About 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, merely they were actually the just 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 chosen Discord showed up on the market. Its tagline was not subtle: “It’s fourth dimension to ditch Skype and TeamSpeak.” It had text conversation, which was absurd, merely more often than not it did phonation conversation better than anybody else.
Early users set up private servers for their friends to play together, and a few enterprising ones fix upwards 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. “Then when I played Overwatch, I started my offset community … to play games with anyone on the internet. Yous’d play a couple of games with someone, and and so you lot’re like, ‘Hey, cool, what’due south your Discord?'”
Fast-forward a few years, and Discord is at the center of the gaming universe. It has more than 100 million monthly agile users, in millions of communities for every game and actor imaginable. Its largest servers have millions of members. Discord’s slowly building a business around all that popularity, besides, and is now undergoing a big pivot: It’s pushing to turn the platform into a advice tool not but for gamers, only for anybody from study groups to sneakerheads to gardening enthusiasts. V years in, Discord’s just at present realizing information technology may have stumbled into something like the future of the internet. Almost past accident.
Going all in
Pivots are actually crucial to the history of Discord. Information technology wouldn’t exist without them. Before he was trying to reinvent communication, co-founder Jason Citron was merely 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 conversation, of course). “I was playing a lot of Warcraft online, dabbled in MMOs a little bit, Everquest.” At i point he almost didn’t end college thanks to too many hours spent playing Earth of Warcraft.
Citron learned to code because he wanted to make games, and after graduating set out to do merely that. His first visitor started as a video game studio and fifty-fifty launched a game on the iPhone App Shop’south commencement 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, and then started another company, Hammer & Chisel, in 2012 “with the idea of edifice a new kind of gaming visitor, more around tablets and core multiplayer games.” Information technology congenital a game called Fates Forever, an online multiplayer game that feels a lot like League of Legends. Information technology also built vox and text chat into the game, then players could talk to each other while they played.
Discord co-founders Stan Vishnevskiy (left) and Jason Citron.
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 corking sign for the game, but you go the point.) This was circa 2014, when everyone was still using TeamSpeak or Skype and everyone withal hated TeamSpeak or Skype. Citron and the Hammer & Chisel squad knew they could do amend 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. Information technology wasn’t obvious its new thought was going to work, either. “When we decided to go all in on Discord, we had perhaps 10 users,” Citron said. There was 1 group playing League of Legends, one WoW guild and non much else. “We would show information technology to our friends, and they’d be similar, ‘This is cool!’ and then they’d never use it.”
After talking to users and seeing the information, the team realized its problem: Discord was ameliorate than Skype, certainly, but it even so wasn’t very expert. Calls would fail; quality would waver. Why would people driblet a tool they hated for another tool they’d larn to detest? The Discord team ended up completely rebuilding its vox technology three times in the first few months of the app’s life. Around the same fourth dimension, 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 find information technology was better. And tell their friends near it.
Discord now claims May thirteen, 2015, equally its launch day, because that was the day strangers started really using the service. Someone posted about Discord in the Final Fantasy 14 subreddit, with a link to a Discord server where they could talk well-nigh a new expansion pack. Citron and his Discord co-founder, Stan Vishnevskiy, immediately jumped into the server, hopped into voice conversation and started talking to anyone who showed upwards. The Redditors would go dorsum, say “I just talked to the developers there, they’re pretty cool,” and send even more people to Discord. “That solar day,” Citron said, “nosotros got a couple hundred registration[s]. That kind of kicked the snowball off the pinnacle of the mountain.”
The early Discord team, circa 2015.
1 user, who goes by Vind on Discord, was amongst Discord’s earliest cohort of users. He and his Battlefield 4-playing friends ditched TeamSpeak for the app, correct as they were besides starting to exercise more than than simply talk about Battlefield. “We were moving away from existence purely nigh the game to being more than about a general community.” Discord let them prepare different channels for different conversations, keep some lodge in the chaos, and jump in and out as they wanted. But Vind said one feature particularly stood out: “Being able to merely jump on an empty voice chat, basically telling people, ‘Hey, I’m hither, do yous desire to join and talk?'”
Most everyone I talked to picked that same case to explicate why Discord just feels different from other apps. Voice chatting in Discord isn’t like setting upwards a call, it doesn’t involve dialing or sharing a link and countersign or anything at all formal. Every channel has a dedicated space for voice chat, and anyone who drops in is immediately continued and talking. The better metaphor than calling is walking into a room and plopping downward on the sofa: You’re only saying, I’m here, what’s up?
Add that to the listing of things about Discord that turned out to be unexpectedly powerful. In hindsight, of course, information technology feels obvious. Vishnevskiy describes it as feeling like “a neighborhood, or like a business firm where you lot can move between rooms,” which is a radically different thing than well-nigh online social tools. It had no gamification systems, no follower counts, no algorithmic timelines. “It created a place on your figurer and on your phone,” Citron said, “where it felt like you friends were only effectually, and you could meet 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; yous can just hop in.
The third identify
From a technical perspective, none of this is like shooting fish in a barrel. “It definitely requires a different mode of architecting the system,” Vishnevskiy said. Discord spent a long time working on making it piece of cake to be in a vocalization channel on your phone, then seamlessly switch when you open up Discord on your computer. And it continues to work on latency, the enemy of every real-time communications developer.
More than 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 allow 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 together it, either: Should they add a separate channel for video, or would users have a hard time choosing between vocalism and video? They eventually added it into the voice channel, turning it into an incremental step upwards from voice rather than a separate thing.
There’s not much that Discord does that users strictly can’t do elsewhere. On ane paw, it’southward a lot similar Slack, blending public channels with piece of cake side-chats and plenty of means to rope in the right people. It’s besides a scrap like Reddit, full of ever-evolving conversations that you lot tin either try to keep up with or just jump into when y’all log in. (In fact, a lot of pop subreddits now have defended Discords, for more than real-time chat amidst Redditors.) Information technology uses simple status indicators to show who’s online and what they’re upward to. Just by putting all those things together, in a way that felt more than similar hanging out than doing work, Discord institute something remarkable. Everybody talks about the notion of the Third Identify, but nobody’due south 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 vocalism to video, has always been of import to get correct. Communities tin decide who gets access to certain tools and blueprint their space withal they desire. But information technology goes fifty-fifty deeper: If you’re in a video chat, for case, yous tin choose whose video you’re seeing, not simply whether yours is on or non. Y’all can also exist in multiple chats at once, blending one into the background while focusing on another. “It’s supposed to all piece of work in harmony,” Vishnevskiy said, “but not focus you on something specific like a Google Come across or a Zoom. Doing it passively is too a core feature.” When users say Discord just feels amend, that’s usually what they’re talking virtually.
While Zoom, Teams and others focused on building teleconferencing features — breakout rooms, Q&A, integration with piece of 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 similar that, really deeply,” Vishnevskiy said. “Vocalization was solved long ago at scale, just we wanted to solve it with 1,000 people in a voice aqueduct … and they could be all talking at sub-millisecond latency. That’s non important for people on a teleconference telephone call.” Turns out, though, it was important for a lot more than gaming.
Video conversation is one of Discord’south more than recent features, and it seems to fit correct in.
Equally Discord grew, so too did some of its communities. And pretty quickly, many of them took on lives outside of games. Vind constitute himself running a pretty big community, about all things Formula one racing, not long after he joined Discord. “I was really not the creator of it,” he said. “Someone else created it and and then basically abandoned it immediately.” Vind joined at the very get-go, in 2016, when there were merely 50 or so people on the server. He checked to come across who owned the server — and thus had complete command over it — and found it was a totally uninvolved Discord user. Vind eventually tracked him down on Reddit, and asked him for admin privileges and so he could add some new features. “And then he merely gave me ownership,” Vind explained. The guy was focused on creating a Formula i grouping on Kik, which he thought was going to be the better platform. (Whoops.)
Vind’southward goal was to build a large customs, but not effectually whatsoever particular game. Or even necessarily around racing. “I wanted to build something that was more of a full general community, where people feel welcome and merely share the involvement of Formula 1.”
The Formula one server now has more than 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-edifice difficult to continue up with. Vind said at that place have been challenges, sure, but for the most office things accept worked OK. Discord’due south moderation bot, named CarlBot, does a pretty good job of automatically deleting problematic messaging and alerting the mods. “And so 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 take to read and agree to those rules earlier they’re allowed to post.
‘The gild we want to run into’
Not everyone has it so good. Discord’south troubles with problematic content are epic and well-documented. Information technology has at various times been a home to members of the 4chan and 8chan crowd; a number of “Kool Kids Klub” servers that are merely barely bearded KKK groups; and endless examples of online bullying, hate voice communication and other kinds of awful behavior. Information technology 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 almost Discord because its semi-private nature and small team brand it harder to police. Since Discord’s users skew young, there are fifty-fifty more than challenges.
Discord employees now admit they noticed this too belatedly. The problematic content on the platform simply became an urgent issue afterwards the deadly protests in Charlottesville in 2017, which had been planned and discussed openly on Discord for a long fourth dimension before the result. Before that, there was no Trust and Safety team at Discord; Sean Li, who leads that team, joined the company about a calendar month before Charlottesville. And for too long, the company thought its job was just to go on the worst stuff — the porn, the racial slurs, the flagrantly illegal content — off the platform. Information technology turned a blind eye to the residual, figuring that because it wasn’t a public infinite, what was the impairment? Just don’t join the server, and nobody tin can come after you.
Now they come across it differently. “Discord is similar a country with 100 1000000 inhabitants, living in different states and towns,” Li said. “Nosotros make the rules on what is allowed to help shape the guild at large, and we empower server moderators and admins to assistance us enforce and expand upon them based on the needs of their communities.” He wants to assist moderators create whatever kind of community they desire, and Discord’s also getting ameliorate at giving moderators the tools and knowhow to practice so, merely only within the boundaries set past the broader platform. Those didn’t be for likewise many years. Now, Discord’s trying simply to be clear and forceful nigh what’southward adequate and what isn’t, and to enforce those rules consistently. Information technology’s investing in bots and other automatic mod tools, but the Trust and Condom team now makes upwards more than than 15% of Discord’south staff. While in that location’s all the same plenty of bad stuff on the platform, progress seems to exist strong.
Discord has more rules than before, but it nonetheless leaves much in the hands of moderators.
Meanwhile, the other matter Discord has had to effigy out is how to make money. This is a significantly less urgent problem: The company has raised nearly $400 million, including $100 meg this past summer that valued the visitor at $3.five billion. Forbes estimated its revenue at over $120 meg this twelvemonth. Point is, Discord has enough of rails. Only 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’southward going to have to make real coin. And Citron and Vishnevskiy both adamantly say they don’t want to sell ads or user data.
Users have long fabricated businesses out of Discords. Mikeyy, for instance, eventually graduated from playing Overwatch to running a big server for people who play FIFA, and specially those who similar 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 like services, though, and Discord doesn’t see a dime. Over the terminal couple of years, Discord has become a identify where lots of streamers, influencers and others conversation more than straight with their fans — Discord has official integrations with Twitch, Patreon and more — but information technology doesn’t become a cut there either.
So far, Discord’s main source of income has been Nitro, its $10-a-calendar month premium service that lets users change their username, apply more than emoji and go both video and phonation in slightly college quality. But Discord e’er had bigger plans. One plan seemed obvious: Sell games to gamers! In 2018 Discord launched the Discord Store, with a paw-selected set of games available for purchase. Done with beating TeamSpeak and Skype, Discord was coming for Steam. Except that didn’t piece of work. Users didn’t come to Discord to find games, they came to hang out with their friends. The Store simply 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’south failure was an eye-opening moment inside Discord. And it acquired another pin: Discord had to exist less nigh video games and more than 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 than important than the activeness on the screen.
‘Your identify to talk’
People had used Discord for non-gaming things from the early days of the service — every bit many as 30% of servers were about something else — simply the team had never paid them much attention. Starting concluding year, they did. They ran focus groups and user studies, trying to effigy out how millions of people were using Discord. One question they asked was, “What’southward the biggest misconception virtually Discord?” The overwhelming reply: “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, equally Discord was embarking on a big redesign and rebranding do designed to help it appeal more broadly, COVID happened. Suddenly, stuck at home, anybody’southward 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 matter, and that Discord did it better than anyone. Study groups started using Discord; teachers used it for grade; friends used it to hang the way they normally would after school or on the weekend.
At the stop of June, Discord’s rebrand was complete. Its new tagline was “Your identify to talk,” and its homepage was by and large free of gaming jargon or confusing instructions. (Though the nods to gaming practise persist, from the controller-alien logo to the .gg at the stop of every Discord server’due south URL.) “As we look back at the last few months,” Citron and Vishnevskiy wrote in a weblog post announcing the redesign, “information technology’s articulate that every bit people spend more and more time online, they want online spaces where they tin find existent 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 brand sure the communities on its platform operate the way the company hopes. And equally information technology keeps adding more features — eventually, VR and AR and then 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’southward articulate that Discord has washed something remarkable. It’s built a infinite that feels different whatsoever other on the internet. Information technology’s not quite group chat, it’s non quite forums, it’due south not quite conference calling. It’s all of those things and none of them. Information technology 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 ameliorate, and sometimes for worse.) That’south not what Citron, Vishnevskiy and their team were going for, but it’s what they take at present. And they’re non pivoting anymore.