Why Slack is inappropriate for open source communications

Full disclosure: my employer makes a Slack alternative. All my concerns about the use of Slack type chat services apply equally to its competitors, including my employer’s.

I’ve tweeted a few times about my frustration with the movement of open source projects from open, asynchronous, communication tools like forums, mailing lists, and issue trackers, to closed, synchronous communication services like Slack. This post is a long form version of my gripe.

What is Slack good for?

Before I stick the boot in, let’s talk about the good things about synchronous chat applications like Slack, HipChat, and so on.

In a work context, chat applications take the place of @staff email blasts about fire system testing, broken lifts, and spontaneous availability of baked goods. This is a good thing as this kind of company spam is often impossible to unsubscribe from.

In the context of an open source project, Slack, HipChat, Gitter, etc, provide a forum for advocacy, gossip, informal discussion, and support. My complaints start when Slack and friends are promoted as the recommended way to communicate with the project.

Why is Slack bad for open source communication?

My complaint about the growing use of chat services like Slack, HipChat, and so on, for communication by open source projects is that these services are not open. As I see it there are two issues:

  1. Slack, et al, are paid services with closed memberships. Sure, there are lots of little apps running on Heroku dyno’s that automate the “send me an invite” process, but fundamentally these are closed systems.

    This means that the content inside those systems is closed. I cannot link to a discussion in a Slack channel in a tweet. I cannot refer to it in an issue report, and I cannot cite it in a presentation. Knowledge is silo’d to those who have the time and ability to participate in chat services in real time.

  2. Slack, et al, are based on synchronous communication, which discriminate against those who do not or can not take part of the conversation in real time. For example, real time chat discriminates against those who aren’t in the same time zone–you can’t participate fully in an open source project if all the discussion happens while you’re asleep.

    Even if you are in the same time zone, real time chat assumes a privilege that you have the spare time–or an employer who doesn’t mind you being constantly distracted–to be virtually present in a chat room. Online chat clients are resource hogs, and presume the availability of a fast computer and ample, always on, internet connection, again raising the bar for participation.

In my view these issues are inseparable. Calls to use IRC instead, miss the point that IRC is similarly real-time, just as efforts to create a post facto log of a Slack channel miss the fact that this is a record of a conversation which others cannot contribute equally. There is no solution for equitable open source communication that does not address both simultaneously.

Prefer asynchronous communication for open source projects

Instead of closed, synchronous, systems I recommend open source projects stick to asynchronous communication tools that leave a publicly linkable, searchable, url. The tools that fit this requirement best are; mailing list, issue trackers, and forums.