Group chat: "an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda"

37 Signals' Jason Fried was there when the company launched Campfire, a pioneering group chat for business that made it easier for whole companies to follow each others' work; 10 years later, he's ready to talk about the ways that group chat gets in everyone's way.

Fried lays out the advantages of group chat: it's an efficient way to hash things out quickly, to coordinate in an emergency, to have fun and foster a sense of collegial belonging. Then he lays out the (many) minuses: group chat is a stream of continuous, anxiety-causing interruptions that subtly demands that employees treat everything as urgent, at the expense of thoughtful deliberation and reflection. Because important things that aren't emergencies get settled in group-chats, taking a break from the chat can mean missing out on the chance to be heard before critical decisions are made.

Realtime chat encourages bad conversational norms, from continuously updating your peers on every tiny event in your worklife, filling their queue with dozens of alerts about things that could just as readily be summarized at the end of the day (or week) to rambling, repetitious discussions that never fully wind down, continuously rekindled by drive-by participants who drop in and reopen settled points.

The net result is a dystopia of "manic context-shifting and continuous partial attention" where your muscle-memory of alt-tabbing into the chat to clear new messages turns into an "attention residue" that makes it harder to focus on anything else.


Fried raises many other excellent points that I urge you to review for yourself. Most importantly, he pre-emptively addresses those who claim that the problem is users, not apps -- that users are "using it wrong." Fried says that "tools encourage specific behaviors. A product is a series of design decisions with a specific outcome in mind." Critically: "if people are exhausted and feeling unable to keep up, it’s the tool’s fault, not the user’s fault. If the design leads to stress, it’s a bad design."

I'm a huge (even pathological) fan of asynchronous communication. Partly that's down to the decade-plus I spent in the EU, many timezones away from most of my collaborators, but more, it's because I do a lot of different -- but related -- tasks: journalism, novel-writing, speeches, activism, comments to regulators, essays, interviews, etc. These can all be usefully time-sliced into, say, 20-minute work sessions, but not less, and only in an order that makes sense and conforms to my own cognitive rhythms. To get work done in the age of distraction, I need to be able to manage my queue -- the ability of other people to demand priority on my queue disproportionately disrupts the flow that lets me get so much done.

Fried says that the latest version of Basecamp is designed to privilege asynchronous workflows, with realtime communication reserved for emergencies. It's a humane approach that focuses on giving people the time to reflect and do meaningful work, downplaying the activity-for-activity's sake that may give a sense of accomplishment (or at least busy-ness) without generating much of lasting value.

Whatever tool you use, I urge you to review Fried's specific recommendations:

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Stop expecting everyone to be in chat all day long. Don’t set an expectation that people should have a chat window open all day. Make chat something you bounce into and out of purposefully, not stick around all day.

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If it’s important, slow down. If it’s an important conversation, it shouldn’t happen in the chat room. Chat should be about quick, ephemeral things. Important topics need time, traction, and separation from the rest of the chatter.

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Announcements aren’t chats. Related to the point above, if you have to make a company/group-wide announcement you need to make sure everyone sees, don’t post it in the chat room. Send it asynchronously (via something like Basecamp or email or whatever you use that provides asynchronous communication options).

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Give everyone a chance to consider and have a say on a reasonable schedule. Thoughtful feedback isn’t just an answer, it’s time + an answer. Time is a key component to formulating a complete thought. So create some time for people by asking for feedback asynchronously — let people respond on their own time. You can set a limit like “I need feedback by tomorrow” or “We’ll keep this topic open until the end of the day Wednesday” to set boundaries and limits.

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Treat chat like a sauna — stay a while but then get out. Find yourself staying in a room/channel too long? Think about it like a sauna or a hot tub. It feels good for a while, but it’s unhealthy to stay too long.

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Treat group chats like conference calls — don’t get everyone on the line. The smaller the chat the better the chat. Think of it like a conference call. A conference call with 3 people is perfect. A call with 6 or 7 is chaotic and woefully inefficient. Group chats are no different. Be careful inviting the whole gang when you only need a few.

Is group chat making you sweat? [Jason Fried/Signal v Noise]

(via O'Reilly Radar)