A Sad Love Song About Chat Backchannels
I love a good chat backchannel. I’ve gone on vacations with my backchannels. I have enamel pins, stickers, and other custom merch from backchannels. I got my last two jobs via backchannel connections. I’ve listened and strategized with backchannel members who were getting shut out, pushed out, or overlooked, and I’ve been there to celebrate as backchannel friends went from ICs to managers, directors, VPs, founders, and investors. I’ve made some of my best friends in backchannels. I’ve helped teams avoid what might have been serious hiring mistakes through them, like bringing on employees with a proven track record of harassment and abuse. I’ve also seen them spread misinformation, leak private facts, and cause needless suffering. As someone who is demographically outside of the tech mainstream in some ways (queer, mixed-race, gender non-conforming, woman), backchannels are a part of my reality whether I like them or not. They have great power — often not as much power as actually being in the mainstream can offer, but still quite a lot — and with that, there is an imperative to find ways to use them fairly and effectively.
If you are already a member of many chat backchannels yourself, you’ll probably want to skip the next section and just head to #Observations & Lessons.
A backchannel is any “secondary or covert route for the passage of information” (Oxford). Chat software just happens to be where they pop up most commonly — and most durably — in my world. For me, almost always, the specific platform ends up being Slack, but most other chat services can support backchannels with similar mechanics. I’ll specifically focus on my experiences with chat backchannels at small- to medium-sized technology companies that were themed around some facet of role or identity (women engineers, employees of color, LGBTQ+ ICs, etc.), although I imagine much of this applies to other sorts of chat backchannels as well.
In my experience, there are three primary types of chat backchannels:
- Semi-public. The existence of these channels is widely known. Anyone can join them without an invitation. An accountability mechanism, like logging or public notices about who entered a room, discourages those who aren’t meant to participate from joining or watching.
- Private. These channels reside in some larger shared chat context (like a company’s private Slack organization) but require an invitation to join. Their existence may be openly acknowledged or not. These often feel very private, but generally can be accessed (with some administrative hassle) by the organization’s HR or leadership.
- Off-world. These channels are also intended to discuss some larger shared context, but they live somewhere wholly separate, like a different Slack organization or an entirely different platform. They may be harder for company HR or leadership to access (those entities might need a subpoena or access to a physical device with a persistent login, because they wouldn’t have admin privileges), and it may be less clear which sets of company or community rules and norms apply.
All of these types of backchannels are generally persistent and long-lived, often springing up early in an organization’s history and persisting indefinitely. Their unstated goal is usually to help mitigate, rectify, or cope with the stresses that come from being underrepresented or marginalized in a particular company context.
People who participate in few chat backchannels sometimes imagine they’re used primarily for gossip or conspiracy, but in my experience, that wildly overstates the median backchannel’s level of drama. The four most common uses I see are a mix of:
- Social. Just as it might be exhausting to be an introvert in a party full of extroverts and frustrating to be an extrovert stuck in a library full of introverts, it is taxing to be surrounded by people who have a lot in common with each other and little in common with you. Backchannels often provide a place for underrepresented folks to socialize with people at a company with whom they may have more in common even if they wouldn’t necessarily collaborate naturally during their daily work.
- Problem solving. These channels also often become ad hoc problem-solving spaces, especially for dealing with situations that the group in the channel has found to be harmful, but the rest of the company has largely ignored.
- Venting. Channels often go in this direction when one or more attempts at problem solving have met with limited success. Sometimes there is a norm that encourages using the space for venting and processing before moving on to taking action, and sometimes not. Sometimes the norms are unclear, and there are constant wires crossed between those who just want to vent and those who want to solve every problem. (The best practice of asking specifically whether someone wants advice/help or just wants to share has bloomed from the cultural ashes of more than one venting-heavy channel.)
- Education and resource-sharing. Relevant blog posts, articles, and other resources are often circulated widely in these channels. (Slack and other popular chat providers make efforts to hide themselves as a traffic referrer for privacy reasons, so if you’ve, say, written a blog post about management or D&I and seen a spike in traffic with no apparent cause, shares within chat may be part of the explanation.)
There are plenty of other uses too (reference checks, politics, industry news analysis, etc.), but the four above are the ones that usually take up > 90% of the space in the channels I’ve been in.
Observations & Lessons
Here are some patterns I’ve seen in my own backchannels and some things I’ve learned along the way.
Problems grow old quickly in backchannels
People are often more open about their problems in backchannels than they might be with their manager or wider team. This is usually a good thing for initial debugging, assessment, and validation (e.g. to combat gaslighting), but it has a double edge. People end up preferring to talk in the backchannel, and don’t take their problems out of the backchannel to someplace where they could best be addressed. Meanwhile, people in the backchannel have heard about the problem so much that it starts to feel intractable, and they start to believe that the company lacks the will to address the issue. If you can’t fix a problem wholly inside a backchannel and you believe it’s safe to escalate a problem out, do it early, do it often (seriously, bring it up more than once), and tell the channel that you did it — it can be the key to maintaining a channel as a useful problem-solving space, rather than spiraling into just venting. Which leads me to…
You need space for negativity, but you can bound it
Venting can be a good thing, and for many people, it can be a necessary first step to untangling a difficult problem. But for me, being in too many spaces with unmitigated venting or negativity takes a heavy emotional toll. I’ll continue my ongoing quest to figure out how to stop absorbing other people’s feelings, but in the meantime I’ve liked being in chats where there’s a specific space for venting (e.g. a dedicated #rants or #venting) channel and a distinct space for advice or problem-solving. I’ve also grown to despise any sort of women’s channel where people commonly dump every single new article about all the things that are broken or difficult for women in tech (especially when these articles fail to acknowledge the existence of other gender minorities or take an intersectional view of the issues). I’ve liked channels that have specific rules or norms around dropping links or content, e.g. to always include at least one line of analysis about what interested you about a particular article, or (lol) a specific ban on articles that don’t go beyond the general thesis of, “sucks to be a woman in tech.”
They improve with a host
Usually a small number of people become the informal hosts or moderators of these sorts of channels. You often figure out who they are without anyone mentioning it. Sometimes it’s the channel creator, sometimes not. They usually do a lot of visible emotional labor to support people in the chat and make new members comfortable. In a favorite past backchannel, the informal moderators used to coordinate sending flowers to people who were getting beat down trying to do good work within the larger company. If you have a couple of good people in this host or moderator role in your chat, you are hashtag blessed. If you find yourself wearing this hat and it’s become a burden, you can… just take it off. Really. Running a backchannel is almost never your job; don’t let it ruin your actual job for you. Conversely, if you see a promising space and wish it were more active or you knew the members better, you can try jumping in and playing this role yourself — it’s often not too hard, although it takes spare emotional energy.
Rules are good — if they’re real
While I love a good code of conduct (CoC) like the one used in the Engineering Managers slack, I have seen bad CoCs out there too: CoCs with no enforcement mechanism or CoCs that haven’t been fully ratified by members. When nobody is empowered to enforce a CoC, it’s not clear who will enforce it, or it’s only partially adopted, it probably isn’t better than no CoC. It sets the expectation of a particular level of safety that isn’t really there. I’d take a short set of rules and expectations any day (e.g. for one memorable slack, “no snitches, no screenshots”) over a bad CoC.
There’s something like a Dunbar’s number for channels
Dunbar’s number, the proposed cognitive limit to the number of people one can maintain active social relationships with, is often estimated to be about ~150. There is some smaller subset of that number that can be effectively stuffed into a channel at once. In my experience, channels only really maintain a stable culture and set of norms when they’re below about 50 people and have a high rate of active participation, where a majority of people in the channel participate during any given week. Otherwise speaking in a room starts to feel like performing on live TV: it’s high-pressure and you have no idea how the audience is reacting. While larger channels or ones with many silent participants may still work well for socializing and sharing resources, I’ve seen them be far less effective for problem solving — it’s hard to have a substantive discussion without trusting your audience.
Sub-channels and splintering are fine
People sometimes worry that the splintering of sub-channels is a problem or an anti-pattern, especially when the subchannel is intended for a marginalized group (e.g. when a #nonbinary-people-of-color channel is created by someone in the #nonbinary channel). Your organization might have problems and anti-patterns galore, but this isn’t one of them, just as the presence of the original backchannel didn’t necessarily mean that your company was fundamentally hostile to this particular group.
At my current company, if you are a product engineer, you probably report to a woman director (me) who reports to a woman CTO who reports to a woman CEO. There is no general woman’s chat backchannel at this company. Women are the majority of execs; they are half the board. To create a “women” backchannel with all those execs and managers would probably be an unfair exclusion of non-women at the company from important discussions. But none of this means that the organization lacks any of the common problems for women or other gender minorities (especially those who also belong to other marginalized groups) that come from the larger, male-dominated tech culture — we come from it, we exist in it, most of us have learned our strongest habits there. So I imagine (and hope) that women engineering ICs, women ICs of color, etc. have their own backchannels — these channels are still useful for day-to-day problem-solving and resource sharing regardless of what company leadership looks like.
You can leave them
If a particular channel isn’t serving your needs, you really can just leave, most of the time. Like nearly everything, it gets more complicated if you’re in an official leadership position (e.g. if you are the only manager or director in the LGBTQ+ employees slack, it may send a bad message for you to pull the parachute cord, and you’ll have to think that through). But for the rest of us, if you aren’t an official moderator or in a position of power, vote with your feet, and go form or find a channel you’d rather spend your time in.
You can get rid of them
You can shut down a channel or off-world chat org entirely, and you probably should, if one has proven unreliable or unsafe in a way that can’t be resolved. For example, if a channel is a consistent source of misinformation, or it’s clear that confidentiality is regularly breached, it may be doing more harm than good. I had never considered that this was an option until I saw a colleague at a past company do it when she found out about a breach of channel confidentiality, and it’s something I continue to admire that person for to this day. A bad backchannel can be worse than no backchannel, if it gives members an unwarranted sense of security and is used to harm members. If you are the formal or informal host of one of these, please remember it’s within your power to shut ‘em down. People can always start a channel up again later if they want to try their hand at creating a better culture another time.
So that’s the whole sad love song. In conclusion, backchannels are powerful; wield them wisely, save up those good animated gifs, and don’t forget to thank your moderators.