When Warren Hardie gets to work at Twilio's office in downtown San Francisco, he logs onto Slack. Along with three million other active daily users, Hardie will spend much of his workday on the communication platform, exchanging messages and files (and, yes, GIFs) with his boss and coworkers. On Slack, he can check in about a client call, or drag-and-drop a file—perfect for sending a data set to his boss, or for downloading the latest tropical house mix posted to the "Tropical Twilions" channel.
Slack markets itself as a tool for the workplace, but the platform has grown far beyond professional use. While Slack aspires to ease communication between coworkers, people increasingly turn to the platform for personal conversations with their spouses, friends, relatives, and fellow Magic: The Gathering enthusiasts. To its own surprise, Slack has become the social network where we spend our workdays.
On Slack, users communicate in one-on-one direct messages or topic-specific chatrooms called channels: #feedback, #sales-operations, #office-book-club, or anything else users create. Hardie, a 24-year-old sales analyst at the cloud communications platform, quickly graduated from talking about sales targets to chat with coworkers about projects that weren't strictly work-related: making lunch plans, or exchanging music recommendations. From there, it was a natural transition to bring Slack outside his professional life.
"A lot of my friends at other tech companies were using Slack too, so we made different little groups to chat at work," Hardie says. Now, he spends much of his workday toggling between the different domains within Slack: channels for Spikeball games and SOMA happy hours with coworkers at Twilio; direct messages about weekend plans and group chats about new music releases on his Slack shared with friends.
Although the platform has clients across the world, it's particularly popular among tech and media companies: Yelp, Airbnb, Salesforce, Stripe, and Spotify all use it. (As does WIRED.) A year or two ago, many of the recent college graduates now working at these companies were spending eight hours a day in the library or in lecture, where you could send your friends a mass text, a Snapchat, a GroupMe. In the adult workplace—even one with snack bars and nap pods—your boss might notice if you're constantly on your phone.
Enter Slack. "You don't want your phone buzzing in your pocket all day," says Hardie. "So you can just do it through Slack, instead." Indeed, Slack offers all the functionality of texting, and more: The features designed to make the workplace more playful—GIFs, embedded songs from Spotify, custom emoji, funny replies from Slackbot—turn out to be equally fun with friends.
So Slack has become the boss-approved way to chat with your friends on the clock, replacing Google Chat or clandestine texting. "There's a perception that if you're using iMessage, you're texting, for personal use," says Jake Kanter, a sales account executive at Uber who uses Slack to chat with his friends throughout the day, even though he uses Hipchat with coworkers. "Slack is commonly used for business communication, so it's more work-appropriate."
After all, if you're already using the platform to chat with coworkers about visiting the in-office ice cream bar or drum studio, it's not much of a stretch to use Slack to compile a grocery list with roommates or coordinate after-work trips to the climbing gym.
Connecting Beyond Friends
People are also using Slack to form new communities around common interests: There's a Slack group for vinyl collectors, for vaping enthusiasts, for a popular hip-hop subreddit, for "nomads living in Chiang Mai, Thailand." These Slack communities provide a way for users to have personal conversations about shared interests, all while at work.
"It's a pretty mixed group—people that run coffeeshops, coffee roaster professionals, people who just love their Keurig or whatever," says E. John Feig, founder of talk.coffee, a Slack group devoted to the drink. A software engineer, Feig is active in several other Slack groups as well: one with his friends, one for Google experts, one discussing startups. He used to be active in the IRC coffee channel and r/Coffee on Reddit, but says that he finds conversations in Slack groups much more personal.
Although some interest-driven Slack communities are quite large, most are dominated by a core group of frequent users. Although over 500 people have signed onto Feig's talk.coffee, he estimates that only 15-20 post every week. Despite the relatively low numbers, some of those core users have become friends and coffee-sharers IRL, after another member started hosting meet-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Some users have become friends and coffee-sharers IRL, after another member started hosting meet-ups in the Bay Area.
Slack also provides a space for conversations outside of the young, male tech narrative. Julia Carpenter and Alex Laughlin, both social media editors at The Washington Post, started Pay Up as a Slack community for conversations about the gender wage gap in tech. For a private conversation among a demographic who already use Slack for work, it was a natural fit. "When you join multiple Slack teams, it's seamless integration into the workflow you already have," says Laughlin. "It's not as invasive as a Facebook group, where you have to go to a different website."
Pay Up largely functions as an online group: Carpenter and Laughlin have organized Q&As with negotiation experts, and roundtable discussions about Sheryl Sandberg's recent acknowledgement of the difficulty of leaning in as a single mom. But it also provides a space for individual conversations among the couple hundred users.
"Women are really personalizing Pay Up, creating communities within communities," says Carpenter. There are channels for women in different cities; for working out the specific wording to ask for a promotion; for thoughts on how to dress femme in a male-dominated tech workplace. While Pay Up focuses on the tech industry, Carpenter and Laughlin hope to expand it to to women in other industries. They've seen that as a Slack group grows in size, it becomes a way to create connections within a field: more of an exclusive LinkedIn than a GroupMe.
Jacob Rogelberg, a UX designer at HR software provider Lifion, runs Designer Hangout, one of the largest Slack communities. With 6,300 members, the group functions like a semi-private version of Reddit; Rogelberg has even organized Slack AMAs with design directors at Facebook and Google. Several of the community's 70 channels are devoted to and staffed by specific design companies, so users can talk about InVision or Balsamiq directly with product support. "Instead of using Twitter to reach HR, users can go right into the community," says Rogelberg. "It's becoming an operating system for work, but also for getting support beyond work."
Despite the widespread personal use of Slack, the company still only focuses on professional teams. After all, those are the users who pay. Non-professional Slack communities, even those with thousands of members, still use the free version of the service, forgoing the unlimited message archives or Google Authentication of the premium version.
Slack does streamline communication at work—and at home, and on the road. Hardie may have started using the platform in the office, but Slack will stay with him beyond his job. In a few weeks, Hardie will leave behind the tech startup and embark on a backpacking trip around the world, where he'll communicate with his friends through—you guessed it—Slack. "On the trip, I'll use it to talk to my friends directly," he says. "It's a chat platform for sharing everything." After all, nothing communicates the awe of twenty-something travel like a GIF.