On Slack channel naming conventions

I’ve been observing this pattern for a while.

A company adopts Slack. There is a brief period of fun when default channels are used for general chit chat. Pretty soon an RFC is issued with rules for proper use of Slack for work. Specifically - what should be posted where. More specifically - how to name Slack channels.

The rules are adopted with a huge aplomb and everyone starts making new, properly named channels. Soon there are hundreds of channels for every single aspect of daily work life. Doesn’t matter that a company is about 20 people at this stage. Every new hire is thoroughly briefed on the proper use of Slack, and what is considered a canon. Violators are reprimanded, repeat offenders shot on sight. I mean, this is serious work we are doing here, this is not some Discord.

What happens next is almost universally common. Most of new channels stagnate and die within days. Well, not really die - there are people following all the channels, just no one posts there, ever. A good, properly named channel, with specific, work related purpose on average lives for a few hours after its conception, with messages like “thanks for making this channel, we really needed one”, followed by a few links with occasional thread of comments. No one posts on said channel the next morning. We try to make a new, better named channel for that.

I’m always up for anthropological observation, and workplaces (even virtual ones) make for perfect observation grounds. I started using Slack back when you could use your favorite IRC client to connect to it, if you did not liked the default app. Oh yeah, if you ever wondered why all commands on Slack start with forward slash - that’s because it heavily derived from IRC at the very beginning.

(ok, IRC is a decentralised chat protocol that goes like waaaaay back, completely open sourced, can be hosted by anyone, and probably still tickles some warm memories for internet mammoths like myself)

I’ve also observed some companies doing Slack well. Like, how do you even measure this? My feeling today of Slack is mostly anxiety - it is something like JIRA but also on fire, and every time I open it, there’s something incredibly urgent that will catch up with me on the next performance review unless I address issues there all the time. A tad exagerrated, but generally this is the feeling. And yes, your work chat history is casually used against you on 1-1:s and performance reviews.

This was not always the case though.

I’ve seen companies using Slack in a way that brings you joy to open the app, find something inspiring that some of your colleagues posted earlier, engage in a constructive nerdy chat around a particular detail of an upcoming tech. Talk about what’s going to happen in the next few years with the Web. Feel good, and miss it when you’re away.

What’s the secret? Well, I’ve got one idea. You might like it, it’s easy to implement. It is about channel namings.

Definitions are killers of new ideas. Once you have a definition in place, the one that people agree on, flow of new ideas stops.

A well named channel, with the exact purpose, is hence a definition. The more narrow the purpose of the channel, the less people will want to post there. It also doesn’t help that there are lots of channels with precise definitions - now you have to figure out what is the one correct channel to post a thing that is in your head. More often than not one might give up and either post it on personal Twitter, or skip sharing altogether and get back to that JIRA ticket.

Best conversations I’ve had on Slack are either on #random or on #dx channels. Like, #dx here would be a channel for anything related to programming, or computers, or a microwave that is suddenly Turing complete. Everything is allowed, no rules are imposed, you can post in any way you like, threaded or otherwise. No one is looked at, everyone are encouraged. Message history on Slack doesn’t have to look like a book index - Slack search is so powerful you can find anything from the history in seconds doesn’t matter how it is formatted.

So yeah, as long as this is about public channels - and most channels should be company public - here are a few things you can try:

  1. Just let people use Slack any way they want.

Ah, it was just one thing after all. Phew, I hate long lists.

In all the honesty though - order is the enemy of creative spark. Well, maybe more like a resistor, if we keep the analogies to the electric realm. Let people invent their own rules, incubate them, have fun and as a result - joy coming to work every day. Even if the office is a virtual one. Actually - with remote work Slack is often the office for most of us. What’s worst - when you change works, Slack remains pretty much the same constant that you were hoping to get out from. But it is a tool - a powerful one, that can be shaped in so many different ways.

And you should never ever use Slack chat history against someone on 1-1:s or performance reviews. The opposite is allowed though - you can complement people on posting interesting stuff.