Slack Considered Harmful

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By Brendan

As of mid-2021, the effective transfer of most dynastic discussion and interplayer conversation to the BlogNomic Slack server has had corrosive results, consuming a great deal of both player energy and player enjoyment. While anyone playing BlogNomic can choose how to spend their attention, which means that individual choices have contributed to the cycle, that cycle cannot be abstracted from the specific software tool involved and its failures of interactive constraint. This is one player's argument for deactivating the Slack server in favor of alternatives.

Slack is overly ephemeral

I don't want to call out any specific examples of player interactions here, though it should be clear that I am complicit in many of them. But even if I did want to offer citations, the use of a free Slack server makes those interactions ephemeral, preventing archives by any method except screenshots. This stands in direct opposition to BlogNomic's institutional model of allowing player writing to stand in the record. Players have gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve the posts and comments on the game as far back to its inception as possible, and this wiki exemplifies how important changes through history is to BlogNomic culture. Slack precludes that kind of history, and in doing so, undermines accountability. This alone should be a reason to reconsider its use.

Another reason is that Slack's pace produces friction compared with the historic pace of the blog. Blogs are not high-speed media by internet standards; as of this writing, ExpressionEngine doesn't even allow players to post anything more than once every ten seconds. The resulting alerts are only issued to players who have opted in by commenting on a specific post, and are issued on the scale of minutes, or even hours in the case of the blog's feed and the bots that use it. Slack has become a separate stream of interaction that is a tacit requirement for participation in the game, and is designed explicitly to produce alerts and responses quickly and with high urgency, in a matter of seconds.

Slack can out-compete other attention addictions

In this frequency and urgency, Slack's interaction model takes many cues from other social media, all of which have well-attested issues and destructive effects of their own on the public sphere. Like them, it rewards attention-seeking behavior and escalating retorts by providing exactly the attention sought. Thoughtful or mild statements are rapidly pushed out of view at the first hint of conflict, allowing argument to dominate the visual space of any given channel. This self-perpetuating behavior should be familiar to anyone who has ever used Facebook or Twitter.

Slack has an attention advantage over even those media, however, because it's so common as the primary method of interaction with coworkers for people who work at a computer. The service's professional use has exploded from 2019 to 2021 for reasons that should be clear to everyone living in the current historic moment. You can close a Facebook tab or minimize your Tweetdeck to reduce its cognitive footprint. But if a player is logged in to the BlogNomic server via the same app they use for professional purposes--a use case I believe is not uncommon--then BlogNomic discussion maintains the same access to that player's attention and emotional state as their livelihood.

Slack is unfettered and unsafe

If there's one thing any player involved in BlogNomic should be prepared to reckon with, it is that rules and rewards affect human behavior, and never entirely in ways that are intended or predictable. Slack's development derived from its parent company's experience building a social game. That game dealt with unpleasant player behavior via a top-down control model, in which players could be isolated and assigned to a staff member for counseling. The developers must have learned how time-consuming and difficult to scale this method was, because they dispensed with it entirely when they built Slack. Instead, by positioning it as a tool intended primarily for professional working groups, they placed the risk and liability for all such behavior on the customer's end, devolving it back to the presumed corporate human resources administration. This is why they have never implemented even the most basic of safety tools, such as the ability to block or mute other users.

But BlogNomic is not a corporate client with administrative staff; it's a group of peers. This situation has come up before in my other experiences with "friend Slacks:" the indeterminacy of tone in written English, along with the inability to limit interaction or appeal to administrators, means that mild conflicts escalate to hostility very quickly. Players who do not enjoy argument for its own sake will suffer in this environment. Players who do enjoy it will thrive, and will have great power to set the pace and primary focus of interaction across many channels, regardless of their stated purpose. This is another way in which the use of Slack contributes to an environment lacking in accountability. BlogNomic is a game based on debate, but without respect, trust, and restraint, debate gives way to verbal brawling in a way that does not serve the game well.

A mildly superior alternative is still a superior alternative

Whatever my wishes, BlogNomic is unlikely to return to clumsy coordination restricted to blog comments and the built-in inbox. I believe that a dedicated channel for discussing events in an active dynasty is a problem that will continue to escalate conflict, but I also recognize that realistically, such a channel is here to stay. But though I know that pushing for migration on grounds of personal principle faces steep odds of successful persuasion[1], I want to push for it all the same.

Shortly before this writing, there was a brief discussion on Slack about Discord as an alternative tool, which I thought little of at the time. At a surface assessment, Discord is nearly identical to Slack: it has a weird emoji picker and by default its color scheme inverts Slack's, but it's still an app-website hybrid with #channels in a vertical sidebar and PMs. It has issues of its own, including a reputation for excessive resource consumption on the desktop. But its creators made it for people to play games with strangers, and in so doing, they rejected Slack's fundamental presumption of outsourced risk.

On Discord, any user can personally mute any other user for any period of time, which alone would improve my experience of discussion a great deal. In addition, Discord server admins can enable "slow mode" on a given channel to give tempers an opportunity to cool. Finally, at this time, free Discord servers have no archive size limit. Combined with its independence from the context of day-job attention, these things make it a better option for a complement to BlogNomic.

I would be glad to discuss setting up a Discord server and winding down Slack with other veteran players. I encourage you to engage with me on the subject in the comments of the blog post linking to this essay, or on this article's talk page.

A footnote

  1. Slack is fundamentally a glossier iteration of much older open-source technology (IRC). Its ease of setup, administration, and client connection aren't things to take lightly: they matter in terms of onboarding enough users to create a useful center of conversation. An IRC server, or more likely a set of channels on an existing server, would be a better option than Slack simply because it allows the medium to be abstracted from a context of work for many players. But preparing and onboarding to such a server is a significant barrier, and I would not expect it to succeed.