Luke Andrews

The devastation of marking things read

29 July 2023

I first used a group chat app to get work done in the mid-2000s. I was a remote worker at a small software company and we used Campfire to communicate. Campfire was one of the first workplace chat apps, marrying the concept of Internet relay chat (IRC) with private groups of co-workers—a proto-Slack. We kept each other company across vast distances and time zones. We debated product design and code. We shared links and amusing GIFs and /played the sad trombone sound. We got stuff done.

In our leisure time, we naturally turned to Facebook and Twitter and slowly but surely got hooked on short takes, the serendipity of the feed, pull to refresh, and the like button. My formerly-prolific blogging all but ceased because tweets seemed easier and more fun.

Almost 20 years later, Slack and products like it are everywhere in tech and work, and increasingly everywhere else outside of work too. The feed is a constant. Former colleagues of large tech companies network with each other on Slack. Companies use group chat to build community and offer customer support. The housing advocacy group I support uses Discord as its main forum and alert mechanism. “@everyone There is a city council meeting tonight to discuss a new housing project! Can folks attend to support the missing middle?”

My life is a series of feeds and reminders. At the company I work at now, around 80 people are chattering away on Slack all day long across dozens of channels, some with customers, many with bots chirping happily away about the latest support ticket or a deploy to staging. A bot tells me when someone leaves a comment on a design. A feed lists discussion on all of the company docs. Candidates and colleagues and sales people are connecting on LinkedIn. I have unread messages. In the evening I’m catching up on tweets, Instagram stories, Mastodon, Threads, Substack subscriptions, and RSS feeds. My kids’ schools send us regular updates. “No assignments overdue this week.” My phone wonders if I might enjoy this week’s Featured Memory.

It feels good to get caught up. It scratches an itch to make all the red badges disappear, and to clear out my notifications. It feels useful to reply to my new colleague’s message with helpful context and a link to a doc. I stay informed because I review the day’s events and commentary on social media. I follow journalists and pay for newsletters. It feels good to read and mark things read.

I have a lot of meetings too, but in the moments between, I look over Slack channels and make sure I haven’t missed anything important. It’s my job to ensure the quality of the user experience of our software is high. To unblock my team with answers or help. People are debating and making decisions that affect our customers every day. I review. I weigh in. I tag other people. I mark things read.

I spend enough time doing this that it feels like it is the primary thing I do now. My job is to mark Slack messages read. That doesn’t seem right. This shouldn’t be anyone’s main job, should it? But increasingly, it feels like it’s the main thing, sometimes the only thing, drowning out all other work and all other effort. That doc I promised I’d start? That can wait—I’ll catch up in first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening when Slack is quiet. The design ideas I have rolling around in my head? Not enough focus time to get started. The blog post I’ve been noodling on? Maybe I can write a draft during my next flight and publish it later. Someday. Any day now.

What did we do before Slack? We emailed. We had meetings and conference calls. We signed into discussion forums and checked them from time to time. We tapped each other on the shoulder at the office. And to be fair, email could be addictive. It was tempting to check it all the time and hit reply right away, especially if the email seemed frustrating. If you didn’t, your inbox might start to pile up, causing some anxiety. A manager once coached me not to reply instantly all the time and I realized he was right. It could wait a bit. My inbox wasn’t that bad. Some emails should just get automatically ignored. For the others, I could think about what’s worth saying, or whether a conversation in person would be better. I could let things slide. I could select all unread messages and archive.

But now through text messages and social media and Slack, we are constantly being tapped on the shoulder. We ask for the tapping. “Any new shoulder taps I should know about?” And when we’re busy with the rest of our jobs and lives, we come back and there are 38 shoulder taps waiting their turn. I respond to one and a few seconds later, it taps me again while I’m trying to get through the other 37. It’s impossible to find that thread I was in last Tuesday where the important decision got made but where I forgot to @mention someone who should know about it and now I’m trying to share it with them. Is someone still waiting for my emoji response for a vote in that other channel? I’m not sure. My boss just Slacked me a new request. Let me tell Slack to remind me about that in the morning when I have time to complete it. Someone wrote some hasty and inconsiderate feedback about a project my team is working on. There’s a notification about a new app my daughter wants to install on her phone—should I grant permission? At the end of the day, my wife and I hastily make dinner, get the kids to bed, and then watch an episode of something. There are 5 unwatched episodes in this season remaining. A new episode will be released tomorrow. The TV has a software update. My oven has a firmware update to add the air frying feature. Would I like to review the changes to the privacy policy?

In an effort to calm my nerves, I start a new ceramics course. It’s 3 hours long each week. For 3 hours I am trying to centre a lump of clay on a wheel, and mold it up and down and in and out into something resembling a bowl. It is impossible to look at my phone. My hands are wet and covered in clay and this requires my full attention—it’s subtly, surprisingly difficult. I find I need to pay attention to my whole body to even have a hope of success. The next class I am trimming. I can feel the clay gracefully spinning as I cut away from it, watching the ribbons peel off like so many unread messages. We spend the last 20 or 30 minutes cleaning our stations, leaving the room tidy. Order has been restored. Clay does not tap me on the shoulder. It sits patiently and dries slowly.

At work we have a “hackathon”. People spend 3 days working on their projects and nobody is looking at Slack. At the end there are marvels. Thorny problems we’ve talked about for months suddenly have promising solutions. There are novel ideas that could radically alter our product for the better. Everyone agrees that this has been a great week, and it felt really good to have so much focus time to work on one thing, without interruptions. Without shoulder taps. Without knock brush.

The thing about the feed is that it has an infinite appetite. It can fill a chasm, but only with pebbles and sand. I can accomplish so many things, as long as they are each very small. As long as they require only a brief thought. But those things will shove their way in front of everything and everyone else that wants and deserves time, and they will keep itching like an endless brigade of mosquitoes.

The feed is the death of focus. At work it is productivity theatre. It is convincing us that we can do 8 things at once as long as those things are dousing small flames, never more than posts and replies and comments and reminders to do the things when we have more time. It’s fine as long as the sum of our endeavours is a small decision or a hot take or a shared commitment to some future work we will totally get around to next quarter when there won’t be as many distractions.

But that blog post I wanted to publish? It only happened once I deleted Slack from my phone.