Backlash Against Group Chat

Group chat offers a particular approach to communication between people, characterised by rapid fire interaction, short sentences or thought fragments, and a fun and lively tone. This approach has several implications, such as:

  • The conversation space tends toward chaos, disjointedness, and dis-organisation. People weigh in on multiple, simultaneous and at times overlapping conversations within a given channel, and even across multiple channels. It is very easy to lose track of the essence of a conversation, and become caught in the vortex of apparent urgency. The nature of the medium calls for immediate feedback and interaction on new ideas, which results in an interrupt-driven always-connected work style. The focus on the hyper-short-term steals time and space from thinking on deeper issues and longer-term concerns for the team and its work.
  • The fast-paced interaction feeds the fear of missing out and contributes toward feelings of loss of control. Many Slack users, for example, find themselves impulsively and habitually checking their Slack channels to catchup on activity since they last checked in. Since topics are often discussed with too many words, over too long a time duration, and by people who are not even involved, responsible, nor accountable for decisions arising, active discussions become emotionally and cognitively overwhelming.
  • Short sentences and incomplete thoughts fired rapidly by multiple people into a conversation space undermines any semblance of a coherent line of argument. Such conversations are fragmented, shallow, and not good for depth of thought and insight. Some issues—many even—require a more thoughtful analysis and line of argument to be developed and written coherently in a longer document, whereas Group Chat merely has everyone endlessly chatting about it.
  • Social signals and team dynamics within a conversation space become confused in Group Chat. For example, is silence and non-participation in a topic an indicator of consensus, disagreement, or just that a team member isn’t currently available (and that the team should wait until they are available)? Conversations can quickly be commandeered by the noisy, quick-witted, and verbose members of the team, which when pushed to the extreme, can become workplace bullying and harassment.
  • A “discuss everything” principle can create the sense of always being in a meeting; or as one executive described it, “an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.” Always waiting for someone else to respond to your one line comment gives a convenient excuse for not actually doing the work to fully form your own ideas. Another executive commented that “you are constantly tempted to converse on Slack instead of thinking or planning or doing other work.”

In summary, Group Chat can become a significant driver of the fear of missing out, frustrating conversation dynamics, continual interruptions, mental and cognitive fatigue, and the elimination of time to think. Recent research into the use of social media among young people and adults has highlighted the mental health problems that result from frequent use (see here and here); there are already signals that such dynamics apply equally to adults in the workplace due to Group Chat tools.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen the above (and more) charges levelled at Slack. How long until we see an equivalent stream of concern about the usage of Microsoft Teams?

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