Slack isn't community software

I remember when Slack invaded the company I worked for. We had an in-house chat system[1] our developers used and the sales team had moved to Gchat.[2] Everyone agreed we needed to pick one platform and move the company there. Upper management in particular lost patience with having to juggle two chat programs.

I believe it was design who first tried out Slack. They invited people from other teams to join them. For almost everyone who tried Slack it was love at first sight. Between the clever onboarding, easy integrations, an app for iPhones and features that made chat fun, Slack easily became the chat system of choice.

happy sloth GIF

Developers and the community team held out because we depended on some features in the in-house chat system, but the power of the network effect eventually brought us in from the cold. Every company I’ve worked at has either used Slack or employees have begged to use it.[3] It works well enough for almost everyone in spite of manifest imperfections. Slack didn’t replace email, but it has become a necessary part of many remote workplaces.

One of the reasons Slack infiltrated so many workplaces seemingly simultaneously was via viral marketing. Since Slack has a free tier, a few people could start using it for their team. When they need to work with someone on another team, they can invite people into their workspace. Those people might get interested in using Slack too and invite more people. Next thing you know, the company has a dependency on Slack and it’s much easier to decide to pay for it.

From there it became natural for people to start professional communities on Slack. Everything that made it spread inside a company helped Slack spread across company lines. It certainly helped that people could have all of their workspaces on one app. Most of the missing features of the free version (SSO, video meetings and unlimited integrations) don’t much matter for cross-company communities.

Now there’s one feature that I miss from free Slack: history is limited to the most recent 90 days. That’s not a problem in the beginning as nothing is missing for the first 90 days of the workspace. Because Slack is essentially blinged out IRC, it’s largely a real-time, synchronous system. People don’t worry about searching history when the discussion has moved on.

Unfortunately for free Slack, history does matter to communities. The reasons just aren’t obvious until it’s too late. As a case study, I was looking for a new job back in 2021 and I remember a DM conversation in a Slack could be useful to me now. It’s obviously way past the 90 limit, so I can’t[4] read it:

I guess I could request a free trial, but I’m not an owner or admin. In any case, it would help me for the moment, but not solve the bigger problem. At this point I’m better off grabbing the other person’s email address and starting a new conversation altogether.

One of the Slack workspaces I’ve used has a #conflagration channel. Why? It depends on who you ask. Nobody can be sure because the history has been lost. An oral culture can work without history, but it’s a lot harder to pull off without the benefit of physical interactions. It certainly can’t happen without an emergent hierarchy with lore-keepers ascendant and new members facing a daunting initiation. Maybe you’d do that to join a fraternal order, but not an obscure online group.

It’s clear to me that Slack isn’t really interested in supporting cross-organization communities. Their business model requires someone to eventually pay for the service and it’s not easy to see who would have the budget. Recently Slack changed the definition of active user to make large communities more expensive. Slack works as well as as it does for this use case despite the company lacking any interest in that business.

That brings us to the question of what would be a better option. My answer would be Discourse. For a private group, the cost is between $20 to $50 a month,[5] which will be cheaper than $7.25 per user per month for all but the smallest of communities. Now that Discourse has chat, there’s even a convenient way to have synchronous conversations. Discourse is built by a company that really understands community, so I have every reason to believe it will continue to be an effective platform.

Slack still has the viral marketing advantage, though. You can’t just start a free community on Discourse, invite new people and watch it spread. So that’s why I started Build Civitas. For the low, low price of free, you can start your own group on this site. It’s limited in ways that make sense for a startup community and you own your entire history.

  1. To be fair, it was suffered from programmer design. ↩︎

  2. Not to be confused with this or this. Google’s chat products are confusing! ↩︎

  3. Microsoft Teams isn’t great, but it comes free with plans that include Outlook. ↩︎

  4. Well, I can because I know how to use the Inspect tool in Chrome. ↩︎

  5. It can be as low as free if you don’t mind doing all your own system administration. ↩︎

Much of this is way out of my knowledge area, but I appreciated your overview of possible platforms for community. Still figuring out how I would set up a small community!