, agreed that we would request that chief product officer Daniel Hallac, our Slack admin, wipe the #select-all chatroom. (Slack has a function that auto-wipes messages on a regular interval, but in a workplace context, I think most have the understandable instinct to retain as much data as possible.) “I don’t think I can nuke it entirely but definitely make it hard to access,” he said. I’ll take it.

I will not say what was contained within, nor, honestly, can I even recall specific comments. But there were certainly ungenerous through lines in our insular chat bubble. There were comments aimed at competitors that were legitimate critiques. I’m not too proud to admit that others were remarks borne of petty jealousy. Most were probably a bit of both. Some comments were probably extremely funny, incredible, solid-gold quips. The thought of those targets combing through our Slack archives is so remote a possibility that it’s easy to put it out of mind. What fools we were.

No doubt on the other side of the Vox–New York gulf, similar anxieties had presented themselves. One source warned me not to search for my name in the Vox logs. “Some interesting stuff in here,” deadpanned another employee who searched my name in Vox’s Slack and instantly pulled up a tweet of mine that one Vox employee deemed a “bad fucking take” (the poster’s name was redacted; I forgive you; I’ve never written a bad take). They told me they’d had similar discussions about chat archives.

That the workplace chat room has become more than a workplace chat room is by design. With Slack, work ostensibly never ends, it’s just a perpetual conversation that you are a part of. That employees feel comfortable letting loose in the confines of an ostensibly private chat room is not an anomaly, it’s the entire point. But when personal conversations and professional obligations collide, a Slack between friends becomes a ticking time bomb.


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