The best thing about Slack’s new Canvas feature is that I don’t need to explain it to you. It’s like Google Docs, but inside Slack. Make a canvas, add some stuff and share it with whoever you want. Every channel in your Slack now has a canvas attached to it, and you can also create and share as much as you like. It is!
Slack first announced Canvas last year, and they’re rolling out to all Slack users today. I’ve been testing an early version for the past few days, and they’ll definitely be one of my most used Slack features going forward. They’re probably the most useful organizational tool Slack has ever created.
See, the problem with Slack is that it’s chaos. Since it’s primarily a messaging app, everything that happens in Slack happens in chat. Chats move quickly and resist organization; even if you’re relentless about forcing people to thread everything, you’ll end up with a million threads that start with things like “Question, Topic Details” and “Okay, so I thought”. Slack wants to be a repository for all of your company’s information, documents, data, and workflows — and it’s actually quite useful for a lot of those things! — but it requires too much scrolling and searching to find the things you’re looking for.
One way to think of Canvas is simply as collections of Slack objects. You can type text into them, but you can also upload photos and videos, embed Slack apps, add links, take polls, and all the other things you’d do in a message. Links can be displayed as pretty cards, YouTube videos will play embedded, and all of Slack’s rich links and media are also displayed in canvases. Really, everything you can do in Slack you can do in canvas, but now those things are stored in a document that you can find and organize much more easily. (Yes, you can embed a canvas within a canvas. Canvas-ception.) And if your company is deep enough in Slack that you have bug report buttons and multi-step workflows you can invoke with a slash command, all they work inside canvas too.
One way to think of Canvas is simply as collections of Slack objects
But while it’s technically a document collaboration tool, Canvas isn’t really a competitor to Google Docs. It’s also not a particularly sophisticated editing tool, for example: you can make lists and headings, but otherwise you don’t have much control over how the text looks. Several people can work on the same canvas at the same time, but Google Docs handles multiple cursors and overlapping edits much better.
“Google Docs 100 percent still has a place in our universe,” says Ali Reil, SVP of Product at Slack. In early tests, she saw the Canvas occupying a different space. “The first thing we’re seeing is that it’s in Slack, and there’s something about having that kind of flexible space in the product now.” It might not be the most powerful text editor on earth, but there’s probably no faster way to send an introductory document or style guide to a group of your colleagues.
There’s something to that logic: I’ve found myself using Huddles, the voice and video chat in Slack’s app, more often than I thought, simply because it’s right there. Starting a meeting feels like a quick call rather than dramatically dropping a Zoom connection into a conversation. And if I’m putting together a mood board of links and images to share with the team, a canvas is probably the least complicated way to do it.
Because it’s Slack, Canvas handles sharing and permissions very well—much better than Google Docs. When you create a new canvas, you can share it with anyone in your organization or share it with a channel and everyone in the channel will have access. However, there’s no public sharing, so you’re limited to the people who also have access to your Slack. (For most documents, this is probably a good thing.) All comments on a canvas reside in a dedicated Slack thread, which itself is searchable just like anything else in Slack. If you mention someone in a canvas but they haven’t been shared yet, their name is shown on a gray background; share it with them and it turns blue.
Over time, Slack seems to be seeing canvases evolve into free collaborative workspaces, similar to both Google Docs and whiteboarding apps like Miro. More immediately, though, they’re a huge upgrade to the pins and bookmarks that Slack has relied on for far too long. The canvases for each channel are likely to be a big hit for this purpose alone. “We wanted that surface in our products from day one,” says Rail. “The pins and ticks were like, ‘We’ll do this for now until we build that surface.”
Slack looks like a messaging app and acts like a messaging app, but it’s never really been just a messaging app. The similarity makes it too difficult to use Slack as a permanent place to store information. Canvases aren’t going to take over your document workflows anytime soon, but they seem like a great place to put things that you’ll be able to find again. This makes Slack more meaningful. I’m already freaking out about everything I find.