I’ve witnessed this phenomenon across enough corporate Slack workspaces that I think I can speak to it with confidence.
What is a zombie Slack channel?
If you use Slack (or Teams, or some other similar app) at work I’m sure you’ve encountered zombie channels before.
Zombie Slack channels are effectively dead communication that refuses to die. They are animated by unknown forces, set to mindlessly shamble towards some unknowable end.
In this shambling they occasionally utter the corporate equivalent of “braaaaaaiiiiiiiinnnnns,” a thoughtless utterance of desire for positive engagement bereft of the necessary two-way conversation such an outcome demands.
Much like an animated corpse slowly moving its way through a shopping mall, zombie Slack channels are also pretty easy to spot. Hallmarks include:
- A never-ending stream of announcement messages,
- Out-of-place hustle jargon that would be more suitable to LinkedIn,
- Message lengths that assume you have the time to read a small tome,
- Links to company blog posts completely devoid of practical value,
- Self-aggrandizing content that erases individual contributions,
- Buried ledes and bad news recontextualized as toxic positivity,
- Sycophantic emoji reactions, and
- Nothing else.
Another common form of the zombie Slack channel is a little more heartbreaking. It is when one is set up (typically from an integrated app) to automatically prompt for, and collect positive feedback. Here, people become unsure if they’re supposed to interact with the channel directly, and instead treat it like read-only content.
Much like a zombie, these channels also slowly rot away. The initial excitement of their creation slowly withers as more people realize it’s more noise than signal in an endless sea of feeds they need to monitor and stay on top of.
To continue to build on the zombie metaphor, I’ve noticed that zombie Slack channels also tend to spread like an outbreak. Here, the speed of said spread roughly matches the dwindling engagement the originating channel receives.
What can you do about zombie Slack channels?
As tempting as it might be to eliminate zombie Slack channels, there’s not much you can do. It might seem like the obvious answer is the correct one: to start moving the conversation into those channels.
You could certainly try actively communicating how the information makes you feel as an individual and member of the organization:
- Asking questions to spur discussion,
- Requesting clarification for points of confusion,
- Complimenting things you agree with, and
- Giving kudos to peers you want to support.
You might also feel compelled to turn to the stated values of an organization, as well as internal documentation about communication norms and expectations to help move the needle away from behavior that you don’t think is constructive.
However, I’d advise caution with this, in that the nail that pops up always gets hammered down. Think a zombie movie, where a secondary character accidentally knocks something over and draws unwanted attention, turning an otherwise calm environment into an incredibly tense and dangerous one.
You see, zombie Slack channels are indicative of a culture that does not know how to communicate with itself. As a sub-observation, many times they read as an attempt to exert authority where no sense of trust has been earned.
In this context, it is highly likely that attempts to alter the social dynamic to what you consider a constructive direction will be construed as a threat.
And much like a zombie movie, you might initially think you’re dealing with an individual. But after raising a commotion you may be surprised to find yourself dealing with an overwhelming horde.
So really, what can we do?
I might suggest leading by example. Cultivate the dynamics you want to see in areas you can safely communicate in. I might also suggest bunkering down with some friends and try to wait it all out.
Zombie stories are secretly tragedies, and not horror. They’re about the loss of culture and humanity, and how people can revert to the worst of their base instincts in the face of desperation and out-of-control, mindless consumerism.
Zombie Slack channels are also secretly tragedies. Instead of lively, open communication that promote shared knowledge and consensus, they drive people towards the digital equivalent of a scattering of zombie apocalypse bunker full of paranoid survivors.