How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet
Published2 months ago
Discord’s founders just wanted to create a way to talk to their gamer friends. They created something much bigger. Most longtime Discord users have a similar origin story. They liked playing video games and liked playing with their friends, so they used TeamSpeak or Skype to talk to their friends in-game. They mostly hated TeamSpeak and Skype, but they were really the only options.
Eventually, a lot of those gamers realized something. They wanted to talk to their gaming friends even when they weren’t in a game, and they wanted to talk about things other than games. Their gaming friends were their real friends. As luck would have it, in early 2015, a new tool called Discord showed up on the market. Its tagline was not subtle: “It’s time to ditch Skype and TeamSpeak.” It had text chat, which was cool, but mostly it did voice chat better than anybody else.
Early users set up private servers for their friends to play together, and a few enterprising ones set up public ones, looking for new gamer buds. “I don’t have a lot of IRL friends that play games,” one Discord user, who goes by Mikeyy on the platform, told me. “So when I played Overwatch, I started my first community … to play games with anyone on the internet. You’d play a couple of games with someone, and then you’re like, ‘Hey, cool, what’s your Discord?'”
Fast-forward a few years, and Discord is at the center of the gaming universe. It has more than 100 million monthly active users, in millions of communities for every game and player imaginable. Its largest servers have millions of members. Discord’s slowly building a business around all that popularity, too, and is now undergoing a big pivot: It’s pushing to turn the platform into a communication tool not just for gamers, but for everyone from study groups to sneakerheads to gardening enthusiasts. Five years in, Discord’s just now realizing it may have stumbled into something like the future of the internet. Almost by accident.
Going all in
Pivots are actually crucial to the history of Discord. It wouldn’t exist without them. Before he was trying to reinvent communication, co-founder Jason Citron was just one of those kids who wanted to play games with his friends. “That was the era of, like, Battle.net,” he told me (in a Discord chat, of course). “I was playing a lot of Warcraft online, dabbled in MMOs a little bit, Everquest.” At one point he almost didn’t finish college thanks to too many hours spent playing World of Warcraft.
Citron learned to code because he wanted to make games, and after graduating set out to do just that. His first company started as a video game studio and even launched a game on the iPhone App Store’s first day in 2008. That petered out and eventually pivoted into a social network for gamers called OpenFeint, which Citron described as “essentially like Xbox Live for iPhones.” He sold that to the Japanese gaming giant Gree, then started another company, Hammer & Chisel, in 2012 “with the idea of building a new kind of gaming company, more around tablets and core multiplayer games.” It built a game called Fates Forever, an online multiplayer game that feels a lot like League of Legends. It also built voice and text chat into the game, so players could talk to each other while they played.
And then that extremely Silicon Valley thing happened: Citron and his team realized that the best thing about their game was the chat feature. (Not a great sign for the game, but you get the point.) This was circa 2014, when everyone was still using TeamSpeak or Skype and everyone still hated TeamSpeak or Skype. Citron and the Hammer & Chisel team knew they could do better and decided they wanted to try.
It was a painful transition. Hammer & Chisel shut down its game development team, laid off a third of the company, shifted a lot of people to new roles and spent about six months reorienting the company and its culture. It wasn’t obvious its new idea was going to work, either. “When we decided to go all in on Discord, we had maybe 10 users,” Citron said. There was one group playing League of Legends, one WoW guild and not much else. “We would show it to our friends, and they’d be like, ‘This is cool!’ and then they’d never use it.”
After talking to users and seeing the data, the team realized its problem: Discord was better than Skype, certainly, but it still wasn’t very good. Calls would fail; quality would waver. Why would people drop a tool they hated for another tool they’d learn to hate? The Discord team ended up completely rebuilding its voice technology three times in the first few months of the app’s life. Around the same time, it also launched a feature that let users moderate, ban and give roles and permissions to others in their server. That was when people who tested Discord started to immediately notice it was better. And tell their friends about it.
Discord now claims May 13, 2015, as its launch day, because that was the day strangers started really using the service. Someone posted about Discord in the Final Fantasy XIV subreddit, with a link to a Discord server where they could talk about a new expansion pack. Citron and his Discord co-founder, Stan Vishnevskiy, immediately jumped into the server, hopped into voice chat and started talking to anyone who showed up. The Redditors would go back, say “I just talked to the developers there, they’re pretty cool,” and send even more people to Discord. “That day,” Citron said, “we got a couple hundred registration[s]. That kind of kicked the snowball off the top of the mountain.”
One user, who goes by Vind on Discord, was among Discord’s earliest cohort of users. He and his Battlefield 4-playing friends ditched TeamSpeak for the app, right as they were also starting to do more than just talk about Battlefield. “We were moving away from being purely about the game to being more about a general community.” Discord let them set up different channels for different conversations, keep some order in the chaos, and jump in and out as they wanted. But Vind said one feature particularly stood out: “Being able to just jump on an empty voice chat, basically telling people, ‘Hey, I’m here, do you want to join and talk?'”
Almost everyone I talked to picked that same example to explain why Discord just feels different from other apps. Voice chatting in Discord isn’t like setting up a call, it doesn’t involve dialing or sharing a link and password or anything at all formal. Every channel has a dedicated space for voice chat, and anyone who drops in is immediately connected and talking. The better metaphor than calling is walking into a room and plopping down on the sofa: You’re simply saying, I’m here, what’s up?
Add that to the list of things about Discord that turned out to be unexpectedly powerful. In retrospect, of course, it feels obvious. Vishnevskiy describes it as feeling like “a neighborhood, or like a house where you can move between rooms,” which is a radically different thing than most online social tools. It had no gamification systems, no follower counts, no algorithmic timelines. “It created a place on your computer and on your phone,” Citron said, “where it felt like you friends were just around, and you could run into them and talk to them and [hang] out with them.” You open up Discord and see that a few of your friends are already in the voice channel; you can just hop in.
The third place
From a technical perspective, none of this is easy. “It definitely requires a different way of architecting the system,” Vishnevskiy said. Discord spent a long time working on making it easy to be in a voice channel on your phone, then seamlessly switch when you open Discord on your computer. And it continues to work on latency, the enemy of every real-time communications developer.
More recently, the company has added video chat to the stack, believing that was the next level of high-fidelity conversation Discord needed. The team wanted to build a way to screen-share during a game, basically creating a small-group or private Twitch that would let users stream games with their friends watching. Doing that in 4K, at 60 frames per second, was hard enough. They weren’t sure how to add it, either: Should they add a separate channel for video, or would users have a hard time choosing between voice and video? They eventually added it into the voice channel, turning it into an incremental step up from voice rather than a separate thing.
There’s not much that Discord does that users strictly can’t do elsewhere. On one hand, it’s a lot like Slack, blending public channels with easy side-chats and plenty of ways to rope in the right people. It’s also a bit like Reddit, full of ever-evolving conversations that you can either try to keep up with or just jump into when you log in. (In fact, a lot of popular subreddits now have dedicated Discords, for more real-time chat among Redditors.) It uses simple status indicators to show who’s online and what they’re up to. But by putting all those things together, in a way that felt more like hanging out than doing work, Discord found something remarkable. Everybody talks about the notion of the Third Place, but nobody’s come closer to replicating it online than Discord.
Beyond just making sure things work right, flexibility is key to Discord. The ladder of communications, from text to voice to video, has always been important to get right. Communities can decide who gets access to certain tools and design their space however they want. But it goes even deeper: If you’re in a video chat, for example, you can choose whose video you’re seeing, not just whether yours is on or not. You can also be in multiple chats at once, blending one into the background while focusing on another. “It’s supposed to all work in harmony,” Vishnevskiy said, “but not focus you on something specific like a Google Meet or a Zoom. Doing it passively is also a core feature.” When users say Discord just feels better, that’s usually what they’re talking about.
While Zoom, Teams and others focused on building teleconferencing features — breakout rooms, Q&A, integration with work tools, transcripts, that sort of thing — Discord has continued drilling down on quality and latency. “We invested a lot in integration with GPUs and stuff like that, really deeply,” Vishnevskiy said. “Voice was solved long ago at scale, but we wanted to solve it with 1,000 people in a voice channel … and they could be all talking at sub-millisecond latency. That’s not important for people on a teleconference call.” Turns out, though, it was important for a lot more than gaming.
As Discord grew, so too did some of its communities. And pretty quickly, many of them took on lives outside of games. Vind found himself running a pretty large community, about all things Formula 1 racing, not long after he joined Discord. “I was actually not the creator of it,” he said. “Someone else created it and then basically abandoned it immediately.” Vind joined at the very beginning, in 2016, when there were only 50 or so people on the server. He checked to see who owned the server — and thus had complete control over it — and found it was a totally uninvolved Discord user. Vind eventually tracked him down on Reddit, and asked him for admin privileges so he could add some new features. “And then he just gave me ownership,” Vind explained. The guy was focused on creating a Formula 1 group on Kik, which he thought was going to be the better platform. (Whoops.)
Vind’s goal was to build a big community, but not around any particular game. Or even necessarily around racing. “I wanted to build something that was more of a general community, where people feel welcome and just share the interest of Formula 1.”
The Formula 1 server now has more than 5,700 users. The history of the internet says that groups of that size almost inevitably devolve into some kind of messy chaos, making moderation and community-building hard to keep up with. Vind said there have been challenges, sure, but for the most part things have worked OK. Discord’s moderation bot, named CarlBot, does a pretty good job of automatically deleting problematic messaging and alerting the mods. “And then if that happens, we ban them,” Vind said. “We don’t want anyone who uses that kind of language in the community.” Those are the rules. When users join the Formula 1 server, they have to read and agree to those rules before they’re allowed to post.
‘The society we want to see’
Not everyone has it so good. Discord’s troubles with problematic content are epic and well-documented. It has at various times been a home to members of the 4chan and 8chan crowd; a number of “Kool Kids Klub” servers that are only barely disguised KKK groups; and countless examples of online bullying, hate speech and other kinds of awful behavior. It pops up everywhere. What happens on the platform isn’t necessarily meaningfully different from, say, what happens on Reddit or Facebook, but experts have said they worry about Discord because its semi-private nature and small team make it harder to police. Since Discord’s users skew young, there are even more challenges.
Discord employees now admit they noticed this too late. The problematic content on the platform only became an urgent issue after the deadly protests in Charlottesville in 2017, which had been planned and discussed openly on Discord for a long time before the event. Before that, there was no Trust and Safety team at Discord; Sean Li, who leads that team, joined the company about a month before Charlottesville. And for too long, the company thought its job was just to keep the worst stuff — the porn, the racial slurs, the flagrantly illegal content — off the platform. It turned a blind eye to the rest, figuring that because it wasn’t a public space, what was the harm? Just don’t join the server, and nobody can come after you.
Now they see it differently. “Discord is like a country with 100 million inhabitants, living in different states and towns,” Li said. “We make the rules on what is allowed to help shape the society at large, and we empower server moderators and admins to help us enforce and expand upon them based on the needs of their communities.” He wants to help moderators create whatever kind of community they want, and Discord’s also getting better at giving moderators the tools and knowhow to do so, but only within the boundaries set by the broader platform. Those didn’t exist for too many years. Now, Discord’s trying simply to be clear and forceful about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and to enforce those rules consistently. It’s investing in bots and other automated mod tools, but the Trust and Safety team now makes up more than 15% of Discord’s staff. While there’s still plenty of bad stuff on the platform, progress seems to be strong.
Meanwhile, the other thing Discord has had to figure out is how to make money. This is a significantly less urgent problem: The company has raised nearly $400 million, including $100 million this past summer that valued the company at $3.5 billion. Forbes estimated its revenue at over $120 million this year. Point is, Discord has plenty of runway. But there’s not often a clean exit path for a huge communications platform with a spotty reputation for moderation (just ask Twitter and Reddit). Eventually, the company’s going to have to make real money. And Citron and Vishnevskiy both adamantly say they don’t want to sell ads or user data.
Users have long made businesses out of Discords. Mikeyy, for instance, eventually graduated from playing Overwatch to running a big server for people who play FIFA, and particularly those who like to play its addictive Ultimate Team mode. Mikeyy and his team of moderators and admins run a VIP server inside the larger community, where for $13.99 a month they offer exclusive trading tips, guides and more. Everything runs through PayPal and similar services, though, and Discord doesn’t see a dime. Over the last couple of years, Discord has become a place where lots of streamers, influencers and others chat more directly with their fans — Discord has official integrations with Twitch, Patreon and more — but it doesn’t get a cut there either.
So far, Discord’s main source of income has been Nitro, its $10-a-month premium service that lets users change their username, use more emoji and get both video and voice in slightly higher quality. But Discord always had bigger plans. One plan seemed obvious: Sell games to gamers! In 2018 Discord launched the Discord Store, with a hand-selected set of games available for purchase. Done with beating TeamSpeak and Skype, Discord was coming for Steam. Except that didn’t work. Users didn’t come to Discord to find games, they came to hang out with their friends. The Store only lasted a few months, and Nitro Games, a Netflix-for-games service that sounds a lot like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now, didn’t last much longer.
The Discord Store’s failure was an eye-opening moment within Discord. And it caused another pivot: Discord had to be less about video games and more about becoming the place for people to hang out with their friends. It was now in the era of Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox and so many other games where being together was far more important than the activity on the screen.
‘Your place to talk’
People had used Discord for non-gaming things from the early days of the service — as many as 30% of servers were about something else — but the team had never paid them much attention. Starting last year, they did. They ran focus groups and user studies, trying to figure out how millions of people were using Discord. One question they asked was, “What’s the biggest misconception about Discord?” The overwhelming answer: “It’s for gamers.” People who wanted to have their study group/knitting club/origami lessons/sneaker-shopping crew in Discord were having trouble getting others hooked into this kooky app with the alien logo and all the in-jokes about TeamSpeak.
In early 2020, as Discord was embarking on a big redesign and rebranding exercise designed to help it appeal more broadly, COVID happened. Suddenly, stuck at home, everyone’s social life turned to the internet. Discord’s user numbers increased by 47% from February to July, and all those newbies discovered what millions of gamers already knew: that having a place to hang out with their friends is a powerful thing, and that Discord did it better than anyone. Study groups started using Discord; teachers used it for class; friends used it to hang the way they normally would after school or on the weekend.
At the end of June, Discord’s rebrand was complete. Its new tagline was “Your place to talk,” and its homepage was mostly free of gaming jargon or confusing instructions. (Though the nods to gaming do persist, from the controller-alien logo to the .gg at the end of every Discord server’s URL.) “As we look back at the last few months,” Citron and Vishnevskiy wrote in a blog post announcing the redesign, “it’s clear that as people spend more and more time online, they want online spaces where they can find real humanity and belonging.”
In the months and years to come, Discord has plenty of work to do, particularly on continuing to improve moderation tools and make sure the communities on its platform operate the way the company hopes. And as it keeps adding more features — eventually, VR and AR and so many others will be on gamers’ and everyone’s wish lists — it’ll have to figure out how to do it all without adding the kind of complexity it has so far avoided.
But five years in, it’s clear that Discord has done something remarkable. It’s built a space that feels unlike any other on the internet. It’s not quite group chat, it’s not quite forums, it’s not quite conference calling. It’s all of those things and none of them. It turns out, in that messy middle, is a place that mirrors what it’s like to be human, and interact with other humans, more closely than just about anything else on the internet. (For better, and sometimes for worse.) That’s not what Citron, Vishnevskiy and their team were going for, but it’s what they have now. And they’re not pivoting anymore.
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