Racist Chat Bots and Clear Communication
Clear Written Communication
With everyone working from home now, written communication has become much more important. Effective and efficient communication is key to working with a team, and it becomes especially important when physical presence is limited or eliminated.
One method I have been using, particularly when writing emails, is to flip everything upside down. Start with the actions that need to be taken, or the results of a test or experiment. Then follow with the current status, next steps, and further details that support the conclusion. This allows readers to parse the content and immediately get the context. The ideas flow from your brain into theirs more quickly. I first was introduced to this concept with an article by Gopal Kapur: “I'm OK; The Bull is Dead”.
A friend of mine recently added another bit to the concept: add deadlines. When describing the action items or results, add a time period in which they should be done. Even if it is a rough estimate, it can put a sense of urgency into the message. Not all messages are urgent, but those that are need to have some action taken. This is like the principles of alerting. An urgent email is like a medium or high priority alert, it needs a human to take action. Providing a timeline for the action to take place can help reinforce the impact.
Strengths of Written Communication
I have always been a big proponent of emails over meetings, and chat rooms in general. There are many benefits to communicating over text to others on the team. It is not a panacea of conversation, of course, there are many reasons to talk in person as well. But by recognizing the strengths of writing, we can leverage them for our advantage.
Talking to a person, using your meat flaps to make sound waves, is an active process by all parties. The listeners need to actively listen and understand what ideas you are presenting, in real time. If there is missing context, the speaker needs to listen to questions. There is a back and forth as ideas and questions, arguments and counters, proposals and rejections are volleyed over the net of cognition in the conversation.
By writing your ideas down, and displaying them to interested parties, you free up the rest of your time to engage in another activity, like implementing other ideas. The interested parties can take their own time to read the text and attempt to understand it. They can set aside time that was otherwise not used. Communicating with text optimizes for total throughput instead of latency or instantaneous bandwidth.
By writing everything down, you have a record of what was said. Documentation. If you use the proper tools and a system of tagging things, this could be made even more useful. But even if you don't, searching through your email or slack channels for what was said can be quite helpful. Forwarding email chains to new members to the team to get them caught up can be quicker than arranging meetings.
A written history can also be useful for liability purposes. You have a paper trail. Something to point to when shit hits the fan and people are playing the blame game. You can prove that the executive signed off on things, or that consensus was reached among the team of engineers, not a hapless individual. Text logs can even be brought up in court for legal ramifications, for better or worse. Depending on the side of the coin you're on, this could be a good or bad thing, granted.
It is much easier to formulate complete, rational, well-thought-out concepts by writing them down instead of speaking them. This is why important speeches are typically read from a teleprompter, or at least well prepared in written form beforehand. A text can be read, edited, and rewritten before sending to its audience. You can discover inconsistencies or contradictions in your reasoning before introducing them to others. You can argue against yourself and write defenses first, saving the time of potential debaters. And the biggest time saver of all: you may find your reasoning fundamentally flawed, and never subject anyone else to it.
A well written argument or proposal can be easier to understand than a simple conversation. There is time to organize the points and optimize the flow of information. Often times in speech, we jump ahead, and have to backtrack to fill in details and context. This can easily confuse people and lead to miscommunication. Spending more time by crafting a well written document can minimize this form of miscommunication.
Chat rooms serve a different purpose than email. They are still asynchronous, written communication, but there is an implied shortened time to respond. It's a middle ground between long form writing and speaking directly to someone. Someone in a chat room may be AFK for now, but will respond with a sentence or two when they return 5 minutes later.
Importantly, chat room still have the benefits listed above, if perhaps diminished a little in potency. One advantage that chat rooms often have over email, however, is that there can be hundreds or thousands of listeners (yes, I know mailing lists exist). A small conversation going on in a thread in slack may invoke questions by the silent bystanders, or provide answers to questions they didn't even know to ask.
Most people in chat rooms are lurkers. According to the 1% rule of internet culture, only around 1% of users participate in adding content or engage in the conversation. This doesn't mean that 99% of users are worthless leeches in the chat, even by having only 1% communicating still benefits the whole. The text is written. It can be read, re-read, expanded upon, added to documentation.
One of the big advantages of chat rooms is bots. A chat bot can be useful, like alerting the room when a deployment was kicked off or a build failed. Or it can be light hearted, like automatically finding gifs on the internet related to a phrase. Both of these types of bots are popular for most slack teams.
A bot can also be interactive. Perhaps instead of just receiving information that a build was started, you want to actually start the build from the chat room. This is also quite useful for some teams. This and a lot of other techniques are covered in ChatOps, which can allow teams to collaborate in a conversation to orchestrate workflows.
Less useful, maybe, are bots that respond in rhyme. Imagine a fun, harmless chat bot that responds with a line from song lyrics based on the last word said (if prompted). For example:
[Bob]: rhyme these chips have a lot of flavor
[RhymeBot]: A rhythm recipe that you'll savor
Pretty simple, can be fun trying to figure out which track the rhymed lyrics come from.
I don't have to imagine. I wrote this bot a few years ago, naively. Didn't see any issues with it. It was fun for a little bit. But it turns out, that if you feed the bot a lot of rap music lyrics, and then rhyme with 'bigger' or 'trigger', for example, the results might not be exactly work-friendly. They're going to be exactly what you think they are. You didn't even have to prompt the bot to rhyme with '-igger', there are so many songs out there with NSFW lyrics (depending on where you work). It may be fine to listen to them, but to have them written out in your chat room doesn't look great.
I took the bot down after a couple days (and a talking with my boss). Chat etiquette is a little different than speech. I think it is easier to get away with some stuff when talking because it is ephemeral. Sometimes you say something and it seems to “hang” in the air when nobody really knows how to respond. With text that is amplified. The words are right there, and everyone keeps reading them over again.
Some of my personal thoughts on general etiquette, in a professional setting:
- If you don't have anything to add to the conversation, don't write anything.
- If you're in a chat with a bunch of people that you don't know well personally, try not to offend.
- Keep more involved conversations in separate channels or threads
- If you find something funny on the internet, and you really have to share, only share it in the correct chat.
- Encouraging writing fun bots is good, but maybe vet them before using them with your entire team
Yes, I didn't practice the upside-down email logic to this blog post. That is intentional. I am sharing a story, a train of thought. I'm not trying to convince anyone of any particular set of actions. It is prudent to gauge your audience when crafting any form of communication.
If there is one thing to be gained by more remote work, it is better reasoned, clearer, and more concise written thoughts. This will serve us now and in the future when we can all return to the office. The practices engaged in when writing to each other transfers easily to documentation, speech writing, and the general public conversation over the internet and social media.
Learning effective communication on a remote team is crucial. It is imperative that each member on the team talk, and the first tool for that job is text chat and email. They each are often the best tools, especially when used properly.
And most importantly: bots might not see color, but can lead to uncomfortable conversations with HR.