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On Communications

I am responsible for various Minecraft mods. Our team and community make our home, like many, on Discord. On the professional side, many software teams make various Slack channels their home. Members are expected to be reachable at nearly all times, are expected to notice, remember, and respond to pings no matter how long ago they took place, and overall expected to treat it as a knowledge repository.

This post is a semi-rant on why this is a problem, and my ideal setup.

The Scenario

I just went on a week-long business trip for an org summit. During this time, I did not use a non-work computer at all. I also did not sign into Discord on my personal phone.

I came back today to a Discord interface with red ping signs everywhere, screaming for my attention for this thing and that. They had varying priority levels, from a semi-critical Minecraft mod bug needing special attention, to feature deliberation on another mod, to simple Discord moderation duties, to private messages from a friend.

I hope I don’t have to explain why this is a problem in multiple ways. There is a firehose of unprioritized, untriaged things vying for my attention, each with varying levels of actionability. Such a culture reinforces expectations that I should be there, glued to Discord 24/7, responding any time or any moment, and able to gain context immediately by trawling through preceding and succeeding messages.

I feel like part of the cause of burnout, not only in the open-source space, but in the creator space in general is that we’ve come to this expectation of creators being available to consumers at all times of every day. One of the YouTubers I watch, Materwelonz, stated at some point in a video that she feels that creators are “too close” to their audience nowadays which can lead to burnout if this distance is not managed well. I feel that this applies just as much to open source technological work.

My Ideal Communications Setup

With the following objections in mind, I’m trying to move my non-work life towards the following modes of communication.

Persistent Chat

Chat media that ping me at all times, whose contents I expect to be eternal and referenceable at all times, whose happenings I prioritize above everything else.

This category includes personal messengers such as SMS and Facebook Messenger. It is reserved exclusively for family and a set of trusted friends.

Nothing from hobbies or other second-priority projects should have these expectations of me, sorry :). It helps prevent burnout.

Ephemeral Chat

If I am online in chat media such as Discord or IRC, my profile icon/username will show as online, and you can reasonably expect me to respond to direct messages and pings.

If I’m not online, then I won’t show. And when I come back, I’m not going to back-check all the places I’ve been pinged on e.g. Discord/Slack, I’m just going to clear them all.

This way, you know that if you see my icon, I’m really there. It hearkens back to the earlier days of the internet when people were more deliberate about whether they were actually online or not.

Along this line of thought, I will be shutting off my IRC bouncer and connecting directly from my desktop when I’m actually present. Conversations are transient and forgotten after the session ends, unless an out-of-band copy is made in a persistent medium (see next section).

I’ll also be keeping myself logged out of Discord on mobile, and not back-checking any pings besides private messages.

Persistent Asynchronous Communication

If you actually want me to remember to look at or do something, it needs to be recorded in a persistent medium. For tech projects, this is usually GitHub issues, or emails to a discussion mailing list (or me personally, if it’s important enough).

Such media are high-signal and generally pre-sorted. I don’t need to (nor want to) dredge through pages of context above and below your Slack/Discord ping to get an idea of what the action is, a properly-filed ticket or thoughtfully worded email should tell me everything I need to know.

Parting Thoughts

This phenomenon of dumping everything in to chat is known as “Slackisms” to some, and this is my way of trying to avoid it to manage burnout and overall sanity in my side projects. I hope you found it helpful as well.