Slack & the next step in the evolution of messaging

German version of this article

I am now communicating with my parents on Slack, having been inspired by this account of someone who uses Slack for family-internal communication. So far it works well, with no major issues encountered. Previously we have been using a messaging app – not WhatsApp like many, if not most other families in Europe, but Kik (don’t ask me how that happened). In any case, the concept of smartphone messaging was not foreign to them.

I created a new team on Slack, invited my parents, introduced them to how “public” channels and private messaging work on Slack, how to post content such as articles or videos. I created a specific channel for links to good articles (which we until now have been exchanging via email) and I informed them about that they can run Slack in the browser, too (Slack’s desktop app does not work with older Windows versions). My mother already asked me if she should recommend Slack to her friends as well, but I advised her to wait a bit since after all, the service is not optimized for the average (German) leisure user belonging to the generation 55+. Yet.

“Yet” because I start to think that what Slack offers in regards to functionality is the future of group communication in general. For all kinds of groups, not only those comprising of people who work together on projects. Slack represents the evolution of messaging and possibly even of social networking.

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First, there was traditional SMS texting between 2 people. With the introduction of the smartphone, data-based messaging apps appeared and increased the versatility of texting while simultaneously making it free. What followed was the rise of group messaging. Now Slack and comparable team communication services such as Hipchat, Flowdock, Grape or Stackfield demonstrate what comes next in group communication: Previous single-thread messaging groups are being transformed into mini social networks, which re-package and combine the best features from previous social networking generations and chat services, optimized for efficient, effective and fun group communication, no matter on which device.

Slack

Imagine a group of 10 family members actively using a service like Slack. Over time they would create a few public channels which each member can see, for general chatter, gossip, funny videos, pictures from celebrations. They’d also start various group channels each including only selected members (for organizing a birthday party, for vacation planning, for more personal exchanges among siblings etc.). Of course they also would use private messaging for the traditional person-to-person chat.

By being a platform with ever-expanding capabilities, there would be a lot of possible ways to enhance the experience for every family member. The admins of the team could set up automatic imports of news, movie recommendations, football results or weather information. In the future, such a central communication hub could even include integrations of smart devices, allowing the control and accessing of IoT-enabled homes. Basically, with a bit of imagination and a flexible technical platform, such a group communication hub could become everything its members want it to be – which is depended on what type of group we are looking at. A core family team has different needs than a bigger family circle, a group of friends has different needs than members of a sports team. On Slack, you can be members of multiple teams, which is the foundation of the scenario I am painting here. One user being member of multiple teams, each with their individual set of members.

In my eyes, the structure and functionality offered by Slack is the natural next step of group communication, since with the increasingly crucial role of of private group communication for all parts of life, the one-thread-fits all approach of current messaging apps such as Messenger and WhatsApp quickly reaches its limitations in regards to usability and user experience.

Assuming one shares this perspective, the really interesting question is: Who will be the driving force here? Slack shows how it is done and is introducing the concept of group communication hubs to millions of professionals who then might seek similar experiences for their personal communication – e.g. by creating Slack teams for friends, families or by joining public communities sourrounding hobbys or mutural interests.

But currently, Slack specifically wants actual teams. Ideally those whose communication needs will be advanced enough so they have to subscribe to one of the paid plans. The company does not actively do anything to prevent people to bring their family on Slack, but these use cases are not part of its brand message. Will that change one day? Maybe. It probably also depends on the competition.

Maybe existing messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Messenger will become more like Slack, capturing the market of the “non-professional” group communication hub which clearly exists. Facebook never shies away from changing its services to adjust to changing digital environments. With Facebook at Work it even has launched its own Slack competitor, and with the integration of businesses into Facebook Messenger, the popular messaging app will inevitably evolve  past its current state.

Chart

Essentially there are two concepts for messaging that will be competing with each other: The one-thread-per-group approach employed by pretty much all smartphone messaging apps (“concept 1”) and the mini-social network approach employed by Slack and other team communication services (“concept 2”). Concept 1 is very easy to understand even for inexperienced users but not suited for complex communications and advanced scenarios. Concept 2 is slightly less intuitive for inexperienced users but is much more suited for complex communication and sophisticated use cases.

Will both approaches eventually merge? Will concept 1 remain the dominant structure for messaging apps, or will concept 2 take over? I think with a likelihood of 60 %, the latter is going to happen. Even if not, concept 2 for sure will become much more common as approach of choice of future communication tools.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting chain of thought. I agree that Slack allows for a much more complex team communication, thus in a way reflecting real-life communication structures better than what you call “concept 1”. At work we switched to Slack a bit more than a year ago, having since sent more than 600.000 messages. I cannot think back to a time where Skype was our only synchronous communication tool.

    In my opinion, there are two issues still preventing Slack from becoming even more successful for the classic, concept 1 use cases:
    1. Being a part of several teams is still a bit too obscure. I know I can easily switch teams even using keyboard shortcuts, but I have to do that to really see what’s going on in the other teams. Also, I still have to set up every team on every device (I’m currently part of 4).
    2. Tied to the concept is also the issue that I “exist” multiple times. In every team, there is a different Mathias – I cannot just give someone my “Slack handle” like I might do on Skype, Facebook or Whatsapp. That also means that signing people up to Slack is more complicated than in concept 1 and might keep people from joining your Slack team.

    Unrelated, and concerning the topic “will Slack replace email”: One thing that’s clearly missing to me is a notion of an “inbox” of some kind. Starring a message doesn’t do the trick for me (maybe that’s just me), so what I sometimes do is to create a to-do list item with a link to the Slack message link – cumbersome.

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