It (Shouldn't) Go Down in the DMs

One of the challenges of migrating from a physical to virtual community has been adopting a norm of open communication that makes an online community both appear active and welcoming. In the case of Code for Boston our online community exists primarily in Slack, and secondarily in a series of Zoom accounts. When new members of Code for Boston login to our Slack, they see a space that appears fairly inactive. Despite having 120-200 active members each month, a message in a public Code for Boston channel might receive one or two responses. This does not create an engaging experience for new members, but I also ask, is this normal? Are my active members actually talking? To answer this we can look at data.

Slack has analytics that shows us how many messages we send in the past 30 days and whether they are in public or private channels:

This sits in contrast to a primarily online tech meetup I belong to:

The above case I would refer to as an ideal case. A healthy online/virtual community would be publicly communicating with each other and providing opportunities for new folks to engage. The flow of communication is open and inclusive.

In a work situation, the folks at GitLab have set an internal KPI of at least 20% of messages not being DMs. At Buffer over 50% of messages are not DMs. The contrasts to the 11% of messages in the Code for Boston Slack not being in private messages, and suggests we might not be normal.

Why do I think this is an important challenge to surmount? In the real world space there is a floor of participation. You can see every person in the room. If someone opens their mouth you hear what they say. The opportunities to participate in-person are much greater as the variety of things folks discuss grows. If everyone was whispering in each other’s ears in-person that would feel strange, but that’s exactly what sending a DM in virtual space is. The in-person norm is inclusionary, and the virtual norm is exclusionary.

Despite the data and truisms, the challenge remains. Shifting community norms is like turning an aircraft carrier. Following the 1% rule I have taken it upon myself to try and post a bit more content, and a lot more emoji. Asking folks to engage is not particularly effective. It likely feels like work to start conversations. However we don’t want to fall into the trap of chasing engagement for engagement’s sake. We want actually interesting and productive posts. My ask is: how do or would you grow your public slack participation? What keeps you from posting in your online community?

The last thing I share is it is inevitable that an online community without public content and participation will shrink. Throughout the pandemic Code for Boston has seen its active membership drop off. Most of the accessibility advantages of virtual (or even hybrid) participation have been nullified by the lack of inclusiveness. I would love to be able to provide both. However creating an inclusive virtual space when most folks aren’t comfortable chatting in public is a massive challenge. How have you been trying to surmount this? What has worked in your brigade? Or do you also sit with this same challenge? If you do, I see you, and you are not alone.


Wow, I’m having a meta moment – my first reaction to reading through the post was to reach out to my “closest safest contact” as a first-pass filter before responding (either here or via Slack).

As my first trauma-responsive check to that impulse, I can say that’s a practice of mine born out fearing what happens when I lack a filter – especially in wide-open spaces. While I’m both more willing to learn in open arenas and better supported these days, this post reveals to me what could be some of the factors in play at-large. And I would say, too, that I go through phases between wanting big group communication vs small or 1:1 communication.

Have you checked out the latest Network Workshop (recording available!)? 1:1 connections were noted as important for direct democracy practice – though when I’m thinking of 1:1 connections that’s not to say “it all goes down in DMs”! More to the point I’m wondering what are the additional checks I might need when I feel that impulse to take it to the DMs? Do I just need some help processing something before I participate with the group, or do I fear I can’t participate in the group at all?

In most cases, it’s usually the former for me, need the equivalent of some verbal microprocessing – and then I lose track or lose steam in transforming the DMed process to a more public one. That’s another story entirely. ;D

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Thanks Rene, for the thoughtful response! I strongly agree that there is an element of what I refer to as “stage freight” in these somewhat more public online spaces. I think this is perfectly normal, but much harder to surmount when everyone else around you also has the same feeling. The opportunities to participate and build comfort don’t exist. We sit with this tension between our own psychological safety, our value of accessibility, and value of inclusion. One of these ends up having to give. In Code for Boston’s current situation, it is inclusion which loses.

in my day work the making of conversations public is normalized and socialized through both role modeling and also gentle nudges. If someone starts a DM conversation that might be a better public conversation, they’ll politely suggest we take it to #channel-name. I posted this largely because I’m not really sure how to make this happen when that norm doesn’t exist. It might just be a matter of being bold and trying it. Or asking when you send a DM in slack “why is this a DM and not in a channel?”

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After I commented I thought of similar possibilities – what could a peer supporting me in a DM convo say that might help me clue into a stage fright situation, or recognize I might be experiencing something more than initiative anxiety? The gentle nudge to take it to a channel that you describe would be a great start on the peer’s part in my case – and a willingness and patience to talk through something with me whether it’s momentary anxiety or something more deeply rooted.

When you’ve given gentle nudges to others yourself, are there common refrains in response to it – particularly if it’s resistant to going public with a thought or idea?


Hi, thanks for sharing your work on this topic. At Code for the Carolinas, we are also actively considering how we use Slack. The Code for the Carolinas Slack is a bit complicated, as it involves multiple Brigades.

One thing we have done is partner with a team of service-learning students from the UNC APPLES program. These public relations students did a survey, some interviews, and other analysis. I have the student team’s permission to share this general information here and more detailed information one-on-one.

We share your goal of increasing engagement. Some of the high-level findings are that the Slack is functioning well for people currently engaged in Brigade project work and that the space appears confusing and inactive to new folks. I’m leading development of a set of norms that I hope the Carolinas Brigades will collectively adopt.

My involvement with online communities dates back to initial enthusiastic support for Lotus Notes TeamRooms and various online learning tools. What I have found consistently is that people are hesitant to post publicly in two to three situations.

  • People are hesitant to expose a lack of knowledge.
  • People don’t like to be criticized in public.
  • People are hesitant to be seen as critical in public. While the first two seem nearly universal, the second seems to vary a bit more, leading to conflict with the second point :face_with_hand_over_mouth:.

With Slack specifically, there seems to be a real tension between those who experience too much Slack and those who would like more Slack activity to be visible to them.

A model that I think can be useful here is deliberative documents vs. responsive documents. In Freedom of Information Act requests, government workers do not need to provide every communication from the process of making a decision. This deliberative privilege to keep some intermediate communications outside of FOIA helps “ensure that federal agencies are able to engage in frank and open discussions in their decision-making processes.”

I also really appreciate Slack DMs and huddles / calls as a way to communicate with people I interact with in a specific context without connecting through personal contact information. Consider that some people may use Slack DMs or huddles where others use in-person meetings or communications between their business accounts.

I might suggest “What if anything from these DMs / huddle should be summarized in a channel?” and “What from this Slack channel should be surfaced to Discourse?” as useful norms. Also, encourage newer folks to take on writing those summaries to the extent they feel comfortable.

Also, the data nerd in me would like to point out that number of messages can be a problematic way to measure Slack activity. DMs are often flurries of short messages. These numbers might look quite different if we looked at % of text sent via DM vs. channel, or in communities where norms around message content are different.



Thanks for sharing this information, I’d be interested in connecting and learning more from the interviews!

I’ve heard of this, and recently did not finish Cal Newport’s A World Without EMail because the problem of getting too much email is not one I experience in my professional life. I have seen glimpses of this other world where there is a “hive mind” and people are chattering all day, but have yet to personally experience it. I do hope there should be some middle ground between the overwhelming constant message modality and the one of silence that I often see.

A good idea, but I also want to say the above arrives with a catch-22. I have verbalized my desire for these sorts of norms, but general pronouncements aren’t as effective as interventions or nudges in the moment. The fact that most communication occurs via DM means I am denied the opportunity to suggest someone share something at a time it would be most actionable to them. Wish I had an answer to this challenge, but largely remain flummoxed. The best I can do is raise up good examples.

Circling back because I just remembered a useful Slack engagement tip. Make sure your Slack workspace is well-supplied with Thanks and other affirmative emoji. But especially thanks. Personally, I find the praying hands an awkward emoji for expressing thanks to people. Make it easy for people to express thanks! There is quite a bit of research supporting the value of regular thanks in organizations. This recent article in Forbes discusses one such study.