The problem with Slack, and why it’s inferior to DBabble

When two of the organisations I’m associated with introduced me to the chatting app Slack, it reminded me of the chatting app DBabble (known to us in IIMB as BRacket) that was popular back when I was in college.

There were two primary reasons because of which Slack reminded me of DBabble. The first was the presence of forums/groups. There was a “General” that everyone in the organisation was part of, and then were other groups that you could choose to join and be a conversation in. The second was that you could not only converse on the fora, but also send personal messages to each other – something DBabble also enabled.

There are several reasons why Slack is superior to DBabble. Most importantly, you can tag people in your messages on forums and they get notified, so that they can respond – this is a critical feature for using it for work purposes.

Secondly, Slack integrates well with other tools that people use for work – such as email and a lot of development tools, for example (which one of the organisations I’m associated with uses heavily, but I’ve never got into that loop). Slack also has a very nice search feature that allows you to pull up discussions based on keywords, etc.

What Slack sorely lacks, which makes me miss DBabble like crazy, however, is threaded conversations. The conversation structure in each channel in Slack is linear – which means you can effectively have only one thread of conversation at a time.

When you have a large number of people on the channel, however, people might initiate several different threads of conversation. As things are, however, a Darwinian process means that all but one of them get unceremoniously cut out, and we end up having only one conversation.

It is also a function of whether Slack is used for synchronous or asynchronous messaging (former implies everyone replies immediately, latter means conversations can take their own time and there’s no urgency to participate immediately, like email, for example). My understanding is that the way it’s built, it can be used in both ways. My attempts to use it as an asynchronous messenger, however, have failed because some of the conversations I’ve tried to initiate have gotten buried above other conversations others on the channel have tried to start.

The problem with Slack is that it assumes that each forum will have only one active conversation at a time. Instead, if (like DBabble) it allows us to have different conversation threads, things can become a lot more efficient.

One of the nice features of forums on DBabble was that everytime you went to the forum, it would show you all the active threads by showing them in bold. DBabble allowed infinite levels of threading, and only messages that were unread (irrespective of which branch of which thread they were in) would be in bold, meaning you could follow all threads of conversation (this also proved problematic for some as we developed an OCD to “unbold” – read every single message on every forum we were part of).

Imagine how powerful threaded conversations can be at the corporate level especially when you can tag people in them – so you go to a forum, and can see all open discussions and see where your attention has been called, and contribute. Threading also means that you can carry out several different personal (1-to-1) conversations at a time without losing track of any.

It’s interesting that after DBabble (which also died after a later edition gave the option of “chat mode” which did away with threaded conversations) there has been no decent chat app that has come up that allows threaded conversations. Apart from possible bandwidth issues (which can happen when each message is suffixed with the full thread below it), I don’t see any reason this can’t be implemented!

I want my BRacket (DBabble) back. But then, chat has powerful network effects and there’s no use of me wanting a particular technology if sufficient number of other people don’t!

Missing BRacket

Last night then-classmate now-colleague Baada and I were having a long bitchy conversation, mostly carried over text messages (SMS). As the conversation developed and grew in intricacy, several threads developed. This is not unusual for a conversation with Baada – it usually takes on several dimensions, and it always helps having a mechanism to keep track of all the threads simultaneously.

That’s when we realized how much we miss BRacket, the local instant messaging system we had at IIMB (a version of DBabble). I might have written this before but the beauty of BRacket was that conversation was “offline”. There was no chat window, and you would reply to individual messages, like you would in email. While on one hand this allowed “offline conversation”,i..e. the conversation didn’t die if one person respond immediately like it can happen in Y!M/GTalk, the more important thing was that by having conversation history in each thread, this allowed for some serious multithreaded conversation.

While instant text messaging offers the former feature (you can reply to a message several hours later and still continue the conversation), the latter feature is lost. There’s no way to keep track of threads, and like a bad juggler you soon end up losing track of half the threads and the conversation peters out.

I don’t know if DBabble is still widely used elsewhere but it’s death knell in IIMB was sounded when Sigma (the student IT club) in its infinite wisdom allowed for a “chat mode”. Along with the conventional offline messaging system, it also gave the option of Y!M style chat windows. And having been used to Y!M, batches junior to mine started using this chat feature extensively. The immediate rewards of using it were huge – no need to hit “send” (I’ve even forgotten the keyboard shortcut for that), no need to open a new message each time it arrives, and so on.

While we held up the virtues of “old BRacket” (like i used to refuse to reply when juniors pinged me in chat mode. A notable exception being the famous “Pichai files”) there was no one to do that after we graduated. I’m told that the incoming batch of 2006 exclusively used chat mode. The two major advantages that BRacket offered over “window chat” were gone. GTalk came up sometime around then, and with its better and faster servers (the IIMB network was notoriously slow) it could easily offer as good if not better services than BRacket. It was clear then that BRacket would die.

I’m told that now no one uses BRacket. I don’t even have it installed on my last two computers. Unfortunately no other “offline-messaging” technology has quite caught on since then. And so I miss multithreaded conversation. It’s very sad, I tell you. I wonder if even DBabble is still used extensively.

It’s fascinating how some technology dies. You come up with a purported “improvement” which offers short-term gains, and catches people’s fancy. While people flock to the “improved version” in hordes, it turns out that the features that made  the original version so popular are now lost. And this new version has competition, and so the technology itself gets killed. All because of some purported “innovation”.