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MUTE BUTTON

No one is talking about the biggest problem with Slack

woman sitting on desk
Reuters/Tim Chong
When it comes to online harassment protection, Slack is slacking off.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“Hey, do you know if I can block someone on Slack?” a friend texted me. Someone at her workplace had a crush on her, and he wouldn’t stop sending creepy messages.

This isn’t a weird request for me: I’m an internet researcher who specifically focuses on platforms, design, and harassment. So if a company has a block button, specific privacy settings, or a policy on harassment, I probably know about it.

As for Slack? I couldn’t find anything. No mention of what to do if you’re harassed or any mentioning of muting or blocking.

As it turns out, Slack does not have the functionality for a user to mute or block anyone. In fact, the company views this kind of design utility as not productive and doesn’t think it makes sense.

This is despite the fact nearly every social network now gives you the ability to block someone: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all offer easy ways to mute and block users, and they even have dedicated channels to help users through this process.

But Slack technically isn’t a social network, even if it’s used socially. Slack views itself as a tool, an infrastructure for production and producing. From alumni organizations to conferences and meet ups, it helps businesses and employees plan, document, and work.

But let’s face it, we also do a lot of playing on Slack, too. As we live in a time when our work and social lives mix, it can be hard to know where to draw that line between social media and productivity tool.

Can you block someone on Slack?

Think for a second about this: If your workplace uses Slack, how many hours are you on it? How often do you check it? On what devices? How many channels are you in?

Slack offers no real way for a person to be incognito, to mute, to block, or to hide.

The friend I mentioned earlier uses Slack as the main method of communication with her coworkers. Without it, she couldn’t plan meetings, share links, or document her progress for projects. You can’t simply choose not to use that tool without causing a significant workplace fallout.

My friend was having uncomfortable interactions with a coworker over Slack—the platform she is required to use for many hours a day to do her job. She therefore couldn’t ignore it every time it pings her with messages, even though they were often from her harasser. As she cannot mute an individual, she would be forced to see his inappropriate messages every time that little red notification popped up.

The uncomfortableness had started offline with this coworker—questions about her personal life, queries about who she was dating, comments on her clothing. Though she could attempt to avoid him physically in the office, as soon as she opened her computer, her dot would turn green. Because her coworkers need to know where she is, it meant he could see whenever she was online, too. He would immediately start messaging her; she felt like she had nowhere to hide.

Dealing with online harassment at work

Unable to stop using the company’s main communication tool, should she have raised this issue with her boss? What if this was just a harmless crush, she thought. What if she was making a big deal out of nothing?

This is a scenario many women and marginalized groups suffer through: someone makes them feel uncomfortable, but if they raise the issue, it may reflect badly on them for overreacting. So they don’t say anything at all, and continue putting up with the microagressions.

Online harassment can affect anyone, but it affects marginalized groups the most. Instead of risking losing face by calling out harassment publicly, these groups have to put extra work into mitigating harassment through researching, finding, and then changing difficult privacy and security settings. Digital rights researcher Ruth Coustick-Deal, defines these kinds of actions as “security labor.” An example might be “creating and sharing ‘block lists’ on social media, so you can share warnings about who will send abuse.”

But what happens when that tool doesn’t have any nuanced privacy settings at all, like Slack? This security labor increases, and it leaves a victim exposed to more harassment.

Slack’s lack of harassment policy

Regardless of if it’s at the office or on the streets, online or offline, harassment happens everywhere. And when harassment occurs, victims need ways to start mitigating and reporting that harassment.

On most social-media platforms, a victim can block a harasser and file a harassment report. But Slack doesn’t even mention harassment in their policies. In its “Acceptable Use Policy,” it only outlines that Slack cannot be used for inciting hatred or violence against individuals or groups. The company doesn’t have an official page—or even a blog post—on what to do when their product is used to harass people.

“Slack is designed to help businesses communicate better and more collaboratively so people can do their best work,” a Slack spokesperson said when asked for comment. “Just like with any other work tool, companies are in charge of setting the standards for behavior in Slack, and they are in the best position to enforce those standards.” When asked for any specific documentation or statements on harassment, muting, and blocking, the spokesperson pointed back to the company’s user terms of service, which doesn’t mention harassment at all.

Abstractly, this makes sense: Slack views itself as an organizational tool, and that tool is used in workplaces. Thus, the workplace policy and how that workplace handles harassment is how harassment on Slack should be handled.

But having the ability to mute and block doesn’t change a workplace’s policy—it just helps protect victims.

Everyone should have the ability to mute, block, and generally augment their experiences online, because having the ability to tailor your privacy settings and how people can reach you creates safety. Ideally your workplace has a system in place to mitigate both online and offline harassment—but what happens if that person doesn’t stop?

Slack offers no real way for a person to be incognito, to mute, to block, or to hide. And our workplaces provide us with little choice but to run our work lives through Slack. If Slack cares about workplace safety and the safety of people working in teams, in offices, and in organizations, it’s time to add a block button.

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