How Discord, born from an obscure game, became a social hub for young people
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By Kellen Browning, The New York Times Company
Back in 2015, computer programmer Jason Citron was struggling to break into the video game industry. The new multiplayer game he had created with his development studio, Hammer & Chisel, was not catching on.
So Citron made an abrupt about-face. He fired game developers from his company, turned the game’s chat feature into his only product, and gave it a mysterious name: Discord.
“I think at the time we had maybe six users,” Citron said. “It wasn’t clear it was going to work.”
At first, Discord was only popular with other gamers. But more than six years later, driven in part by the pandemic, it has exploded into the mainstream. As adults working from home flocked to Zoom, their children downloaded Discord to socialize with other young people through text and audio and video calls in groups called servers.
The platform has more than 150 million monthly active users, up from 56 million in 2019, with nearly 80% connecting from outside North America. It has grown from gamers to music enthusiasts, students, and cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
In September, San Francisco-based Discord announced it was raising $500 million in funding, valuing the company at $14.7 billion, according to PitchBook, a market data provider. It more than doubled its workforce in 2021, reaching around 650 people.
Discord’s evolution into a mainstream tool was an unexpected turn in Citron’s career. Citron, 37, said he grew up playing video games on Long Island, almost didn’t graduate from Full Sail University in Florida because he spent so much time playing World of Warcraft and that he had his first date with his future wife in a game room.
“A lot of my best memories are from those experiences, so my whole career has been about empowering others to create those kinds of moments in their lives,” he said.
Before Discord, he ran a social gaming network, OpenFeint, which he sold in 2011 to Japanese gaming company GREE for $104 million. Citron was seen by others in the gaming community as innovative because it tried to keep gamers’ attention through social interactions with their friends, a new strategy in the nascent mobile gaming market.
“At least he’s trying to bring something new to market,” said Serkan Toto, a games analyst in Japan, adding that Citron’s reputation was “like a geek, in a good way.”
Now Citron finds himself running a leading communications platform, a change he described as “surprising, wonderful and humbling”.
Discord is divided into servers — essentially a series of chat rooms similar to the Slack work tool — that facilitate informal, free-flowing conversations about games, music, memes, and everyday life. Some servers are large and open to the public; others are by invitation only.
The service has no ads. It makes money through a subscription service that gives users access to features like custom emoji for $5 or $10 per month. Discord also began experimenting in December with allowing some users to charge for access to their server, up to $100 per month, which the company is taking a 10% cut from.
Discord made more than $100 million in revenue last year, according to a person familiar with the company’s finances who was not authorized to discuss it publicly, but company officials have not. wanted to say if it was profitable.
The company’s biggest change came at the start of the pandemic. In June 2020, Citron and its co-founder and chief technology officer, Stanislav Vishnevskiy, wrote a blog post acknowledging that Discord had moved beyond video games and was working to become more accessible to everyone. Months earlier, the company had changed its motto from “Chat for gamers” to “A new way to chat with your communities and friends,” a nod to its wider audience.
This transition was accompanied by growing pains. Discord has faced the same thorny issues as other social media companies around regulating speech, protecting against harassment, and keeping young people safe.
Discord allows people to chat using fake names, and the job of ensuring people adhere to its community standards is largely left to the organizers of individual Discord servers. This gives the platform a “Lord of the Flies” feel, with groups of young people forming online societies and deciding their own rules.
In 2017, white nationalists came together on far-right Discord servers to plan the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Discord executives, even though they knew white nationalists were on the platform, didn’t ban them until after the rally, according to reports from The New York Times.
In the aftermath, the company got more serious about content moderation. Citron said about 15% of the company’s employees work on trust and security. The company began publishing semi-annual transparency reports in 2019 and bans people under 13 from Discord.
In its most recent report, Discord said it received more than 400,000 reports of misconduct between January and June, around a third of which related to harassment, and banned more than 470,000 accounts and 43,000 servers.
The company’s efforts have not prevented frequent problems. Those interviewed for this story, some of whom were 11 or 12 years old, said they know many underage Discord users. And an internet search of eating disorder communities on Discord, for example, revealed dozens of servers, some explicitly encouraging people to develop eating disorders, a violation of Discord’s community guidelines.
The company said it takes “immediate action” when it encounters violations such as underage users or inappropriate content.
Many say they joined Discord for healthier reasons, like connecting with friends. The largest public servers, such as those dedicated to Minecraft discussions or anime, have hundreds of thousands of members. They can be chaotic, with colorful memes, profanity and inside jokes.
Others are intended only for people who know each other in real life or share a particular interest. Some have strict rules prohibiting profanity, graphic content, or political discussion. Server owners can substitute moderators to enforce the rules.
Clément Leveau, 21, has a powerful role on Discord: the owner of Kanye, a server hosting discussions about the eponymous artist, music, pop culture and other topics with more than 58,000 members.
Leveau, a college student from New York, holds the ultimate authority, with the power to appoint moderators and imprison people who break community rules in an isolation channel called jail. He said he tries to “let people be silly, have a place to hang out”, but does not condone hate speech or bullying. Due to the isolation caused by the pandemic, Leveau said, the connections people have formed on Discord have become crucial.
Former Discord employees, investors and gaming industry observers say Citron has remained uncompromising in its vision of Discord as an independent company as it has grown.
Joost van Dreunen, a New York University professor who studies the video game business, said remaining independent would suit Citron’s tight control over the company, which has seen some high-ranking executives leave in recent years.
Regarding revenue at Discord, the company said its rapid growth had caused parts of its business to “dramatically” change in a short time, which sometimes meant that “skills and scope of work what we needed with our management team had also changed”. just as quickly.
Earlier this year, Discord held talks with Microsoft over an acquisition that could have topped $10 billion, according to people briefed on the talks who weren’t authorized to speak about it publicly. The deal did not go through. (Microsoft declined to comment.)
Citron has repeatedly declined to comment on conversations with other companies, saying only that Discord is getting “a lot of interest.” He didn’t say if he plans to take the company public, but he said “there are only a few ways this stuff plays out.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
How Discord, born from an obscure game, became a social hub for young people
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