Information Overload Is ‘Cognitive Diabetes,’ Says Slack CEO

Managing the flow of communication data is “a problem that’s going to take more than a generation to sort out,” Stewart Butterfield says at the Bloomberg Businessweek Design Conference.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, right, talks  during an onstage interview at the Bloomberg Businessweek Design Conference on April 11.

Photographer: Peter Prato for Bloomberg Businessweek

As Stewart Butterfield envisioned it, his corporate-messaging app Slack was designed to alleviate the effects of endless e-mails, text messages, and phone calls. “We’re selling a reduction in information overload,” Butterfield wrote in a memo to staff before the release of Slack in 2013.

Instead, Slack has become one more thing to check for many of the 2.7 million users of the chat service. Still, people are hungry for more digital communications, whether it's with colleagues on Slack, friends on Snapchat, or acquaintances on Facebook, Butterfield said in an onstage interview at the Bloomberg Businessweek Design Conference.

Butterfield, the chief executive officer of Slack Technologies Inc., likened the obsession with communication tools to the diabetes epidemic, when "suddenly, as a species, we got infinite, free calories," he said. "Suddenly, we have infinite, free communications." The messaging addiction is a form of "cognitive diabetes," and it's "a problem that's going to take more than a generation to sort out," he said.

For a sense of the hype around messaging tools, just look at Slack's bank account. The San Francisco startup has raised $540 million from investors, and its most recent round valued the company at $3.8 billion. Slack started out as a video game maker called Tiny Speck. When asked about the origins of the name Slack, Butterfield said, "I have no idea." He added: "It's lost to history."

Then Butterfield offered an explanation for the name, which he called a "post-facto rationalization for why we call it Slack." He said "slack" is a technical term in product management, which means leaving some extra time to finish a project. The origin story could use some work.

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