Our Online & Offline Communication is a Shitshow
Per my lost email, billionaire takeovers, let’s organize a u***n, RTO will not save us
Slack, Trello, Miro.
Discord, Notion, Zoom.
Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn.
Asana, Jira, Figma.
Backlog, Buganizer, Gchat.
Teams, Chime, Hangouts, Workplace.
Slides, Docs, Word.
Calls, comments, DMs.
Last month, I sent a message on Slack and received a reply on Discord, and I spiraled in confusion about where to continue the thread. I opened an email and saw the same sentence duplicated from multiple people in multiple emails, and I wondered whether I was seeing double. I felt a rush of panic when a colleague asked, ‘Did you see the message I sent?’ and I hadn’t, but I was too afraid to tell them that I was lost in the red dot sea. In a video call with another colleague, I referenced a meeting we had both attended the week before, but they couldn’t remember it, and I began questioning my own reality, as we scoured our calendars for evidence as to whether or not the meeting had occurred. It did. We were both there. “I don’t remember being there. But clearly, I was there,” they replied, baffled.
Needless to say, Severance is well researched.
We can’t talk about burnout without talking about the daily drudgery of sifting through our communication tools. We can’t talk about designing thoughtful, ethical technology without talking about the distractions that interrupt our focus and sever the mind space required to do that deep work. We can’t talk about the need for the industry to slow down without talking about the expectations we put on ourselves to instantly reply or expect an instant reply. We can’t talk about equity without talking about who gets to hold space, time, and agency in our virtual or physical chat rooms. And we can’t talk about trusting ourselves without talking about how social media, on a daily basis, punctures us with little daggers of envy and regret, especially when faced with the very real and deep human experience of rejection and loss.
And in true 2020’s fashion, just when this mess couldn’t possibly get any worse, it does.
Last week, after the historic moment of Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island voting to unionize, leaks of internal documents from Amazon detailed a planned (and later refuted) worker chat app, designed to “boost happiness” with aims to ban words like “rude,” “stupid,” and also, “union,” “compensation,” and “ethics.”
Our billionaire overlord doesn’t merely want a seat on Twitter's board, or reign as Twitter’s largest shareholder, he wants to buy Twitter for $43 billion. But don’t let that stop you, Twitter employees, from observing a company-wide “focus week” or blocking his ass from a stake increase!
Surely, then, returning to our offices with a fun wagon of perks, from Lizzo concerts to Wellness Wednesdays (your outie is splendid and can swim gracefully and well) will cure us of our communication shitshow and resurface meaningful human connection back into our lives, right?
Meaningful human connection left the chat a long time ago.
No communication tool, no matter how much it promises to make us more productive, or make our interactions more inclusive, will save us from our miscommunications. No billionaire, no matter how much of the world they can buy, will fix this broken mess. And certainly no office perk, even if you get the lucky chance to meet a goddess like Lizzo, will mend the aching distance that stands between us. The only real path to rebuilding meaningful human-to-human connection–as with many things in life–lies within ourselves.
So what can we do about it?
Where possible, save our collective focus by keeping conversations in their original thread. If a conversation was started on email, keep it on email. If it was started on Slack, keep it on Slack.
However, that fifty-thread, hotly-debated, long-lost message–especially if a decision is on the table–probably should've been a meeting.
But in that meeting, who gets to hold space in the virtual or physical room? Which time zone is getting the highest priority? Which language? Who gets to speak first? How are long-standing power structures continuing to be upheld? It’s important to ask each other what our preferred communication tools, work spaces, and time zones are before assuming or enforcing what they are, and then honor those preferences as best as we can. If a colleague says that they can’t keep up with Slack, don’t expect them to reply on Slack. I realize this may contradict lesson #1, which brings me to the next point.
Accept that communication is full of contradictions. Have patience. Make space. The beauty of being human is the diversity of our expression. We honor this by taking a few more seconds to read or listen before jumping to a response. We honor this by not expecting each other to instantaneously respond. We honor this by holding space for the diversity of time zones, perspectives, and communication preferences. We honor this by designing tools and workplaces that acknowledge all of this, even when it comes with contradictions.
When you need to follow up, be brief and kind, and holy mother, do not follow up with surveillance tactics. (“I’ve noticed that you haven’t responded in a while” or “I saw you read my text.”) I’m looking at you, recruiters.
Be careful not to let your mind wander in wild fantasies to soothe your panic about why someone hasn't replied to you yet. I’m writing this to myself, too.
We need to take care of ourselves by offering more spaces (not to be confused with more tools) of support, safety, accountability, curiosity, and forgiveness to cultivate the courage required to do any of this.
But the one lesson that haunts me the most is this: the voices that often get lost amid our communication shitshow are the people most impacted by the technology we’re creating. Don’t let their perspectives slip through the cracks of a fifty-slide-research-report or an email that lives and dies in the abyss of our inboxes. With proper consent, show a video, a voice recording, a news report, facilitate a face-to-face or virtual meeting to build a bridge between your team and the community, family, business, or organization most impacted by the technology you’re creating. Lead with transparency. Invite their perspective into the room. Listen and follow up. For god sakes, compensate them. Seek to make human-to-human connection meaningful and accessible–which may include a technological solution, or it may not.
This is how we untangle this mess. This is how we fight for equity. This is why we're here.
🎉 Shoutout to the amazing team at Coursera for inviting me this week to speak, discuss, and provoke on the question: Is it possible to design technology at scale without losing our humanity? Interested in bringing forth this conversation with your team or community? Let’s chat.
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