What is Discord? Chat service fosters community, expands beyond gaming

Jason Citron is the CEO of Discord, a chat app that has long been popular with gamers but is gradually expanding to other audiences as well.

Courtesy Discord

Delilah, a college student, has been watching “The Bachelor” since she was 12, but she has never known too many people in real life other than her mother, who also watches the reality TV show.

For this reason, when Delilah discovered Discord, an online chat service, she decided to create her own Discord server especially for fans of “The Bachelor” and other dating shows.

A year ago, Delilah usually watched rose ceremonies alone. She now watches every weekly episode with around six to ten friends who use her Bachelor Nation Discord server to stream the latest episode together.

Since launching in 2015, Discord has quickly become one of the best places for video game players to gather and communicate online, and it’s growing rapidly. Discord has more than 140 million active users per month, up from 56 million at the end of 2019. The company also has 19 million active weekly “server” communities that contain multiple chat, voice and video channels. Discord offers some advanced features that make these servers look more like online communities than simple chat rooms, including real-time audio and video conversations, custom emoji, and custom roles that differentiate users.

Unlike most social consumer apps, Discord doesn’t make money off of ads. The startup mostly makes money off of Nitro, a service that Discord sells for $ 9.99 a month or $ 99.99 a year that gives users additional features like animated emoji and high definition video.

Although Discord is typically associated with online gamers, Delilah is among a growing number of people who create and join Discord communities that focus on interests as well as gambling. While Delilah’s server focuses on one TV genre, other servers focus their interests on regions, sports, memes, dating, or investments. According to a company spokesman, 70% of users say they use the app for games and other purposes, up from 30% in early 2020.

Delilah discovered Discord when one of her professors was giving distance learning there during the Covid pandemic. She used the app, thought it was cool, and decided to find out more about it.

“I started using it for school because of Covid and from there I branched out and found that you can use it for so many different things,” said Delilah, who refused to give her full name, to keep their online identity separate from their real identity.

Discord rose to prominence in the business world in March when the Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft was interested in buying the San Francisco company for at least $ 10 billion. Talks with Microsoft have reportedly ended, but the company eventually announced a partnership with Sony, which took a minority stake in the start-up.

Adaptation is the key

Several Discord server administrators told CNBC they had noticed a surge in their communities over the past year when people tried to connect with others while stuck inside.

One example is the San Francisco & Bay Area server. This server now has more than 2,000 users, most of whom identify themselves as residents of the many cities around San Francisco Bay.

The server has been around for about four years, and it was originally started as an offshoot of the r / SanFrancisco community on Reddit, said “Michael,” a Bay Area software engineer and administrator and owner of the Discord server. But the Discord server has grown over the past year to allow people to connect virtually.

“I’ve been thinking that this was just some kind of fun hobby, especially this year when there’s so much less to do,” said Michael, who refused to give his real name to keep his online identity separate hold.

Michael estimates that he and his moderators are spending about $ 80 a month on running the server. This includes promoting the server on Meetup.com to attract more members and pay for Discord’s Nitro subscription service.

A large part of the monthly costs also goes into the pool money that the mods raise for their monthly trivia events. This is one way to bring the community together.

“Something I’d normally spend on going out in a full month and stuff like that that would cover a full year ‘s expenditure on the server,” he said.

The server’s moderators in San Francisco & Bay Area also organize game nights where they play games like Among Us or Catan, as well as movie nights where they stream a movie and chat about it in the server’s chat rooms.

As more and more people get vaccinated, some users of the server have also started organizing real meetups.

One way the San Francisco & Bay Area server stands out is by allowing users to assign roles to themselves. Users can choose which part of the bay they live in by distinguishing the color their username appears in: teal for San Francisco, green for East Bay, and yellow for South Bay, to name a few.

These unique features are a major reason why many mods and administrators choose to build their community on Discord as opposed to other alternatives like Reddit or Slack.

Such is the case with David “Tart” Rush and his moderators who created the Fantasy Football chat server.

Like the San Francisco & Bay Area server, the Rush server was a Reddit community spin-off. But Rush’s server gives fantasy football players a chance to have real-time conversations more easily than via comment threads on Reddit.

“You really get instant feedback that you don’t get often on Reddit,” said Rush. “Someone will put in a question and then it will actually be much easier for you to start a conversation.”

The moderators of the Fantasy Football Chat server have created a number of bots that can detect when the members of the server are talking about specific players and get relevant information, such as: B. A player’s latest stats or information about their NFL contract.

These advanced features have helped Fantasy Football Chat attract more than 8,000 users since its inception in 2018, but all of that growth has kept Rush and his co-presenters busy. In addition to building bots and recruiting fantasy experts to run Ask-Me-Any sessions on the server, Rush and his colleagues also need to moderate the server to keep things civil.

This includes filtering a number of specific words and discouraging their members from using voice and video channels, which Rush says is more difficult to moderate. More importantly, the moderators introduced a policy of zero tolerance for politics because they “realized that every time someone brings up politics, it moves quickly”.

“Obviously we’re going to have people discussing this and that player and it can get hot,” said Rush. “But as long as you don’t immerse yourself in people and give them names, we’ll probably let it fly.”

With these guard rails, Fantasy Football Chat has become more than a hobby for Rush, the other moderators, and many of the server’s members. Although they discuss fantasy soccer as the main topic, the back rooms of the server allow them to build relationships that go beyond their mutual interest.

“It’s a lot easier to build friendships on our server,” he said. “Some people get to know each other really well here, and you really get that connection. It’s something I really enjoy.”

If Slack is a conference room, Discord is a bar

In terms of functionality, Slack is the most similar app to Discord. Both act as closed areas where users can talk to each other via text, voice or video through different chat rooms.

Discord does offer its users more customization tools, however, and the fact that it’s not positioned as enterprise software gives the app an aura more like that of a bar or cocktail lounge than that of a conference room.

That’s exactly the kind of vibe that Hurl, a San Francisco gamer, wanted when he built his server, aptly titled Smash Pub.

Hurl is an avid player of the fighting game Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a Nintendo title whose appeal spans different ages. Hurl wanted to create his own server for the game, but he purposely didn’t want younger players hanging around. So he gave the server a bar theme to attract older players who would also like to have a beer while they play and to discourage younger players who would not relate to it.

“Smash is just full of a lot of different age groups,” said Hurl. “A lot of people have a tendency to say, ‘Can I please join your server, I won’t annoy you’ and I’m just like ‘Fine’.”

Smash Pub contains unique artwork of the game’s characters hanging from a bar, and the numerous chat rooms have theme-related names such as the “General Cantina”; the taproom-side chat rooms where users can share memes, selfies, or just vent; and the Barcarde voice channels where users can hang out and play other video games.

Hurl’s approach to his server quickly paid off. The server has grown to more than 2,100 members since its launch in August 2020.

The more parts of the US reopen, the more people may return to the offline activities they did before the pandemic. However, the administrators of these Discord servers state that they are not concerned about the impact on their online community.

Although many of them grew during the quarantine and lockdown, some are confident that the communities they have built will continue to be hubs for social outreach. That’s what Michael takes from the San Francisco & Bay Area server when he sees more of his members get together in real life after first meeting on Discord.

“We’re seeing this happen organically, and that’s really cool. It seems people are still interested in the community and connections that are here,” Michael said. “I am optimistic that this will continue as things open up.”

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