How 18F is using a Slack bot to encourage inclusive language - Technical.ly DC

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Apr. 19, 2016 12:59 pm

How 18F is using a Slack bot to encourage inclusive language

There's probably a better term than “guys,” and Slackbot has some suggestions.

18F programmed Slackbot to help remind people to use inclusive language.

(Photo by Flickr user N i c o l a, used under a Creative Commons license)

It was near the end of my internship at the NPR social media desk when I got a message on the NPR Snapchat account that went something like this: I’ve noticed you say “hey guys.” Have you thought about using a more gender-neutral word?

I should explain — I’d been experimenting with something I called a “Snapchat newscast,” and in an effort to keep my tone friendly and accessible and informal I’d settled on the salutation “hey guys.” I’m from California, and previous to that one message I’d used “guys” to address mixed-gender groups my whole life. But that was the day I stopped.

That’s the thing about language habits — they run deep and reveal a fascinating amount about our social, cultural and even geographical backgrounds. However, with some gentle prompting and a little awareness, these habits aren’t difficult to change.

Given 18F’s enthusiasm for Slack bots, it may come as no surprise that the agency has hacked Slackbot, the communication platform’s generic assistant bot, to help make staff language habits a little more inclusive. Specifically, 18F’s Slackbot now helps team members stop mindlessly addressing a group as “guys.”

Here’s what it looks like:

In 18F Slack, Slackbot encourages inclusive language. (Photo via 18F)

In 18F Slack, Slackbot encourages inclusive language. (Courtesy image)

Developer Maya Benari created the bot, and she gave us some insight into where it came from and how it has been received. Benari told Technical.ly she realized the hack might be a nice addition to 18F Slack when she saw it being used in another channel. Apparently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Salesforce use something similar.

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Programming an automatic response to a phrase was the easy part, but (maybe a little ironically) getting the language right took some tweaks. “Originally it said ‘I think you meant friends’ but people felt this was too accusatory so we changed it to ‘Did you mean…?'” Benari said in an email.

But, she added, “the response has been mostly positive. People have told us that this has changed how they speak and they’re much more conscious of speaking with gender-neutral terms.” Success.

As the 18F blog post about the hack says — “This little bot is a small way we can bake in our values, culture, and practices into a communication tool we use every day.”

And me? I’m still working on getting used to “hey y’all.”

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