Do you want to hear some not-so-secret secrets?
Here — I’ll start with the boring and ease us into the juicy: The Daily Cal’s Slack workspace was founded in July 2014, about one year after the service’s public launch. We are nothing but early birds here. Since then, the workspace has grown from two weekly active users to 200, 32 gigabytes of files have been shared and a whopping 577,000 messages have been sent.
As it turns out, it hasn’t been a straightforward path to these statistics. The Daily Cal didn’t really know how to use Slack (“use” as in meaningfully employ it as a tool, as opposed to “use” as in dabble) until summer 2016, when overnight, we stopped exclusively reading and writing in public channels and direct messages, and discovered the untarnished freedom of the private channel. These days, private channels, where about two-thirds of all messages sent and 70% of all messages read, are by and far the most popular way to communicate in our workspace.
It seems we at the Daily Cal are doing a lot of talking.
Let’s back up for a second: Digital workspaces are nothing but reflections of company culture, and the Daily Cal is hardly a taciturn place to work. As I write this, I have received 37 messages in the #general channel. I acknowledge that these are abnormally trying times, but even conservatively, these missives are the tip of a hulking iceberg — since summer 2016, less than 1% of daily messages have been sent in public channels, out of which #general is the largest by message count. By that measure, today alone, I’d expect about 2,000 messages to have been sent in private channels and a thousand in DMs. Even for a bunch of writers, that’s a lot of talk.
What’s striking here is that a great deal of this talk is restricted in its audience. We are not the first workspace, and we certainly won’t be the last, to hold conversations behind closed doors. It’s not like things are secret-secret, just you know, private. Business communications platforms have always struggled with the appropriate amount of transparency. Email, for example, is too life-threateningly dull for a real group conversation; copying more than five individuals screams either imminent disciplinary action or Nigerian prince. Does everyone need to know or care about why you canceled this week? Slack simply melts away the whom-to-loop-in problem by reconfiguring it as the user’s choice.
Now you get to define who sees what and who reads what; it’s a wonderful problem to have. Imagine working your whole life with either the voice of a megaphone or a mouse, no in-between, until one day, you’re handed fine control of the decibels between. Now, everyone gets the freedom to have secrets. Work is just another landscape where technology has let us cut away our own niches, for better or for worse.
On the for-better side, these niches are great. They allow for a more authentic expression of self in a way that feels refreshing and can actually make work fun. Who you are in #general is different from who you are in #random and that is different from who you are in your DM with your work BFF, who you only hit up during half-hour bathroom breaks. It seems as though we’re building new distance between who we truly are and who we’re pantomiming to be for our coworkers, which can be valuable room to breathe.
But I’m warning you now that my tinfoil hat is on to diagnose the for-worse side, which is that someone’s always watching. In the end, you should still fear the day that DM sees the light of the office, since even if you’ve truly said nothing eminently career-ruining, it’ll still feel like betrayal to discover your real self actually lives vaguely outside of what you’ve defined as your work personality.
We’ve seen now several instances of Slack gone sideways, from labor-abusing CEOs reading private channels to the notion that it doesn’t actually improve your productivity. Privacy is a flimsy illusion in your personal media use, let alone in your corporate life. As it turns out, no one is the faceless, tireless worker bee their Slack profile might indicate. Your watchdog could be anyone from human resources to your bored local columnist, and one of those scenarios is a lot more harmless than the other. Welcome to the world of the not-so-secret secret, where the biggest secret no one’s telling you is that nothing is secret anymore.
I call all of this “slackpolitik,” a new system of living, writing and behaving so multiplicitous we’re losing track of it already. The boundary between work and life grows more and more porous, and it seems we’re not content with limiting the curated personality to Instagram. There’s no such thing as a neutral platform. Slack changed our work lives by bringing performance to productivity. Got news? Decide if you want to thunder in #general or whisper in a DM. You’re busy? Change your status emoji. Finished a task? Message the channel, and don’t forget to @everyone. Everything has an audience now.
Casey Li writes the Monday column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected]