Recently The Atlantic published an article titled The Triump of Email. It starts with a good history of e-mail and then goes on to describe that although e-mail started as a novelty, it proceeded to degenerate into a nuisance; eventually quoting a description of it as “notification hell”:
“We let email interrupt us dozens and dozens of times a day, and that is awful,” Moore said. “There’s research out there that says every time you get an email notification and you look at it, it takes you 64 seconds to recover. You basically can never work. You’re constantly recovering from the notification.”
“We’re stressing ourselves out,” he added. “We’re living in notification hell. That’s really the thing that’s at the root cause of why people hate email.”
Then, as is quite fashionable these days, it describes Slack as a solution to e-mail; even describing its use as literally “transformative”:
Slack, a real-time messaging platform built for the mobile era, may be the best known example of what business communications might look like in a post-email world, but many companies bill themselves as inbox destroyers. (It’s not an overstatement to say Slack can vastly reconfigure a person’s relationship with email: The Atlantic has used Slack since 2014, and, for me, it’s been transformative.)
I like Slack as a product (maybe even more than most having endured long periods of using Campfire and HipChat), but this is where this type of glowing endorsements really lose me. Slack is an incredibly functional, refined, and feature-rich chat program – maybe the best of its class ever written – but it’s a chat program, and not substantially different from its progenitor IRC which had its first implementation written in 1988.
I’ll give its major proponents the benefit of the doubt in that it that when comparing a Slack interrupt to an e-mail interrupt, the Slack interrupt has a few advantages:
But for counterpoint, we should also look at some places where e-mail shines:
But all things considered, Slack has a huge downside that vastly outweighs any possible benefits to productivity: it’s always on. E-mail might be disruptive, but you get to use it on your own terms. During a normal workday, I might check it once an hour and clear out any incoming interrupts en masse by batching all that work together. But with Slack, those same interrupts will come in piecemeal at regular intervals, and worse yet, their senders will expect an immediate response; an easy recipe for never being focused enough to get through any significant work (more on this phenomena here).
The bottom line is that there’s no way that we can in good conscience describe e-mail as “notification hell” without calling Slack something far worse.