The Problem With Discord

This isn’t really only about Discord – but the problem with Discord is symptomatic of a much broader issue, and so it makes for a great example to illustrate a very important point!

A few months ago I redesigned the Tree of Souls internet forum, building the website up from scratch with new forum software and a completely new design. The website – a fan community centered around James Cameron’s Avatar which I have been running since 2010 – had recently seen a small surge in activity owing to the release of the first Avatar 2 trailer.

Back in 2010, the community had a very active IRC channel, and as I built up the new site I also made sure to set up a Matrix room to act as a replacement. However, as members flocked back to the site, there was one question that was asked more commonly than any other – “Where is the Discord server?”

I had very intentionally not set up a Discord server, for the same reasons I also had not set up a community Facebook group, Slack workspace, subreddit, or any other similar things. Some of these reasons are practical (more on this later), but the far more important reasons are philosophical.

The problem

The problem with Discord is not that it is functionally poor – in many ways it’s highly featured and works great for the majority of people. It isn’t even necessarily that it is proprietary and terrible in terms of privacy, even though it is and that alone should be a reason not to use it. The biggest problem with Discord is the unconditional ubiquity of it – it has carved out a monopoly for itself among many smaller internet communities, in many cases even going as far as being the only medium used by a community.

Being popular is in itself not a problem, but when a medium is a proprietary service rather than an open platform, this can have a devastating effect. Nearly all gaming communities use a Discord server for communication. A surprisingly large number of game studios and software teams do as well, including groups creating free/libre software. This completely stifles a diverse patchwork of internet communities.

Worse yet, if you take issue with Discord as a company or product, their privacy practices, their reliance on Electron, their lacking support for older hardware, their community moderation policies, or anything else, since Discord is not an open protocol, there is nothing you can do about it. If a community relies on these sort of platforms, you are essentially forced to either use them or not interact with the community.

The solution

By contrast, open platforms such as individually hosted forums, IRC and Matrix, the Fediverse, and more, are all in the hands of the community. Not only that, but by expanding upon and improving these platforms in service of your community, you also improve them for everyone. This is the direction the internet should be moving towards, not towards a few, monolithic, proprietary services that relish in their ubiquity and account for the vast amount of internet communication.

The Tree of Souls chat room on Matrix.

And of course, the entire reason that Tree of Souls, the Avatar community, exists in the first place is because there is value in independent, decentralized communities. Shifting part of that community to platforms like Discord is to do a disservice to the very point of its existence.

How to change the minds of people

Hopefully, if you have read this far you may see value in these points. However, ideological arguments do very little to convince the average internet user, which in itself is entirely understandable. I would therefore like to highlight some very practical reasons that any given community should want to embrace open protocols. Away from Facebook and Reddit, towards independent forums. Away from Discord and Slack, towards Matrix or IRC.

  • Discord won’t be around forever, and may not be suitable for your community forever. If Discord outright goes out of business, or if they change their service in such a way that it becomes unusable for you, there is nothing you can do. By being in control of your own community, this will never happen.
  • Discord has terrible privacy practices, and even if they didn’t you wouldn’t know, since there is no transparency into how they operate. If you are not comfortable with the idea of all your personal messages being stored forever, you ought to avoid Discord like the plague.
  • By truly running your own community, you can make it exactly what you would like it to be. Make things look and work in the way that suits the community the best. Make your own rules and community guidelines. Contribute to an internet where each community is truly its own.
  • If you are a software/game studio or project – services like Matrix are more secure, more flexible, and more reliable than any proprietary service.

This remains an uphill battle – it is incredibly difficult to shift things away from the status quo. People are far more likely to join a community Discord server when they already have an account and it’s just a click of a button compared to signing up for something new. People are far more likely to stay on a platform all their friends already are. People are far more likely to stick to a service that requires no administration or effort to create something new. These are not bad qualities in themselves, it’s just part of being human – but change begins with taking the first step, and by leading by example we can move the entire internet into a direction that is more diverse, more open, and more compassionate.