Why I want you to use slack threads

5 minute read (1010 words)

Someone has probably sent you a link to this blog post in response to you posting multiple messages in a slack channel on the same topic.

Don’t worry, we’re not angry with you, we just want to help. We also know that the slack interface can be a bit confusing, especially on mobile, and it’s easy to accidentally respond in channel instead on a thread.

This post is not intended to shame or berate you, just to share information on how we can all make slack a nicer and less distracting thing to use for everyone.

two messages in a slack channel

The above screenshot is an example of two consecutive messages in slack, this happens if you send the message in two parts. (Send one message, think of something extra, send another message.)

This post is here to explain to you with kindness why posting multiple messages like this might be causing issues for other people and offer some alternate approaches.

Why multiple messages are a problem for others

It seems harmless to just post another couple of messages, right?

Slack in any active organisation can quickly become a firehose of information that can be quite hard to keep up with. It takes some effort from all involved to protect everyone’s focus and flow time. As an aside if you want an insight into just how damaging distractions can be I recommend diving into Cal Newport’s writings https://www.calnewport.com/books/, particularly “Deep Work”. Some of us have the luxury of turning off slack for most of the day, but some people need to keep up more actively than that.

Notifications and unread messages

Slack allows you to carefully manage what notifications you receive, but for a channel it basically comes down to notifications on or off for channel messages.

If you have a channel that you want (or need) to keep up to date with in a timely manner then when someone sends a new channel message you will have intrusive notifications and as shown below an “unread channel” in bold-and-white sat glaring at you waiting to be read:

unread slack channel

If you use the convenient “All unread” feature then that will also sit glaring at you as below with an eye-catching “1 new message” button until you go and look:

unread messages

The problem with multiple related channel messages in this case is that if someone gets your first message, decides that it’s not a conversation relevant to them and then goes back to trying to concentrate your second message will set off all their notifications once again and send them back to having unread messages to worry about.

If you had instead used the below alternatives of editing or threads then there would be no new notifications and no new unread messages when you edit your message or add to the thread.

Deciding what conversations to follow

As someone who is trying to avoid slack-overwhelm the ability to follow and unfollow threads is a very useful feature. Slack will automatically give new notifications for threads where you have been mentioned with an @ or have added a message of your own to the thread.

To follow/unfollow a thread, hover over the top message in the thread, click the dots, and click “turn off notifications for replied” as shown below:

unfollowing a thread

If people are not correctly using threads to group themes of discussion then this feature becomes mostly useless.

As an aside this applies just as much to failure to start a new thread when the discussion changes topic as it does to failing to use threads in the first place.

Catching up with a channel

Sometimes you will join a channel and then mute it (right-click, mute) because you want to be able to keep up to date on your own schedule, say daily or weekly.

muting a channel

When people in the channel have conversations in the form of channel messages you can easily end up having to read 1000 messages to just know what’s been going on for a day and catch up on anything important.

new messages bar

If instead the people in the channel are disciplined in using threads then it can easily be down to 20 messages with some very long threads that you can dive into if you feel the need.

What you can do instead

By using the following methods you can help everyone else in your slack channel make better use of their time, more easily follow relevant conversations, and have fewer distracting FOMO moments (Fear Of Missing Out).

Start a thread

Start a thread on your own message and add more messages in there:

screenshot of starting a thread in slack

This allows you to add further context etc for those interested without writing a massive message in one go directly in the channel or creating a string of independent channel messages.

replying to your own thread

See also https://slack.com/intl/en-gb/help/articles/115000769927-Use-threads-to-organise-discussions-

Edit your existing message

Did you just forget to mention something? You can edit the message you’ve already posted to make corrections or add more information.

Hover over the message and then press the “more actions” dots:

more actions dots

edit message menu

See also https://slack.com/intl/en-gb/help/articles/202395258-Edit-or-delete-messages

Delete your subsequent messages

If you’ve already posted more than one channel message and then realise your mistake, you can delete the extra messages before converting to a thread or edit, leaving the channel nice and tidy for anyone who shows up later to read.

delete message

This is particularly important to avoid ending up with multiple threads on different channel messages (on the same topic) as other people reply to different bits of your message resulting in confusion and a disjointed conversation.

multiple threads

See also https://slack.com/intl/en-gb/help/articles/202395258-Edit-or-delete-messages

Offering gentle reminders with an emoji

If your team knows to do this but forgets sometimes then add :start_a_thread: as an emoji (under “customize workspace) to easily remind people when they forget.

reply in thread animation gif

(Thread gif image source: https://slackmojis.com/)

customize slack


So in summary, please give a thought to others before you send a second message. It may be quick for you but if there are 50 people in the slack room then you are costing them much more time and attention than it saves you by not taking the time to construct a clean message or thread.

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