Essential platform features for text-based community discussions, and Slack

It’s been a long time coming, but I think I have a pretty good handle on what features a communication platform needs to best support discussion in a community of people. And furthermore, I feel more prepared to explain why I think Slack is a well-designed communication tool, which I started to do in my post Slack.com – Communication management (Module 3, ISTE-SS 4).

I continued thinking about what tools an online community really needs and posted about that in Essential features of community platforms (Module 2, ISTE-CS 4b). For that post, I analyzed the only three sources I could really find on the topic, and started putting together a list of features. Since then, I’ve began leading the development of a Virtual Community of Practice for our Digital Education Leadership master’s program, so I’ve continued thinking hard about this while trying to put it into practice.

One thing to note is that within both of my posts above, I was thinking more broadly about what tools and features a community needs. This included things like group calendars, repositories for files, and productivity apps. However, in this post, I’m focusing solely on the features needed in a platform for facilitating communication.

Essential features for text-based community discussion
  • Web-based access, computer programs, phone apps – A platform needs to be easily accessible to people through their choice of device. People choose different hours and situations to participate in their communities, and their communities need to be readily available when they want, where they want.
  • Asynchronous chat support (and live chat support) – Live chat support is typically covered if you have asynchronous chat support (for example, there’s nothing stopping you from chatting, live, in the replies of a post), but the reverse is undoubtedly not true. A space that strictly supports live chat is going to look more like a text message. Think Facebook Messenger, old-school AOL chat rooms, or Discord. The chat history is there, and maybe you can even search it, but it’s a constant stream of single message-entries. If you’re replying to something said 20 messages ago, it’s not immediately obvious. Something I’ve observed is that a space designed for asynchronous support is probably going to look more like Facebook or Microsoft Teams, where the content posted appears in its own box, and that box contains replies to the post. Three of the most important features to support asynchronous discussions are threaded conversations (being able to reply)notifications, and bumping content. I elaborate on these below. The last things I will say about features that support live chat is that it’s nice to have an indication of who’s currently online, but I don’t think this is critical to supporting conversations.
  • Threaded communication – A threaded conversation is where you reply to something, and that reply shows up directly under the original post. This keeps discussions organized. I think it’s preferable to have two levels of threading. The first level allows you to reply to someone’s post, and many platforms stop there – e.g., Slack, MS Teams, Google+. The second level allows you to reply to a reply on a post – e.g., FB. This is far less common, and while not absolutely necessary, it’s really nice and allows a conversation to branch off without distracting from the original conversation. And it gives you that one extra level of specificity, making it easier to follow what part of an existing conversation you’re replying to. Reddit is an example of endless levels of threading, and that can actually make it harder to follow a group discussion. So it seems apparent that there’s a balance to be found. I’ve never seen a platform with three levels, but in my experience, two levels works really well.
  • Notifications – Notifications can notify you of all sorts of activity, but the ones that are super important to supporting conversation are notifications when: new original content is posted, new replies are made on a post you’ve commented on, and you are mentioned. These notifications help keep you aware of new activity and help you revisit older conversations. I know there’s a limit to how many options people can really handle having, but I think that the more a platform allows you to customize your notifications, the better (at least to a point). I’ve not yet thought systematically about what notification options I think are the most important, but that would be a good topic to consider.
  • Bumping (dependent on threaded conversations) – This is when posts with recent activity are “bumped” to the beginning of a feed. This makes it easy to find posts with new activity. If bumping happens in the main content area, this helps you find active posts even if you weren’t previously involved in the discussion. Overall, this feature also helps you revisit older conversations when there are new additions to the discussion.
  • Sorting the feed by “bumped” OR “newest original” content – This allows you to choose what you see first in your feed. Do you want to see posts with new activity, even if they’re older, or the newest posts first? This is not a common feature among the platforms I’ve considered, and while it doesn’t have to be necessary (ways around needing this include notifications and searching/jumping in the feed) it is indeed a feature with a lot of usefulness, especially in a highly active community. When you only have bumping, it causes new posts with little activity to get “lost in the feed” (a common complaint in FB groups); when you have only new content first, this makes it hard to notice posts with a lot of activity that you aren’t getting notifications for. This feature, in my opinion, gives a platform a competitive edge.
  • Member mentions/tagging (dependent on having notification) – Member tagging allows you to direct someone’s attention to a specific thing or conversation. This has the benefit of allowing you to tag someone who otherwise might not notice the conversation or activity.
  • Ability to paste images into posts/comments – A picture can be worth 1000 words. I use screenshots from Window’s snipping tool to help me communicate all. the. time. The ability to post a picture of what you’re referring to is really just a vital feature. Sure there are ways around it, but when you can simply ctrl+v (i.e., paste) a snip into the text-entry box and post it (no right click > name > save > click > locate > upload > post), it facilitates the flow of communication greatly. It just makes it so easy that I have to add it to my list of essential features.
  • Private messaging – Private messaging from within the platform hosting your community is essential because it allows you to have a one-on-one conversation without requiring that you disclose extra contact information like phone numbers and email addresses. It also makes it so you don’t have to get out a second device (e.g., phone for text) or open a second program/window (e.g., browser window for email) in order to privately say something to someone. This feature was restricted by the university when we used MS Teams for a quarter and it drove me bonkers.
  • Search discussions – This is necessary to find older content when you can’t, or when it’s not easy to, find it in your notification or activity feed. “What was that resource someone posted a month ago about Peer Coaching…?” Using a search bar can sometimes be the easiest way to find what you’re looking for.
  • Emoji, stickers, gifs, etc. – While you can do without these, I truly believe that limits communication. One of the most fascinating things to me about the development of text-based communication is the way that these forms of multimedia have become the best way to say some things. I wouldn’t assume that this is a universal experience, but for those who experience it, the need is there. These icons give a sort of self-expression that you simply can’t get with words alone. And like words, they can start to take on meanings of their own. For example, my friend and I use the sailboat emoji “⛵” to express sympathy when we don’t know what words to use. (Yes, this is very random.) However, one of the things about emoji, etc. is that I believe people perceive them as unprofessional, to one degree or another. So whether or not emoji, etc. are appropriate depend on the context – but I would challenge you to consider if your context is truly better off without them. With this question comes a host of other things to consider about how discourse patterns affect discussions, which are beyond the scope of this post. Maybe another time.
  • Reactions to posts and comments – Reactions (e.g., likes) are a really useful way to engage with a post that doesn’t require a written response. It also gives you quick insight into the amount of activity in the community – and I would argue that activity promotes activity. They can help show agreement/support, which can help you identify popular responses. Being heard is part of the reason that we participate in communities, and reactions are a simple way to show that you hear someone. I think reactions promote a sense of community and level of comfort within that community. In FB groups, people like to argue that “you shouldn’t be doing xyz for likes anyways, so why do you care if people like your post?” To this I say, recognition (see Hegel, circa 1800 in Williams, 2000, pp. 21-26), and acceptance into a community (Wenger, 1998) are two incredibly relevant factors in identity development, and it is completely reasonable for people to desire recognition and acceptance from the communities they are part of.
  • Ability to edit posts/comments – In the context of a professional or semi-professional community, people want to be able to fix typos and clarify word choice. Or at least I do. But in some platforms this feature isn’t available. One of the pitfalls of being able to edit posts or comments is that it can have the effect of allowing people to change the content of their post in drastic ways that disrupt conversation. However: 1) it’s not something I typically see happening, 2) people often recognize that something fishy is going on when it does, and 3) the issue can be largely avoided if the developers include the ability for users to see past iterations of a post. 
Nonessential but nice feature
  • Rich text – By this I mean options for text formatting, from font stylizing, to bullets, to headers. When making bigger posts for class in our learning management systems (LMSs), I found that it was much easier to make my post visually sensible when I had formatting options available to me. This is nice and helpful, but not exactly necessary.
These features and Slack

Basically, Slack has everything I mentioned above, with the caveat that there’s a little bit missing from the bumping feature. Because of the way they have designed the mechanics that implement the bumping and sorting features, we miss out on the feature of having active posts that we aren’t already involved in bumped to the beginning of a feed. Despite this, Slack is the most complete communication platform I’ve found, based on my above requirements.

Rather than go through everything on the list, I will just go through the things that have something particular to note.

Asynchronous chat / Live chat / Threads / Bumping / Sorting

I’m going to discuss these five features together.

Slack has an interesting combination of asynchronous and live chat support, which really excites me for its potential to facilitate discussion. The display you see for communication in a channel is laid out in a way that’s more in line with a “live chat” (instead of “posts”) sort of feel, with a constant stream of message entries. In fact, the message displayed in the text-entry bar subtly encourages you to message the channel (named “#general” in the image below), instead of starting a new conversation. The entry bar says “Message #general.”

Picture of a text-entry bar that says "Message #general".

Compare that to the message that is displayed in the text-entry box for MS Teams, which encourages you to begin a conversation, rather than participate in an ongoing one. The entry bar says “Start a new conversation. Type @ to mention someone.”

Image of MS Teams' text-entry bar, which says "Start a new conversation. Type @ to mention someone"

However, along with this “live chat” feel to the channel, there is the ability to reply to posts in the channel, which gets us into the asynchronous benefits. In the channel view, that looks like this.

Image shows that a reply exists under the first comment. It does not show what the reply says. The second comment shows message options - replying is one of them.

In the image above, you can see that I replied to myself in the first message. In the second message, you can see what I would click to reply to that message – the chat bubble.

If I clicked my reply to see my reply, the thread pops up in a panel to the right and it displays the thread on its own, which moves us further away from that chat-room-style layout. It looks like this:

Image shows the first message, which we could see before, and the reply, which we couldn't see before. There is a text entry box to reply again underneath the messages.

Notice that in this view, the text-entry bar says “Reply,” which encourages you to participate in this particular ongoing conversation.

In the channel view, nothing is bumped, and you do have that scrolling stream of messages. However, under the “All Threads” view, you get a feed of threads that you’ve participated in, where threads with the newest activity are bumped to the beginning of your feed. Here’s a shot of the top of my feed after commenting on the thread shown above:

Image shows the left side panel in Slack, where the channels are located. "All Threads" is selected. To the right, you see the same thread as before, but with a new comment. It is displayed at the beginning of the feed because that thread is the most recent thread to have activity.

This gives you the ability to choose which way you want to see content – newest original content first, or posts with the most recent activity. Unfortunately, like I mentioned before, these options leave out the ability to have active posts that you are not already a part bumped to the beginning of a feed. Nevertheless, the ability to switch between these two views – one that really supports live conversation and one that really supports asynchronous conversation – really excites me about the platform.

Notifications

I’ll just quickly mention that Slack notifications are highly customizable, and I think that’s one of its selling points.

Emoji / Reactions 

There are a full range of available emoji, and you can use any of them to react to comments.

Rich text

There are some rich text options. However, it’s not immediately obvious that they’re available, and using them requires knowing either the keyboard shortcuts or how to type them. Here is the list of available formatting options and how to use them: Using Slack: Format your messages.

Conclusions on Slack and the essential features

It’s hard for me to really rank my list of essential features in order of importance, but notifications, threading, bumping, and sorting are probably my top four. Initially, I didn’t realize that Slack had the bumping and sorting features, and thinking those were missing was my only reservation regarding using Slack for the Virtual Community of Practice I’m leading the development of. I realized Slack has these features after emailing with a representative of Slack’s feedback team. (Can I take a second to recommend using the feedback features for the apps and programs you use? I tend to have good experiences when I contact developers for feedback.) The realization that they do in fact have these features made me go from “I think Slack is probably the best, but…” to “heck yes, Slack is definitely the best fit for us!” And these aren’t even the only reasons Slack is awesome. My old post, Slack.com – Communication management (Module 3, ISTE-SS 4), goes into a little more detail about some of the other features that make Slack really neat.


References

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, R. (2000). Making identity matter: identity, society and social interaction. Durham: Scociologypress.

Engaged conversations: text-based vs. verbal (Module 5, ISTE-CS 4)

For our last post on ISTE Coaching Standard 4: Professional development and program evaluation, we’re thinking about what technology rich professional learning looks like, in the ideal. In my own typical fashion, I am generalizing the population to “learners” before thinking about the specifics of professional development (PD) for teachers.

Ideally, an online learning community looks like a group of people engaged in meaningful, virtual conversation/sharing/collaboration which supports their learning.

But how do you have meaningful conversations in virtual environments? What does it require? What’s different than in-person communication? Why does it feel more difficult?

How can we use what we know from our experiences in other online communities to inform our interactions in the online learning communities that we wish to create? 

How can we use that information to support teachers in creating virtual communities of practice that support them in their professional learning?

Talking with the experienced

I’ve had a hard time finding information about what online community members themselves can do to develop their shared community and learn from each other. There is a lot of information on what facilitators and community leaders can do to encourage community participation, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the community members to engage. So what should community members know about engaging in rich discussions through text to help them have successful text-based discussions? (When I refer to “text” I don’t necessarily mean “texting,” I just mean any form of text-based communication – e.g., texting, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Reddit, etc.)

My primary tactic for answering my questions this module was to talk to a handful of people I know, who are both thoughtful and have spent a considerable amount of time participating in online communities or otherwise engaging in text-based communication.

Through these conversations, I realized that I was conflating two things: actions that community members can take that support participation in the community and its discussions, and actions that people can take that support engaged conversations. This may or may not be a subtle distinction. The difference is like participation in discussion threads, which may not have much of a back and forth conversational element, versus participation in an engaged conversation where there is a back and forth between participants. For example, if someone posts a question and everyone simply gives their own answer, versus if someone posts a question and a debate begins. One of my friends proposed this definition for an engaged conversation: “engagement is usually when both parties are kinda, aware of and committed to the outcome/effect of the conversation on the other person.” I haven’t fully explored if I think this is a complete definition for my use, but I think it’s worth considering, and for now it’s the most concise and accurate definition I have to work with, so I will use it.

What I was really after was how to support engaged conversation, but there was a noteworthy similarity in what everyone said about how to support participation. The two main things that community members can do to support participation in the community and its discussions are:

  • Post content
  • Respond to posts (even when you disagree)

On the one hand, “yeah, duh,” but on the other hand, even though it’s obvious, there seems to be no escaping that this is the bottom line for an online community. And the smaller the community, the more important it is for community members to commit to doing these things.

Engaged conversations

However, having an engaged text-based conversation is not dependent on participating in a community, since it really only requires two people. So whether your participating in a community, or just one-on-one discussion, what’s different about communicating through text compared to verbal conversation? For text-based conversations:

  • It can require more energy – Typing your thoughts takes time and effort, and communicating through text is slower, overall. The thought of putting all you’re thinking into coherent sentences can feel like walking through pudding.
  • The ability to put ideas into sentences becomes very important – Sometimes we don’t have the words, but in person we still manage to communicate our thoughts or questions through half-sentences and body language. There’s a certain concreteness that becomes very important in a text-based conversation.
  • Multiple people can share ideas simultaneously – Conversations don’t need to be as turned based. You can complete your thought while the other person is typing. In this way, you don’t have to be interrupted and everyone can keep contributing to the conversation. While this can work really well in one-on-one conversations, it seems plausible that this could also work against large-group conversations; if there’s too much to respond to, groups may break out into multiple, smaller-group conversations.
  • You can keep track of multiple conversations simultaneously – For example, in a one-on-one, real-time conversation, while I respond to conversation 1, the other person can respond to conversation 2.
  • Tangents can be easier to come back from – If you are talking about some topic, and you go off on a tangent (or a few), in a verbal conversation it can be hard to remember what point you were initially discussing. But when talking through text, you can make your tangential point and then refer back to what you were discussing earlier to get back on track.
  • They can be very focused – Being able to look back at what you’ve been talking about (like in the above bullet) can promote focused conversation on whatever central thing you’re discussing.
  • Miscommunication or misunderstanding may be more challenging to overcome
Handling miscommunication

The challenge of miscommunication was my husband’s central focus during our discussion (which was verbal). To him, the main thing that seems hard about text-based conversation is preventing and fixing miscommunication. Indeed, when I am writing for people that I don’t know well (like posting to a discussion board for a class), what stresses me out the most is worrying that I will be misinterpreted…and offend someone. And I can easily think of examples where a conversation essentially ended due to unfixed miscommunication. But miscommunication isn’t a difficulty unique to text-based conversations, so what is it about text that makes it feel so much harder?

Signaling misunderstanding is a slower process than the immediate “wait, what?” of verbal conversation. It can take more time and energy to fix miscommunication, and it might be one of those things that feels like walking through pudding. Because the whole process is so much slower, it might amplify how much it feels like clarifying derails the flow of the conversation.

And we all know that lack of tone and body language can lead to miscommunication. But there are two specific ways I can think of that the missing tone and body language can cause a miscommunication to effectively end the conversation:

  • Emotions are muted in text, and emotions are a huge indicator that miscommunication is happening. Therefore, we can’t necessarily see that miscommunication is happening in real-time. And if tension is on the rise, being able to respond to the miscommunication is time-sensitive. If you’re upsetting someone, and you can’t see it, the conversation may be over before you even know what happened. (This happened to me recently. I was pressing for clarification and didn’t realize I was upsetting him.)
  • When miscommunication is realized, and emotions are affected, we don’t have access to tone and body language to smooth things over, which we rely on heavily in verbal conversations. This just increases the difficulty of managing certain types of miscommunication.
Implications

So what does this mean for those of us who are trying to engage in an online community or otherwise trying to have a meaningful conversation through text (whether it be for an online class or professional development, or for a hobby)?

  • Commit to putting your thoughts in writing – There are a handful of people I communicate with regularly, and primarily, through text. There are times when I have to make a conscious decision to sit down and take a minute to write out what I’m thinking. I can feel that I’ve stepped into the pudding, and I can either choose to step out, or walk through it. If you want to have that meaningful conversation, accept that you’re going to walk through it.
  • Work to clarify miscommunication or misunderstanding – Ask for clarification. Put in the time to clarify. Be patient. While it can derail the flow of the conversation to go back and hone in on something you didn’t understand, luckily, tangents are easy to recover from. And it’s worth it. Trusting that someone will work with me to resolve a misunderstanding makes the effort of communicating worth it – because if we’re not going to work to understand each other, why are we even communicating?
The ultimate question

The ultimate question we need to ask each other, and ourselves, when trying to encourage meaningful communication online is:

What will make you choose to participate in engaged conversation in an online community? What do you need in order to commit to writing your thoughts and responding to others? What do you need in order to commit to working through miscommunication?

If we want to intentionally build online learning communities, I think it’s important that we figure out what our own answers to these questions are. If we are going to use virtual communities of practice to support teachers’ professional learning, we need to know what the teachers need in order to participate; and the teachers need to know what their own needs are, too.


Resources

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches