“Oh,” I slacked my Atlantic colleagues earlier this week, beneath a screenshot of a pop-up note that Slack, the group-chat software we use, had presented to me moments earlier. “A fresh, more focused Slack,” it promised, or threatened. On my screen, the program’s interface was suddenly a Grimace-purple color. I sensed doom in this software update.
Slowly, over the days that followed, complaints about the new Slack started trickling into our chats. “folks I cannot handle this new version of slack and will be taking the rest of the month off,” one Atlantic staffer said. “I am reverting to sending physical memos on personal letterhead,” posted another. “all my slacks are: I hate the new slack,” slacked Adrienne LaFrance, the magazine’s executive editor. (Later on, she messaged me separately to see if I would write about Slack’s terrible new format.)
All change is bad when you don’t think you need it. But this change felt distinctive because it laid bare a difficult fact: Office work is now more like social media than like office work.
The new Slack is not, in fact, “more focused.” It adds a dedicated “Activity” tab, which catalogs every user’s movement in your vicinity on the software, along with a numeral that counts them up: mentions, emoji reactions, replies, thread replies, app notices. These are tallied separately from notifications on the “Home” tab, which light up channels and DMs, and “Unreads,” a collection of every single post I have not yet seen but apparently ought to.
The overwhelm associated with contemporary white-collar work is legendary. Idleness was once the ultimate goal of the rich and powerful, but over time, even they would embrace workism. Being endlessly on call produces misery but also signals consequence. “How are things?” a colleague from another department asks in the workplace kitchen. “Oh, busy,” you say. The rat race is a source of meaning. Without you, the whole place would fall apart! (It wouldn’t.)
Technology has strengthened this illusion. The ring-ring-ring of an office, the ping-ping-ping of arriving emails, the ability to access those messages from home (or the train, or the toilet): All of these innovations converged on the same effect. Office chat software is nothing new—I used ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger at work in the 1990s. But Slack offered a distinctive product at an opportune time, emerging from the corpse of a failed video game just as the internet took over everyday life. It exuded a “casual, effortless culture,” as my colleague Ellen Cushing wrote in 2021, that pervaded companies—especially tech and media companies—during the second Obama administration. Slack was everything that email wasn’t: soulful, fun, energetic, young.
Another flavor of software from that time felt the same way: social media. As the smartphone matured, Twitter and Facebook, as well as Instagram and LinkedIn, buried boredom behind an infinite scroll of content. Email and then blogging had begun that process, but social media massively increased the quantity of posts and posters. To finish drinking from the fire hose was impossible, but dipping into it offered instant gratification—something to love or hate, two emotions that seemed to fuse in life online.
Social media made individuals into a burlesque of themselves, an “online version” that spoke or acted independently from their whole being. As the private domains of social networks—friends, family, co-workers—grew into the global commons of social media, performance overtook all other goals. Clever quips, suggestive photos, funny memes, viral videos all said whatever they said, but they also fashioned people into online caricatures, constructed or evolved to garner more attention. Eventually, posting became its own end: pursuing likes or shares, growing a following to monetize, transforming into an “influencer” or a “creator”—a professional poster whose medium was social media itself.
From the start, Slack’s hip vibe made it feel more like social media than enterprise chat. It was colorful. You could post emoji. You could create custom emoji for your company, supporting in-jokes and private languages (The Atlantic’s Slack features a phalanx of alt-tacos). At Slack-centric companies, the stream of a popular channel runs as quickly as a social-media feed, posts swimming past, several people are typing. This is work for a generation that thinks that work is or should be like the internet, and vice versa.
But Slack embraces both the light and dark sides of social-media life. A work-chat self now feels distinct from a work self, let alone a whole self. As on social media, the urge to weigh in, react, inveigh—in short, to post—has taken over, whether or not actual work is being facilitated in the process. As on social media, extreme positions proliferate on Slack, with workplace posts reading more like takes than like office talk. Even my Atlantic colleagues’ reactions to Slack’s rebrand seem profoundly overstated, shared because the software and the moment conspired to make them share-worthy.
Slack’s new redesign, with its fresh prods to engage, makes the software feel even more like social media. The interface has always seemed hell-bent on getting you back into the program, even if you’d prefer to do the actual work that your job demands. An icon flags unread posts in brightly colored circles. Channel names are bold until you scroll up and down to clear them. Why pick up the phone when you can do an audio “huddle” inside of a DM? Almost all software wants you to look at it, but Slack, a supposed productivity tool meant to help knowledge workers recover from their email, demands more fixation than email ever did.
So there is a refreshing honesty in the Slack update that my colleagues are lamenting. It admits that work is secondary. Making deals, managing employees, designing products, executing marketing—all of those activities are surely worthwhile pursuits for knowledge workers. But as with all of the great enterprise software that preceded it, one now gets those things done in spite of Slack rather than by means of it. Most important, for the workers using Slack, is using Slack.