If anything could finally kill email, surely it would be the slew of embarrassing messages publicly revealed in large-scale data breaches of organizations such as the Democratic National Committee and Sony. Who could read Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s description of Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, as a “damn liar” and not vow to tone down the cattiness of his or her own emails? Or see former Sony Pictures co-chairwoman Amy Pascal’s exchange about what to ask President Obama at a fundraising event and not swear to stop sending friends jokes made in poor taste?
We’re none too careful about what we say in emails, but we’re even more careless on other platforms. Nearly 10 years ago, Maureen Dowd wrote, “IM-ing is like whispering, perfect for furtive, racy exchanges — or slimy, perverted ones. It’s as if your id had a typewriter.” Instant messaging tools for the workplace are not new, but the all-office, always-on group chat environment facilitated by Slack is. And make no mistake, the embarrassing insults or offensive jokes being tossed around in email exchanges don’t hold a candle to the few public glimpses we’ve had into some organizations’ Slack channels, from Gawker to Breitbart.
“We’ve gotten so used to talking with our co-workers over Slack that we tend to forget it has an essential difference compared with in-person conversations: permanence,” Max Read, who found himself having to explain a four-year-old Slack joke at the Hulk Hogan sex tape trial, wrote in March.
What we need is something different—a home for our less professional conversations in the workplace. Such a platform would be both good and bad news for employers worried about breaches or leaks of embarrassing communications among their employees. It’s bad news because tools that encourage more unprofessional conversations among larger groups of people increase both the amount of content that could reflect poorly on the organization and the number of people with access to that content. But it’s good news, too, because if all (or even most) of that content is happening on a single platform, it becomes easier to implement one of the simplest—yet most difficult to swallow—data protection strategies: deletion.
Of course, to protect yourself from the release of any embarrassing conversations, the best solution is not to have any embarrassing conversations, or at least not have them online. The next-best solution is regularly scheduled, automated deletion of all communications. Either is probably more reliable than my own solution of relying on encryption; two-factor authentication; and a system of ad hoc, irregular deletion of my most incriminating messages.
Employers can take care of this problem by choosing to automatically delete all their employees’ communications after a certain period of time. Until last year, for instance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration automatically deleted New York state employees’ emails after 90 days. That decision was reversed following criticism that it hindered government transparency, but even if you’re not a civil servant, there are good reasons not to want your email records regularly purged. For many of us, email is still an important source of work records, contacts, and useful files and notes. Defaulting to deletion of those records would mean the loss of that valuable archive—a loss that would, in many cases, outweigh the risks of future humiliating data breaches.
But a separate, dedicated channel for gossip and insults and mockery—that’s something it makes perfect sense to regularly delete. This is the Snapchat model brought to the office, an online space specifically for messages you want to disappear. “These ephemeral apps are the first concerted push against the permanence of Internet conversation,” Bruce Schneier wrote for CNN in 2014 about apps such as Snapchat that promise to automatically destroy your messages. The demand for such apps seemed to be on the rise in the wake of the 2014 Sony breach.
Even automatic-deletion apps such as Snapchat are no guarantee that your words will never come back to haunt you—a recipient could take screenshots, for instance, or the deletion mechanisms can be imperfect. “At best, the data is recorded, used, saved and then deliberately deleted. At worst, the ephemeral nature is faked,” Schneier said in his article. Nevertheless, it’s a strategy worth pursuing for some online communications in the workplace. Slack, in fact, provides “team owners” at organizations with paid Slack subscriptions with the ability to set custom message retention policies and automatically delete messages after a set period of time that can be as short as one day. But if you use Slack to actually do work and collaborate on professional projects, then deleting those messages presents the same drawbacks as deleting email. Identifying a separate channel for snark for the least professional of your workplace communications makes it much easier to implement regular deletion policies.
This doesn’t necessarily require brand-new technology—it’s a function that could be served by existing services, including Slack, or Wickr Professional, or Mark Cuban’s private messaging app. Cyber Dust, whose App Store description specifically mentions that it could be used by co-workers, automatically deletes messages after they are viewed by recipients in a manner Cuban claims is significantly more private than Snapchat. But given how well Slack has taken off in workplaces, it seems like there is an opportunity for an explicitly office-based communication platform that keeps your virtual water-cooler conversations private.
Email may not be going anywhere anytime soon, but the plethora of alternatives allow us more room to differentiate how we use each online communication platform. That differentiation, in turn, allows us to treat different kinds of communication differently—some of our messages we may want to save forever, others we may be happy to watch disappear instantly. We already know how to do that, to a certain extent, in our personal lives, but there’s a lot of room for improving how we do it at work.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.