Slack is an all-encompassing collection of chat rooms where I talk about news and cat photos and the very story you're about to read. It is, in a very real way, much more important than the physical office space that my weak and fallible body actually inhabits for more hours of the day than I care to admit here. It is also, in a very real way, a burgeoning social network and it has the concomitant company valuation and hype. But it's not the hype that has convinced me that Slack is a full-fledged social network, it's the emergent behaviors it's creating.
Like all social networks, Slack uses notifications like a relentless tractor beam to capture my attention. Like Twitter, Slack uses mentions — when somebody writes your name with a little @ symbol before it, you get an alert on your phone. You can also tell Slack to send a notification when certain words are mentioned. Some reflect one’s taste — "webOS, hydrox" — others capture your identity — "dieter, bohn, backlon." Anytime somebody types one of these words and hits Enter, either my phone or my computer makes a noise.
bortaS bIr jablu'DI' reH QaQqu' nay'
The intended result is for people to ping colleagues with a quick mention of their name — either on their phone or desktop. But an unintended result has come from the obvious problem: how do you talk about a person without sending them a Slack notification?
You give them a Klingon name, obviously. Call it a Klingon Mention.
When say a Verge editor in Japan mentions a colleague who’s asleep in New York, they modulate the name. I become not "Dieter" but "D'ieter." Andrew becomes "A'ndrew" or possible "And'rew." And it doesn't have to be an apostrophe either: I've found "Die-ter" and even "Deeter" (clever, that one).
I've tried to find out how often this happens, but because of its very nature, the modified name can't easily be searched without some serious RegEx work (though Slack's search feature seems to be surfacing these Klingon mentions more often now).
Social network users have always created emergent behaviors not imagined by the engineers who build them. It's well-known that the core features of Twitter that we all know — the @, the #hashtag, the Retweet — didn't spring from the mind of Jack Dorsey. They sprang from the people using the service every day and became universal conventions ultimately codified in the platform itself. They formed as experiments and spread as memes — just like all language is formed.
Heghlu'DI' mobbe'lu'chugh QaQpu' Hegh wanI'
I wonder how long it will be before the modified name becomes some kind of official Slack feature. Or perhaps the Klingon Mention will fade now that there's an official "Do Not Disturb" feature. I hope not. There’s something charming and warm about these modified names. Nobody on Twitter or on Facebook or sending email has any regard for my time or my level of distraction. But my coworkers on Slack do and have therefore created a new social convention that's designed to not send an alert and not be found.
It's the inverse of the subtweet, designed to be kind instead of mean. In an age of social media notifications, the Klingon Mention has a very Klingon effect: granting your friends and colleagues respect by leaving them alone.