Are your message threads tight or Slack?

Why doesn’t Slack want us to use threaded replies to messages? At least, that’s the impression I come away with from having used at least five Slacks, some for business collaboration and others for consumer-grade discussions. 

Slack’s had the capability to show a message and its replies as a connected thread for some time now. Once your conversations are threaded, there’s a handy option to see only those threads you’re actually participating in. 

But the option to “add a reply to this message” is hidden away in a pop-up menu, with the result that many users simply post everything as a new message. That’s fine in a one-to-one text message conversation, but not in a group chat. Other frequent Slack users will be familiar with the result, which is the confusing experience of trying to work out who is replying to what – and of missing new replies because they weren’t posted as such, so you never got the relevant notification. 

You’d think the mobile app might be better, but no, the reply option is only obvious once there’s already a reply to a message. So, once again you are just as likely to get disconnected comments with no notification to alert you as to their existence. That’s unless you deliberately reply to yourself first, to remind other people! 

Threading isn’t exactly new – or rocket science

Google Chat and Microsoft Teams do it better – the ‘reply’ link is permanently visible and they clearly separate conversations or threads from each other. They just don’t feel as open as Slack though, and it is still possible though for those brought up on text exchanges to opt instead for the large and inviting new-message box, whose prominence just begs you to type into it. 

Even when your fellows have worked out how to thread their replies, what happens when a comment spawns a second, tangential, conversation? Proper discussion systems, such as Reddit, are able to handle multiple branched and nested levels of replies-to-replies, as can email programs like Mozilla Thunderbird. Indeed, online conferencing systems, such the venerable British CiX service, have been able to track conversations with many forks and sub-branches literally for decades (the CiX codebase derives from CoSy, which went online in 1983). 

We’re often told that consumerisation also drives enterprise software these days, but Chat, Slack and Teams all assume that a thread only contains one conversation. Even Facebook now supports two levels of reply, and it makes them reasonably obvious – although yes, of course there’s still people who fail to use second-level replies, for whatever reason. And WhatsApp lets you quote earlier messages, so others in a chat group can see what you’re commenting on.

So when this kind of thing has been around for 30+ years, and when it can be made simple enough for consumers to use, why are the top business collaboration applications so inadequate? 

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