Discord is for the people

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Discord began its life in May of 2015 as a free and simple replacement for current VoIP services (Voice over Internet Protocol).  The founder, Jason Citron of Hammer & Chisel, wanted to create a friendlier and more technologically modern chat service that didn’t require users to enter an IP address just to connect.  Since then, the service has grown explosively, gaining around 100 million monthly active users across 6.7 million servers.  

For me, Discord is probably the single service that I use the most.  It’s a place to virtually hang out with friends who are on different coasts, a forum to share memes and music, and a resource where I can find and join many different communities to follow early announcements and video game “metas”, which is roughly theory on how a game should be played.  Part of Discord’s ease of use comes from how it makes chats rooms public (within the invite-only server), and anyone in the server can see who is in a chat and join the conversation without the need to create a “call” and invite specific people.  This kind of chat made it easy for people to simply begin talking, and it was a major factor in convincing myself and my friends to move to Discord from Skype.

Since the pandemic, my reliance on Discord to remain connected to my friends has only increased.  Frequently, I’ll spend my evenings and weekends idly sitting in the voice chat with a few people and play a video game together or watch a movie through someone’s screen share.  Of course, Discord communities range from private servers with ~10 people to official servers with thousands of participants.  To me though, Discord is a more core service to stay connected with a small group of friends that works better than something like Facebook ever could.

So how did Discord represent itself in marketing before the pandemic?  What kinds of people flocked to the service?  As of last year, the answer was extremely straightforward: gamers.  A quick peek at the service’s landing page for September of 2019 in the wayback machine reveals charming graphics of floating Mario coins, an xbox controller, and a gaming headset, along with this tagline:

“All-in-one voice and text chat for gamers that’s free, secure, and works on both your desktop and phone. Stop paying for TeamSpeak servers and hassling with Skype. Simplify your life.”

https://web.archive.org/web/20190910164208/https://discordapp.com/

In addition, the Discord client had many features and quirks that made gamers feel at home.  By default discord displays the name of the game you are playing as a status that other users in the server can see.  Many of the loading placeholder texts contain references to video games, such as “reticulating splines…”, a nonsensical phrase used in the loading screens of many Sims games.  Discord’s Discover feature allowed users to browse and join the official communities for popular video games such as Minecraft or League of Legends.  

The pandemic definitely shook up many services, but for an online platform like Discord, it seemed to be a boon.  As Discord rapidly gained users who began to use Discord in other contexts such as for book clubs, study groups, and virtual classes, the company began to reshape its branding message to be more inclusive. 

In June 2020, the CEO shared a message on their blog, speaking about how Discord’s branding was not able to keep up with its growth, and as a result, they were changing from a platform that is “only for gaming” into one that is “your place to talk”.  

The change in tone in both language and images was dramatic.  After the blog was published, Discord’s landing page also changed.  Rallying around the phrase “Your place to talk”, the platform positioned itself as a more inclusive community tool by toning down its usage of video game references and featuring pastel-y graphics of anthropomorphic creatures hanging out together against a blue sky.  Even the background changed to a clean corporate white, contrasting with the old site’s dark theme, which gamers and developers tend to love.

To current users of Discord, not much has changed.  For the most part, the addition of new features targeted at a broader audience are welcome changes, such as server templates, video chatting, and screen sharing.  Plenty of communities have used Discord to gather communities unrelated to gaming before the rebrand, but now Discord is aware of and catering to them.  With more people joining the platform, along with the silo and echo-chamber effect that online communities tend to create, Discord may have moderation more moderation issues it will have to deal with, such as shutting down hate speech and communities that promote violence, as it has done in the past.  The problem is, however, fundamentally different compared to public communities on sites such as Reddit or Facebook.  

Personally, I very much enjoyed the gaming-centric nature of Discord, and so far these branding changes have had little effect on how I use Discord.  If anything, the possibility that more of my friends who use other platforms might try Discord in the near future seems to be a plus, and I look forward to growing the small online community that we have nurtured until now. 

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