Old man yells at Slack

I’ve spent basically half my adult life on the internet and as I get towards my later years I am becoming increasingly grumpy about the fact that those who fail to learn from internet history are doomed to repeat it. This week’s idiots: Slack.

Slack introduced and then hastily and embarrassingly withdrew a feature that allowed any user to direct message any other user unchecked, with an invite message including the full text you’d wanted to send. So you could happily sit there and message “I hope you die!” to anybody whose address you could find. As Prof. Megan Goodwin put it about the product announcement:

“Tell me no women were on your design team without telling me no women were on your design team.”

Journalist Millie Tran spelled it out:

“It’s truly unbelievable that companies still today don’t anticipate and plan for their platforms to be used as tools for abuse & harassment”

I remember when I used to work on designing the comment interface and features for the Guardian back in my past life*, I kept designing out the features that were often requested from the community: the ability to follow a user and be notified every time they commented, and getting a notification every time somebody replied to your comment.

User stories are a great way of designing features, but when you are designing community features on the web it is also useful to have user stories that start “I am an absolute arsehole and I want to…”, which in this case would be “troll a particular user every single time they posted a comment”.

And reply notifications would indeed be great for maintaining a conversation, but they also, on a news website, would be a vector of escalating arguments. You don’t need to try and drag people back into a heated thread the second someone has posted. And it would also mean notifying a user a comment has been left faster than moderators might have had a chance to zap abusive messages.

Anyway, there’s about thirty years of prior art on how not to build community features, and Slack decided to chuck all that into the bin and instead build an instant harassment engine. They may have pulled the feature, but they just signalled to a whole chunk of their user base that at the top table it simply doesn’t occur to them whether new features enable harassment.

As Katie Moussouris put it on Twitter:

“It’s as if diversity, equity and inclusion had real world bottom line business value. As in, if the executive team had listened to any typically-harassed populations, they might not have had this embarrassing rollout. So many things would be better if we had a seat at the table.”


*For the uninitiated, I spent years working in product and design in news media companies before becoming a journalist.